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Synthesis/Regeneration 40   (Summer 2006)

The Seri, Sea Turtles and Cleavage

by Winona LaDuke

Standing at the bow of the boat, Ramon Lopez, an elderly Seri man, watches the horizon, the color of the sea and the islands, just as his ancestors have for a millennium. The boat travels through schools of fish, flocks of pelicans, mangrove estuaries and an endless aqua green sea punctuated only by immense mountains on the ocean and land’s horizon. It’s on the poorly named “Sea of Cortez” that an indigenous community of Seri people brings traditional scientific knowledge to bear in the restoration of their most sacred relative—the sea turtle.

At the opposite end of the social spectrum, a scantily clad model urges the same message: Protect the turtles and the turtle eggs.

As pelicans and osprey swoop down to catch their morning meal, Ramon sings a song to the turtles, bringing them in. The Seri, or Comcaac, people have a creation story that links them to many other indigenous peoples of the North—after a great flood, the turtle went to the bottom of the water and brought up earth to make the land new again. These same people, who possess traditional ecological knowledge of thousands of years on the Gulf of California, are today an important part of work to restore the sea turtles and, in that process, strengthen their own community.

Hunted originally for meat, then shells, sea turtles have become increasingly endangered as men, apparently in need of more sexual prowess, purchase turtle eggs as a sexual stimulant and aphrodisiac.

The drive to “get it up”

Beaches in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Michoacan and Guerrero are nesting habitats for 7 of the world’s 8 sea turtle species, and all of them are in danger of extinction. Banning the hunting, sale and consumption of turtle eggs and by-products in 1990, the Mexican government has launched an extensive campaign to protect sea turtles, although turtle habitat remains endangered. An estimated 90% of their nesting habitat has been destroyed for beach-side development like condominiums and hotels, largely for North Americans.

The drive to “get it up,” however, continues to decimate the turtle population. Some 80 sea turtles were bludgeoned and butchered alive in one single massacre in August 2005 on the Guerrero coast. As many as 100 eggs can be removed from a dead female. On another stretch of Guerrero’s coast near Petatlán, at least 100,000 eggs have disappeared this nesting season.

A new, highly visible and controversial campaign to challenge sea turtle eggs as aphrodisiac is being led by an internationally known Argentinean model, Dorismar, and members of the mega-popular norteno group Los Tigres del Norte, joined by a multitude of environmental organizations. Sporting that “come hither” look so loved by men, buxom Dorismar, also known as Dorita, proclaims, “My man doesn’t need turtle eggs,” along with the ad’s explanation: “Sea turtle eggs do not increase sexual potency!” Echoing those sentiments, one anonymous partaker remembered, “They sort of tasted like salty snot—really disgusting,” adding, “I never did get to see if they worked; I couldn’t get them down my throat.”

Drawing fire from groups like the National Women’s Institute of Mexico, which called the ad degrading to women, the campaign has drawn an immense amount of attention. That attention, national and international environmental organizations hope, will help the turtles recover.

Far from the madding crowd of cleavage and sexual marketing, the Seri communities of Punta Chueca and Desemboque del Sur have a different approach.

In a small bay near their communities they’ve observed “teenaged turtles” come to eat, grazing on a highly nutritious underwater sea grass. This past year, the Seri tagged hundreds of turtles and tracked others in an effort to nurture their restoration. For the first time in many years, seven green turtles came to Seri territory to nest.

Seri youth can help restore the turtles

Gabriel Hoeffer, a 21-year-old Seri sporting denim and a bandana, talked about finding turtles tagged 1,000 miles away. “It’s important that our traditional knowledge can help restore the turtles. They’re a very sacred animal to us,” she said.

Ramon explained: “Gabriel and other Seri youth have formed other associations to work in restoration of Seri environments, culture and economy. The older turtles swim in the currents. That’s how they travel so many thousands of miles. It’s like a highway in the ocean.”

The Seri hope to not only continue their sea- and Sonoran Desert-based economy, which provides up to 70% of their food, according to Gabriel’s estimate but also to provide some cash for their economy through eco-tourism and sale of some of their products through national and international fair trade and gourmet markets. The Christensen Fund, a Bay Area foundation, has supported a number of these initiatives. Christensen Fund Program Officer Enrique Salmon considers the Seri projects a critical example of work to restore both ecosystems and cultures.

The drive to “get it up” … continues to decimate the turtle population.

“On a large landscape scale, the Seri maintain a vast and critical library of Sonoran Desert and sea turtle ecological knowledge accessible only in Seri origin stories and songs,” he said. “This is why it is important to preserve, in situ, both the biological and cultural diversity of the region.” Elsewhere, Gary Nabhan, at Northern Arizona University’s Center for Sustainable Environments, is assisting in the marketing efforts and ecotourism support for the Seri (e-mail him at gary.nabhan@nau.edu).

Federal officials and environmentalists plan on placing the Dorismar ads on billboards near Mexico City and nesting states including Jalisco, Michoacan and Guerrero. Urging people to report illegal trade in the species to the federal Attorney General’s Office for Environmental Protection at (800) PROFEPA, the ad campaign will continue to draw attention as well as criticism.

For their part, the Seri plan on continuing to sing for the turtles and take care of their ecosystem, which today faces threats from potential tidal energy-generating plants and shrimp aquaculture. It’s on the Sea of Cortez, perhaps more aptly named the Seri or Comcaac Sea, that today a 200-million-year-old relative might have a chance of staying around for another millennium. That is also thanks to the cleavage of a model, Viagra and, hopefully, a few other options in securing an erection for the future generations of Mexican and other men.

Winona LaDuke, Ojibwe, from the White Earth Reservation, is program director of Honor the Earth, a national Native environmental justice program. She served as the Green Party vice presidential candidate in the 1996 and 2000 elections. She can be reached at wlhonorearth@earthlink.net.

[24 apr 06]

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