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Community-based conservation program of three endangered Amazon River turtle species with Peruvian and Colombian indigenous communities

Current initiative


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Guardianes en playa de conservación con madre de taricaya tras la postura. Credit: Fundación Biodiversa Colombia

The program was born as a local initiative and since 2008 has been supporting Local Conservation Groups (LCGs) in indigenous communities of Colombia and Peru in the conservation of three Amazon River turtle species. The program focuses on training and empowerment for conservation, environmental education and awareness raising in the communities in the area, especially children, as well as the generation of economic alternatives based on conservation and sustainable use of natural resources. For the 2019 season, the program will involve six indigenous communities from both countries, seven LCGs and about 100 guardians, made up of men and women of all ages, many of whom were former turtle poachers. The guardians will protect the six main nesting beaches during the reproductive season, until the newborn hatchlings safely reach the river. They will also invite the children of local schools to witness hatching and to symbolically adopt the hatchlings. Finally, for 2019 we are proposing a community project involving the sustainable use, processing and fair trade of açai (Euterpe oleracea), the fruit of a native palm with great market potential, which will benefit local producers and has the potential to ensure a reliable sustainable income that safeguards the future of this and other conservation initiatives of the communities.


Fundación Biodiversa Colombia


The Amazon River along the Colombian-Peruvian border, near the Corea Island, in the buffer area of the Amacayacu National Park.

The poaching and wildlife trade problem

Species affected Six-tubercled Amazon River turtle Podocnemis sextuberculata , South American River Turtle Podocnemis expansa , Yellow-spotted River Turtle Podocnemis unifilis

Products in trade

Meat, particularly of nesting females, and eggs.

Overview of the problem

In proximity to the major ports of the Amazon, indigenous communities are subject to high economic dependence based on exploitative commercial practices. This has led to the overexploitation of natural resources with many populations of wild plants and animals driven towards extinction. Such is the case of the three species of turtles of the Amazon River, which are currently on the IUCN red list of threatened species. Local inhabitants are well aware of the times and nesting places of the river turtles, taking advantage to poach the nesting mothers and the nests for self-consumption but mostly for commercial trade at the main ports.

The anti-IWT initiative

The program is an initiative of the Curuinsi Huasi indigenous association who, concerned about the rapid decline of the turtle populations and because their children and grandchildren were not going to know them, proposed to the Fundación Biodiversa Colombia (FBC) to start watching over community conservation beaches to protect the turtles. In 2018 the program had already involved five communities from both countries with 90 turtle guardians, which we expect to expand to 6 communities and about 100 guardians in 2019.

The development of the program has been organised and proposed to a large extent by the Local Conservation Groups, with technical advice from FBC. Using their traditional knowledge, the guardians protect the main nesting beaches of the area, which have been organised with the riverine communities to prevent poaching of mothers and nests. At the same time, they raise awareness in neighbouring communities, particularly children, about the importance of preserving natural resources and the environment as their own natural and cultural heritage.

Since 2008, they have prevented the death of nearly 540 mothers 470 nests and more than 12,000 hatchlings of the three species. The guardians have found in turtle conservation not only an economic alternative based on conservation, but also a means of empowerment and appropriation as fundamental actors in conservation through other governmental and non-governmental entities.

Finally, starting in 2019, the program seeks to bring greater income for communities and to produce self-generated funds for community conservation initiatives through sustainable use. The program aims to do this through processing and fair trade of açai (Euterpe oleracea) from currently existing community plantations. This palm is in great demand in the national and international market, and its commercialisation is a clear example of the exploitative practices to which the communities are subjected.

The strategy

Strengthening disincentives for illegal behaviour

Paid in money community scouts
Performance-based payments/incentives for patrolling or guarding
Un-paid (voluntary) community scouts
Paid in-kind community scouts
Raising community awareness about wildlife crime penalties and sanctions
Strengthening and supporting traditional norms and sanctions against IWT
Further detail

During the first year of participation the Local Conservation Groups receive collective incentives, generally an engine for mobility for the following season. During the second year, they receive an individual and collective symbolic incentive and, from the third year - since they acquire greater responsibility to train new members and record the data - they start to receive an individual incentive. The oldest and most experienced members are part of the Coordinating Group, which is responsible for monitoring all other groups and they therefore receive a greater incentive. Finally, the field coordinator is responsible for coordinating the logistics and collecting the data of all the groups. They are hired by the program during the months of activities.

Increasing incentives for wildlife stewardship

Subsistence resource access/use
Lease payments
Policy/regulatory change to enable communities to benefit
Further detail

Tourism that helps to protect the species represents additional income for the program. The boats and engines used by the LCGs are rented in the communities. Through continuous monitoring and protection of the turtles, we seek in the future to establish community management guidelines that allow sustainable use of the eggs for subsistence without affecting the populations. Finally, through sustainable use, processing in a community plant and fair trade of acai, we aim to improve the income of local communities and to produce self-generated funds to promote economic alternatives based on community projects and initiatives of conservation and sustainable use of natural resources.

