Can Turtle Conservation and Tourism Development Coexist in Cabo Verde?

A lone loggerhead comes ashore to nest in Cabo Verde. © Juliet ten Wolde / Turtle SOS Cabo Verde

A lone loggerhead comes ashore to nest in Cabo Verde. © Juliet ten Wolde / Turtle SOS Cabo Verde

By Jacquie Cozens

Cabo Verde is in many ways one of the most advanced African countries, with a reputation for financial security and a stable and democratic government. However, the island nation has few resources beyond its excellent climate and incredible natural beauty. Given these attributes, tourism is an obvious choice for economic development, and plans have already been drawn up for each of the islands, focusing on sectors such as cultural, sun and sea, or nature-based tourism. In the early part of this century, Cabo Verde Investimentos, the government’s investment agency, began to attract large tour operators such as TUI to the island of Sal, because that area seemed to be a natural target for mass tourism development. It was then that the authorized construction of large beachfront hotels, apartment complexes, and resorts began.

At the same time, it became clear that Cabo Verde had a significant number of nesting loggerhead turtles; indeed, it has recently been documented that the archipelago is home to the third largest loggerhead rookery in the world. Recognizing the need to protect this valuable natural asset, in 2008 the government created a National Plan for the Protection of Marine Turtles, becoming the first West African country to do so. Soon after, a United Nations project began to create a network of protected areas across the country, and several important nesting beaches on the island of Sal were included. However, the balance between preserving Sal’s natural areas and creating economic benefits for the population through tourism development has recently tipped in favor of the latter.

Algodoeiro is the nesting area on Sal that has suffered the most, having seen three resorts open since 2009, with another under construction. The effect has been dramatic, with a reduction in nests from 19 percent of the island’s total in 2009 to less than 1 percent in 2013. Beaches have also been degraded as the free flow of sand has been impeded, leading to more exposed rocks on the shoreline. Other areas on the island have also been devastated by illegal sand mining for construction.

ADTMA SOS Tartarugas (“Turtle SOS”), an NGO that has been working on the island since 2008, expects to see a further decline in nesting on Algodoeiro in the years ahead as more land is developed. This development threatens not only turtles but also other species such as plants, birds, and lizards. Indeed, it threatens the very reason that tourists visit the island—the natural, unspoiled beaches.

Tourism development on Sal is certainly a necessity for economic growth, but unfortunately the development plan for the island was drawn up before the conservation plan, which now causes a conundrum for the government because many parts of the tourism development zone lie inside newly created protected areas. Although a legal process for environmental impact assessments (EIAs) exists, these studies are not always robust, and the decisionmaking process lacks transparency.

ADTMA SOS Tartarugas believes that both conservation and development interests can be served by instituting small mitigation measures that minimize disturbance to turtles, such as shading lights and building resorts farther from the shore. There must also be a stronger commitment from government to uphold the country’s constitution as it applies to protecting natural areas and endangered species.

Meanwhile, development continues unabated. Although many resorts and apartment buildings have been unfinished and abandoned since the 2008 financial crash and two established hotels have closed and fallen into disrepair, two new projects appear to be moving ahead. The first of these two projects is the construction of a concrete breakwater on the nesting beach of Algodoeiro, which is intended to improve the swimming conditions for the hotel’s guests. Neither the negative environmental impacts seen as a result of projects of this kind in other countries, nor the 7,000 signatures from tourists and residents on a petition opposing the breakwater, have deterred the government from proceeding. The second project, still in the planning stages, is a hotel in the buffer zone of the Ponta Sinó Protected Area, where the developer’s EIA claims that there are “no significant natural habitats.” The government’s own Protected Areas Management Plan contradicts that statement. The plan lists many important species in the area, including nesting turtles and breeding birds.

Time will tell if this seemingly unsustainable development model will kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Tourists may very well turn their backs on Cabo Verde when the lure of unspoiled golden sands and natural vistas are gone.