“Never forget you change people’s lives”

by Sarah A. Wyatt, Biodiversity Analyst, Global Environment Facility

Leatherback sea turtle babies emerge from their nest to make the journey to sea. Photo: Stephanie Rousseau/Shutterstock

It was a good thing that it was pitch black as I sat chatting with Dianny on the beach late that night as we waited to hopefully see a leatherback sea turtle lay eggs. While talking about her work, she paused and pointedly said to me “never forget you change people’s lives.” She couldn’t see how this one sentence had caused tears to well up in my eyes emphasizing the impact of our work. When I read project statistics (like that a project will work with 300 farmers), it is easy to forget that they each have their own story and that the GEF is about much more than tons of carbon emissions reduced or hectares conserved.

For Dianny, a woman without a high school diploma, options were limited, which also meant her power was limited. One of the major impacts of GEF projects is that women can become financially independent from men for the first time in generations. Or ever. This means that they can leave abusive partners, they no longer have a precarious existence as single moms and/or they even start to gain more respect and leadership within their communities. Women also use their new-found resources for things that advance their families and communities, such as education. Dianny helps her siblings and parents as well as supports herself and her child with her business and has become a strong advocate for environmental protection in her community.

Dianny designs jewelry using lionfish fins, coconut shells, aluminum cans, sea glass, and other things she finds, selling her creations to the many tourists who visit her home on Caye Caulker. Dianny buys lionfish fins from her family and other fishers, which increases the value of each lionfish caught (important in encouraging more fishers to go after this invasive menace).

She and her group know that, through their jewelry making, they are helping to fight a species that threatens the well-being of the reef, upon which their communities entirely dependent for food and tourism revenue.

The women of Belioness Jewelry group show off their invasive lionfish creations. Photo: Belize Lionfish Jewelry Facebook page

There are many people, particularly women who, like Dianny, benefit from GEF projects by seeing their income boosted, but it is about so much more than just money. Income generation or alternative livelihoods often seem as abstract concepts in development, but they can have a transformative impact on the ground, inspiring and empowering project recipients by expanding their horizons.

But back to what we were doing sitting on the beach at 11 pm with only the light of the millions of stars that come out when you’re far from big cities. During a workshop in Grenada, Dianny and I were visiting another GEF project that had supported the development of a local non-profit (SPECTO) that promoted environmental awareness.

SPECTO trains guides and organizes tours for visitors who want to see sea turtles laying eggs on the beach. These tours are a vital source of employment in the poorest area of Grenada.

The guides came to get us, “move quickly, be quiet.” I had to work hard to keep up as we raced down the beach — I could hardly see what I was stepping on as my feet slipped in the sand. But it was worth it when I got to see the big mama leatherback turtle in a trance as she laid her eggs as sea turtles have for millions of years.

We watched in awe as she moved, guided by instinct, to flick sand over the nest and surrounding area to hide her precious eggs. These turtles can weigh as much as a small car and while they move gracefully in the water, we watch this exhausted mother slowly and awkwardly heave herself back to the safety of the ocean.

Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) returning to the ocean after laying eggs. Photo: by IrinaK/ Shutterstock

For most of the many millions of years that these sea turtles have existed, the beaches of Levera Grenada were the perfect place to lay their eggs. The beach’s steep drop off makes it a relatively short distance to get above the high tide line where the eggs will be safe. But there are far more dangers today than the surf — the eggs and turtles themselves are popular foods and souvenirs for Grenadians and many people around the world. Animals, like dogs and mongooses, that people brought to these places intentionally and unintentionally are also a threat to the turtles’ survival, eating the eggs or hatch-lings before they can reach the safety of the sea.

When there weren’t so many people and sea turtles didn’t face other man-made problems like coastal development and plastic in the oceans, the eggs and meat of these marine animals could be harvested sustainably. But now, leatherback sea turtles are considered Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. SPECTO, thanks to revenue from tours and support from GEF, protects the beaches at night and carefully covers over any signs of the sea turtle nests. The community also sees the jobs created by living sea turtles, through eco-tourism, which in turn promotes their conservation. Similar initiatives around the world are helping to protect other marine megafauna while at the same time benefiting local communities.

When I get to meet people like Dianny or the team at SPECTO, I see the impact of the work we do at GEF, one person and one sea turtle at a time. These recipients tell me over and over about the tangible results of GEF projects — a different development trajectory for their community and personally a completely different set of life options because of income and opportunities they are generating for themselves while protecting the nature we all depend upon.

A leatherback turtle laying her eggs on a Trinidad beach. Photo: by Lynsey Allan/ Shutterstock

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) is the world’s leading international institution investing in the joint management, care, and restoration of our planet.