Mizzou students report on key issues (and turtles) in Costa Rica


Written by: Erica Overfelt

The University of Missouri way of learning is summed up in one saying: “we learn by doing.” By bringing eight Mizzou journalism students to Costa Rica this past winter break, Professor Bill Allen truly created a learning experience that goes perfectly along with this saying, and it just happens to be in the tropics.

This field reporting trip was started by Allen in 2011 with help from project co-ordinator Fern Perkins. Throughout most of Allen’s career, he did a lot of reporting in Costa Rica, which led to the inspiration for the trip.

“I thought we should get some students down there,” Bill said, “Part of the problem is that we don’t have enough U.S. journalists covering stories outside capital cities or war zones. Important issues are coming out in the rural areas like climate change, water issues, or energy. This is all happening outside the realm of politicians and we’ve got to go get them.”

Allen believes that the students who attend come out as different people by the end of the two-week trip. Some students gain confidence in reporting, while others gain new perspectives on many sustainability and/or environmental issues.

“The trip changed my passion for environmental issues and sustainability,” said Holly Enowski, the only freshman to attend the trip. “It allowed me to see that the issues are all over, not just limited to within our country’s borders. Costa Rica is a very environmentally conscious country and it was interesting to interact with locals and gauge their views on healthy eating and environmental protection.”

Almost all Costa Rican natives believe in sustainability, Allen mentions. A key lesson students learn on this trip is that other countries have different stances on sustainability than the United States. Allen explains that most countries believe the U.S. is off-balance sustainability wise.

“In terms of balancing, it is the need to protect our environment so we can live,” Allen said, “as opposed to continuing to abuse it as if it is an infinite resource. That abuse reigns in the United States because of our culture; however, Costa Ricans understand the need for balance.”

During this past winter’s trip, the students observed the sustainable harvesting of Olive Ridley Sea Turtles. This species of marine turtles nests along the coasts of Costa Rica. However, numbers are dwindling. National Geographic states, “Though the olive ridley is widely considered the most abundant of the marine turtles, by all estimates, it is in trouble. Rough estimates put the worldwide population of nesting females at about 800,000, but its numbers–particularly in the western Atlantic–have declined precipitously.” The main cause of this declining population is poaching.

Sustainable harvesting was permitted by the government of Ostional making it the only place in the world where it is legal. Basically, the government allows locals to come to the beaches where the turtles’ nest. The locals are only allowed to take a small percentage of the eggs (less than one percent) and they are allowed to do whatever they want with the eggs they harvest. At first, many conservationists reacted angrily to this idea, but surprisingly, this act actually helped increase turtle population.

“It was one of the coolest experiences of my life to watch and see thousands of turtles come out of the ocean to lay their eggs during the arribada,” Enowski said. “What I loved most was the social, cultural, historical, political, economic and personal importance it had on [Ostional] and the people who live there.”

The eight Mizzou students were able to see sustainability in a different country first hand throughout the entirety of the trip. Although the definition of sustainability is different in every country, when we learn about what it means to be sustainable in different countries than our own, it helps the world unify as one and furthers the fight to get to a brighter future.