Increasing livelihoods that are not related to wildlife

Provision of community-level benefits
Further detail

Through the additional self-generated income by the community açai processing plant, we can support benefits that improve the quality of life of the involved communities (water systems, reforestation, sustainable community productive projects, etc.).

Build/and or support sense of community ownership or stewardship

Further detail

Using turtle conservation as a flagship, turtle guardians have empowered and appropriated conservation, and have now earned a voice in regional discussions on illegal traffic and natural resource management.

Improving education and awareness

Further detail

The program has not only raised awareness of the guardians but also of traditional authorities and members of participating and neighbouring communities. The program seeks to educate local school children, who will be the guardians of tomorrow, using the slogan "So that our children and our grandchildren can get to know them." During the awareness and environmental education activities, it has been essential to highlight the cultural importance and link of the turtles.

Has the initiative made a difference?

This is one of the most continuous turtle conservation programs in the Colombian Amazon and the only current one that includes P. sextuberculata. During the last three years, neither a nest nor a mother has been lost in the conservation beaches, with each season exceeding historical records in terms of protected nests, mothers and hatchlings. Likewise, the results have progressively improved in terms of participating communities, LCGs and guardians. The level of awareness of neighbouring communities has also increased so that currently only the guardians visit conservation beaches at night. This represents the respect and recognition that the guardians’ work has gained among the communities in the area. Since 2008, the guardians have prevented the deaths of nearly 540 mothers, 470 nests and more than 12,000 hatchlings of the three species.

What works and why

The main lessons of the program have been:

  • Designing conservation programs from local initiatives and based on the needs of communities.
  • Involving traditional knowledge and highlighting the cultural link of the species in conservation and environmental education programs.
  • Generating empowerment and appropriation and economic alternatives based on conservation.
  • The need to give continuity to conservation processes and to seek for self-sustainability.
  • The importance of involving different groups (women, adults, youth, children) in conservation programs to maximise their effectiveness.
  • The need to generate processes with communities of both countries for the conservation of common border resources, or to blur borders around shared resources among border communities.

Factors for success

Sufficient time investment in building relationships and trust between the initiative and local communities

Devolved decision-making power so local communities have a voice in creating or co-creating solutions (as part of the initiative)

Clear and tangible benefits to local communities from wildlife (These may be financial and/or non-financial)

Further detail

Trust-building was fundamental in order to reduce the stigma of short-term projects, without continuity, and based on results to which the communities in the area are accustomed. The program has based its success on giving decision-making power and concerted design of the activities to the participating communities in order to generate their participation. Finally, part of the trust has been based on transparent, concerted and tangible management of the benefits and resources of the program.

What doesn’t work and why

In the first year we tried to involve non-local volunteers in the program, which ended up being counterproductive to generate participation. We learned that it is better to involve external parties after generating local support.

We tried to support several economic alternatives seeking sustainability for conservation activities (e.g. fair trade of handicrafts, ethno-tourism initiatives). However, these initiatives, although based on local proposals, did not generate enough direct benefits to make them sustainable. However, commercialisation of açai could meet this goal. We learned that sustainable alternatives need to meet two requirements: first, they must come from the needs of the communities and, second, they must have sufficient economic potential to allow sustainability through self-generated resources.

Factors that limited or hindered success

Lack of supportive national policy/legislation on sustainable use of natural resources

Lack of long-term donor support that is flexible, adaptive and/or based on realistic time goals

Lack of devolved decision-making power so local communities have a voice in creating or co-creating solutions (as part of the initiative)

Further detail

Due to the lack of coordinated and coherent national policies to support sustainable use of natural resources by communities, projects that are normally carried out in indigenous communities do not arise from local initiatives and are executed in the short term, seeking immediate results. They do not generate or support long-term processes of the communities, which makes it difficult to build processes that do. On the other hand, the lack of government support and, in general, of donors that support long-term processes that do not seek for immediate results was always a limitation for the program and for its continuity. As an example, it was not possible to raise funds for the activities in 2013, which had disastrous consequences that put at risk not only the continuity of the process but the populations that it was intended to protect.

Organisers, donors and partners

The program is carried out by Fundación Biodiversa Colombia (FBC) in collaboration with Curuinsi Huasi Indigenous Association and six communities of Colombia and Peru. The program coordinator is Fernando Arbelaez, president of FBC and the field coordinator is Nabil Carihuasari, conservation leader of Curuinsi Huasi.

In chronological order:

Cleveland Zoological Society, Rufford Small Grants Foundation, Idea Wild, Turtle Conservation Fund, Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, Turtle Survival Alliance, US Fisheries and Wildlife Service, private donors (Crowdfunding), IUCN-NL, Corpoamazonia, Decameron Hotels, Columbus Zoo, World Land Trust.

For further information contact Fernando Arbeláez (