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Leveraging the Power of Science for Change

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

Vanessa Bézy, founder of the Wildlife Conservation Association (WCA), believes that Nosara can still get it right. “Not only can we make tourism and development more sustainable,” she says, “we can be a model for other communities.”

Known locally as “the turtle lady,” Vanessa first came to Costa Rica more than two decades ago to study sea turtles in Ostional, one of the world’s most important nesting sites for the olive ridley sea turtle.

“When I first arrived, there was a lack of scientific evidence about sea turtles in the Nosara area, all of which are on the protected species or endangered list” she said. “The more we study them, the better we can understand the impact of human behavior.”

Balancing biodiversity and development.

Since that first trip, Vanessa has widened her data-driven approach to a much broader lens. “I realized quickly that you can’t protect wildlife unless you also protect the needs of the humans who rely on it,” she says. “You have to look at the whole, not just individual components.”

She founded the WCA to better understand how Nosara can protect plant and animal biodiversity in balance with development and tourism. A big part of that is collecting data on everything from water contamination levels to biodiversity. “Once we have data,” she says, “we don’t have any argument about what is happening. We can leverage the power of science to empower the community and impact change.”

Nosara is unique, according to Vanessa, because the people who travel to Costa Rica generally care about the environment and protecting natural places. “Whether you have lived here your whole life or are a relative newcomer, there is a common care for the environment,” she said. “That opportunity for change is what drives me.”

Water Quality and WCA.

Anyone who has been to Nosara in recent years has heard about, or experienced first hand, the water quality challenges. A microbiologist by training who worked with the Surfrider Foundation’s Blue Water Task Force, Vanessa’s approach is–no surprise–data collection.

Since 2020, WCA has monitored contamination levels at three locations, Baker’s Beach, Palm Tree, and the Rio Nosara Rivermouth. They have recently added a monitoring site in Playa Pelada. While a majority of the testing shows low contamination levels safe for swimming and marine wildlife, the data also shows periods of non-compliance with water quality standards, especially in the rainy season.

The fecal bacteria found in the water cause gastrointestinal illness in humans, as well as skin, ear, and eye infections. Marine life is impacted by the lack of oxygen resulting from algae growth, or “red tide,” that creates dead zones in aquatic environments.

The good news / bad news is that the work of WCA and others shows pretty clearly where the problem originates. For Rio Nosara, the source of contamination encompasses the entire watershed. In Guiones, however, the contamination appears to be directly tied to the improper treatment of wastewater from local residential and commercial development.

“There are always pros and cons to development,” said Vanessa. “Economic growth and job opportunities are equally important to the environment, but deforestation, pollution, illegal burning of waste, and water quality are a threat to all of those elements. If nature is not okay, then we are not okay.”

Using data to empower the community.

If Vanessa could wave a magic wand and fix one thing in Nosara, it would be water quality, which is closely tied to waste management. “It’s really urgent,” she said. “We could use some magic there.”

In the absence of a magic wand, the WCA is working to gather and share information it hopes will empower the community–both locals and visitors alike–to enact change. Locally, they are bringing data-driven recommendations to local policy makers and businesses, rolling out a Sustainable Nosara Business Certification and educating homeowners about septic system upgrades.

Vanessa encourages visitors to be vigilant about simple steps like trash separation, avoiding single-use plastics (especially water bottles), and composting organic waste properly.

“Water is the base of all life, of human health and ecosystems,” said Vanessa. “Biodiversity is what makes nature resilient. It’s a web of interconnections that, when poked with holes, weakens the entire system. We all live on this planet together and our basic needs are still tied to nature.”

Want to help protect biodiversity and water quality in Nosara? Sign up for the WCA membership today!

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