Gathering in the Name of Turtles

July 04, 2014  •  2 Comments

Less than one week into the operation of “Yaug Nega” (The Turtle House), the building has already generated over USD 900 for the community and hosted a variety of community functions that directly support the mission of the town’s conservation efforts.


1. Women’s Plastic Art Workshop with Pamela Longabardi – This work was featured by National Geographic and on Amanda Gibson’s research blog for the Oceanic Society.

2.Networking and volunteering opportunities for international students.

3. Armila’s Annual Sea Turtle Festival

4.Biological research station - Local capacity building workshops for sea turtle research.

5.Committee for Responsible Tourism / Sea Turtle Commission /Town Hall Meeting Place


What a way to inaugurate a house!  This project, backed with seed funding from Amanda’s and my research grants, is a joint venture into sustainable tourism with the community that has been 5 months in the making.


Since the house is situated in a central location in the town (right near the port at the river) it serves as a rendezvous point for visitors and residents alike, and on the night of May 25 the community hosted around 20 international visitors.  With the 300 dollars that the Yaug Nega generated on its first night in operation, the house’s management committee is already making plans to turn the house into a visitor’s information center and mini-museum to display the community’s cultural artifacts and traditions.  In fact, the community has already purchased another plot of land, and is booking tourists several months in advance to come stay in the community.

The idea for this house began last year when Amanda and I arrived in Armila for the beginning of our yearlong stint with the community.  When we sat with the Chief to introduce ourselves on the first day, he gave us a long, stern sounding speech.  Since this was in the local dialect that we hadn’t yet learned, we sat in nervous anticipation of the translation to Spanish.  The translation was roughly: “We knew you were coming, and we are very sorry we don’t have your house ready for you.  But now that you’re here, the community will build you a house to stay in.  Just give us a few weeks and we’ll have it ready.” Amanda and I breathed a sigh of relief, thanked the Sahila profusely, and over the next few weeks, hatched a plan. 

Since we were already being graciously housed, free of charge, by Ignacio Crespo, one of our good friends and partners in the community, whydon’t we take what we had budgeted for rent this year and invest in the construction of a multi-purpose house in Armila, dedicated to turtle conservation? After all, the community has long been jealously resentful of private tourism operators in the town, and the leadership has always wanted to tap into the pockets of the tourists who come here to see Armila’s exceptional leatherback sea turtle population (even charging a backpacker $5 per night would make this venture by far the single largest contributor to Armila’s treasury).  Moreover, the community lacked a gathering place or a physical manifestation of its connection with sea turtles.  If Armila were to host other researchers or volunteers in the future, they would have no public housing to offer them.  It was decided that the house would be built to support any actions that directly impact the conservation of sea turtles in Armila, including sea turtle research and eco-tourism.  Amanda and I fronted $750 for the initial purchase of materials, and promised another $750 as needed over the course of the construction process. 

Now, over the course of the past few months, the community has more than matched our support, not only in terms of dollars but in terms of time, sweat, and hard labor.  The roof, the most time-consuming part of the house, had to be built twice due to an engineering failure in which the roof completely fell in.  Thankfully no one was hurt, and the community saw the construction through to the end.

DSC_4884DSC_4884 The end result is a house that’s 40x30 feet, and 25 feet tall at the tip of the roof, with the floorboards elevated 4 feet off the ground.  There are 3 large rooms that, when fully stocked with bunk beds, will be able to comfortably house 16 people.  In the main area there is a large table where 10 people can sit comfortably to converse or hang up hammocks in the breeze while looking out to the sea and the mouth of the River Armila.  All the materials of the main structure (save for nails, screws, and hinges) are all locally harvested from Armila’s farms and put together using traditional Guna house building techniques.  Although the construction is rustic, it´s a cut above a traditional Guna house to accommodate the preferences and standards of visitors.  In less than a week, the adjoining bathroom will put the finishing touch on a 6-month long community effort.

This week, with the creation of a local sea turtle guides and researchers association (Asociación Yaug Sabgüed), the house will also serve as Armila´s first biological research station.  The Turtle House, which is the largest structure to be seen from the front of the town, stands as a place to gather in the name turtles in a community that does chelonian conservation better than any team of trained scientists ever could.


Angela Mast(non-registered)
We are so incredibly proud of your investment of time, energy and treasure to see that this local sea turtle population has now a visible link with the community that oversees their well being now. Very intelligently, patiently and well done!
Tia Judy(non-registered)
Congratulations on your success with this wonderful project. You have planted seeds in the Guna culture that will bear fruit for years to come, Proud of you and Amanda!
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