Pearl Keys: Privatizing Paradise

For the fishers of the Pearl Lagoon basin, the Pearl Keys are like a second home, a place to rest and gather fresh water while out at sea for days. So when in 1997 a foreigner purchased some old deeds to the islands – the legality of which are disputed – and proceeded to sell them off to wealthy expat dreamers, things took a turn for the worse.

Soon the new 'owners' began raising foreign flags, constructing large houses and hotels and ordering the locals to keep off the islands, despite Nicaraguan laws guaranteeing public access to beaches.

In response, the local community hired a lawyer to take up the case. In addition to claiming to be the legitimate owners of the keys, the community expressed concerns that the unregulated construction was destroying the sensitive ecosystem.

A combination of community pressure, the harsh realities of life on a remote island, and the failure of an expected tourism boom to materialize has seen many of the original buyers abandon their island dream and move out. The Nicaraguan government has overseen the return of Crawl Key and Wild Cane Key to local communities for use in tourism activities, but several foreign owners remain and there has yet to be a definitive resolution of the ownership dispute. Locals, while not interested in wealthy foreigners simply taking over the islands to build private residences on, are keen for genuine investors to help develop tourism and bring much needed jobs to the area.

Hawksbill Turtles

Endangered hawksbill turtles nest from May to November in the Pearl Keys, peaking in August and September. Traditionally hunted by the locals for their shells – as opposed to the meat of the tastier green turtles – hawksbills are now under extra pressure because of island development that has compromised their nesting grounds. The Wildlife Conservation Society has helped by hiring fishers to watch turtle nests, and by educating them about the damaging effects of artificial light and egg poaching on the ecosystem. Before the WCS arrived, 97% of hawksbill eggs were poached by fishers; now they lose only 10% a year. The WCS also manages an extensive turtle-tagging program that has enabled international scientists to learn how vast the turtles’ range actually is. It’s worth dropping by the WCS office in Pearl Lagoon to learn more.