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The role of NGOs in coastal communities: a Latin American viewpoint

Written by Katherine Arroyo-Arce, MarViva Foundation

Artisanal fishers in the Gulf of Nicoya
Artisanal fishers in the Gulf of Nicoya. © MarViva

“In a few decades, the relationship between the environment, resources and conflict may seem almost as obvious as the connection we see today between human rights, democracy and peace.” -- Wangari Maathai, 2004

I work in marine conservation; therefore, I work with local communities. Such an essential relationship between ocean governance and coastal populations is sometimes not so obvious. Nor is its linkage with human and democratic rights. At least, this is the case in most of Latin America.

Gabriel García Márquez, a Colombian writer, is the foremost exponent of the literary movement called magical realism. In his books, situations that may seem strange and peculiar are normalised and presented as part of the characters' daily routines.

Magical realism is not an out-of-context invention. It is a reflection of how the core of Latin American culture has been built based on colonialism and oppression [1].

Why is the most biodiverse place in the world also the most dangerous region for environmental defenders? [2] Why are communities constantly facing restrictions on access to their natural resources and ecosystems? Why is speaking up extremely dangerous, but at the same time, lives are continuously threatened if we don't raise awareness? Why is conservation perceived as synonymous with poverty?

Colonialism can take many forms. And as a Latin American who works in a marine conservation NGO based in Costa Rica, I think about this almost every day. My biggest fear is replicating any form of oppression through well-intentioned activities. Because I'm certain that we, ocean advocates, all mean well. We are optimists! We want to be helpful. But to what extent might we be creating an undesired relationship with communities? A relationship in which locals rely more on NGOs than on themselves?

During university, where I majored in environmental law, I developed skills in two areas that have inspired me since childhood: environmental conservation and democratic rights. Law school did not teach me about their relationship, but volunteering in local communities and conservation projects did. Over time, I understood that isolating local people from decision-making about their environment is a huge mistake. Effective conservation depends on the timely involvement of people.

Fishing boats
Costa de Pájaros is a fishing village that struggles with illegal fishing and, at the same time, is a pioneer in responsible fishing value chains. © MarViva

Systematic oppression is a fact. It is a variable to consider when addressing marine-related projects in coastal communities. In this context, through years of working with local leaders, I understood the value of empathy; I gained skills to put my interest into perspective with local concerns; I learned to compromise. To have a meaningful relationship with local stakeholders, I understood I'm not their superhero because the first thing you should do is to put your privilege aside.

In this context, what is the right way for local and international NGOs to approach coastal communities? How can the international community's desire to "give a voice" to coastal communities be adequately addressed?

During these last five years working for Fundación MarViva, a non-governmental organisation that promotes the conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems and marine resources of the Eastern Tropical Pacific, my colleagues and I have carefully avoided replicating certain types of actions that don’t feel respectful of local stakeholders.

Our local work has focused on the Gulf of Nicoya on the Costa Rican Pacific coast [3].

Map of the Gulf of Nicoya
Location of the Gulf of Nicoya, Costa Rica

El Golfo represents the heart of artisanal fisheries. It includes the village of Nicoya, one of the few Blue Zones (where people live the longest and the healthiest) in the world. Usually, when Costa Ricans think about the conformation of our territory, we recall the Gulf of Nicoya and its peoples’ desire, back in 1824, to become Costa Rican citizens. We celebrate this historic decision, the Annexation of Nicoya to Costa Rica, every July 25th with corn tortillas, horchata, bombas (rhymes), and songs about sabaneros (cowboys), bull riding, and the beaches of Guanacaste.

I also think about Don Enoc, a fishers’ leader from the coastal community of Colorado, and how happy he was when he knew I would move to Edinburgh, Scotland, to pursue a master’s degree in marine systems and policies. I think about Félix, Coordinator of Communities at MarViva who’s from Nicoya, and about the way he and his family have welcomed me every single time I’ve been around with gallina achiotada (the most delicious chicken in the whole world) and mangos. Hospitality is also demonstrated through a fresh croaker ceviche prepared by Don Manrique and Doña Mónica, the owners of Cama-Pez de La Costa, a responsible fish processing and distribution plant in Costa de Pájaros.

Cama-Pez storefront
Cama-Pez de la Costa in Costa de Pájaros © MarViva

owners of Cama-Pez
Cama-Pez de la Costa owners Mónica and Manrique © Cama-Pez

Beyond its people, el Golfo is comprised of estuaries, mangroves, islands, and reef systems. These ecosystems support fishing, tourism, shellfish extraction, and salt production. One-third of Costa Rica’s fishery products come from the Gulf of Nicoya [4]. However, the impacts of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing are notorious, contributing to social conflicts and discouraging good practices. These factors converge in an area with the country’s highest poverty and unemployment rates, where access to basic human development rights is limited.

Isla Chira is the largest island in the inner part of the Gulf, and its fishing organisations promote responsible fishing. © MarViva

Operating within this context, NGOs should contribute, yes! But not through patronising, false expectations, or imposing agendas disconnected from local needs and priorities. At the end of the day, the resilience of coastal communities will rely on their conservation efforts, ability to transcend oppression, and power to influence decision-makers.

The voice of coastal communities belongs to coastal communities, as they improve their livelihoods and environment.

In MarViva, the Gulf of Nicoya is not just Félix’s hometown. Along with improving coastal ecosystems, we intend to enhance lives integrally. To do so, we first work on strengthening policy advocacy skills. Guided by this philosophy, we have supported various initiatives that build a sense of citizenship amongst fishing communities. These include providing strategic support to fisheries associations regarding specific policy decisions taken by the fisheries authority without proper consultation. For instance, empowering leaders to address congresspeople directly has resulted from the implementation of voluntary local governance structures such as La Red del Golfo (The Gulf’s Network) and the Comité de Pesca Responsible (Responsible Fishing Committee). MarViva is not their spokesperson but their enabler.

March of the artisanal fishing sector in San José, against the re-enactment of bottom trawling. © MarViva

Beyond citizenship empowerment, coastal communities also engage in activities to improve marine conservation and fisheries governance. The participatory biological monitoring programme is an example of communities generating data to inform decisions. In 2023, communities from Colorado, Pochote, and Níspero provided data demonstrating that current fishing gear may not be selective enough to ensure that the harvest abides by the minimum legal sizes.

Oppression and fisheries’ overexploitation are also addressed by encouraging complementary productive activities. In Puntarenas, for instance, MarViva is currently supporting a group of fisherwomen to grow their economic potential and engage in the transformation of fish skin into leather. Called Piel Marina (Marine Skin), they’re powerful, high-value products.

Making Piel Marina © MarViva

Piel Marina
Piel Marina © MarViva

Moving from sad to happy tears

A deep sense of apathy is constantly present in magical realism narratives. But there is also space for optimism. In Latin America and El Golfo, there is always a way to find beauty in challenging times and move from sad to happy tears in a blink. Through my time working here, I believe NGOs are actually meant to learn from local communities and grow resilient together to drive oppression away.

selling Piel Marina
Piel Marina products © MarViva

group photo:MarViva’s team and members of the Responsible Fishing Committee
Part of MarViva’s team and members of the Responsible Fishing Committee © MarViva


[1] Álvarez Pitaluga, A. (2020) Realismo mágico y real maravilloso: modelos interpretativos para la historia cultural de América Latina. Costa Rica.

[2] Granados, J. (2023) Latin America had the most attacks on environmental defenders in 2022, says report.

[3] Atlas Marino-Costero del Golfo de Nicoya, Costa Rica. MarViva.

[4] INCOPESCA (2023) Estadísticas pesqueras


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