In this wildlife refuge, Johnson grew up, married and raised his three sons. For the middle-aged man, who likes to spend his free time fishing, the area is his home.
“I have family in Limón, but I don’t feel like I am from Limón,” he said. “I am from Barra del Colorado.”
However, according to Johnson and community leaders, Barra del Colorado is in trouble. The area, which used to survive on commercial fishing, is quickly losing its stock and the people are battling poverty and job losses.
“First there was farming, but we can’t do that anymore,” said Johnson, noting that the government turned a lot of the land into protected areas. “Then there was fishing, but now fishing is finished. The pesticides from the banana plantations have come into the river and killed the fish. The only thing left is tourism.”
The snook migratory fish that were once found in abundance in the area from November to February have declined sharply in numbers over the years, Johnson said. “It used to be during this time a person might go out and catch 20 to 30 kilograms of snook. Now you might catch one to three fish,” he said.
“People say fish don’t think, but I think they do think, and they see how it is affecting them and go another way,” he continued. “If they keep going with the poison, then the fish won’t return.”
With few fish, the food and financial source for the population has been cut. The declaration of much of the area as a wildlife refuge in 1985 by the Junta de Administración Portuaria y de Desarrollo Economico de la Vertiente Atlántica prohibited inhabitants from any type of construction or clearing of the land. Despite the thriving community, Barra del Colorado didn’t exist before this time, according to the central government.
“My great grandmother was born here in Barra del Colorado in 1843, but the government said it didn’t exist until 30 years ago,” said Johnson.
The law makes it impossible to create businesses and impossible to farm. The only employment opportunities are the few fishing lodges, but they are only operated seasonally.
“Barra del Colorado is without work,” said Guillermo Cunningham, owner of the Tarpon Land Lodge and community leader. “We cannot grow rice, beans and bananas because it is prohibited. We need a liberation of our land.”
Cunningham explained that the majority of the population is poor and the people are starving.
“The pueblo is suffering,” he said. “The people don’t speak because they have fright. I am not afraid. We are equal to the rest of the country and need to be treated that way.”
According to Johnson, there are adults in the community who go without eating for three to four days. He pointed to children playing nearby, saying that one of the children belonged to a family that was struggling. The child goes to another person’s house and plays all day because she knows when dinner time comes the family will feed her.
“This is the advantage of living in a small town,” he said. “The children don’t go hungry.”
With a lack of options, some of these adults turn to selling drugs. The drugs are not trafficked there in the traditional sense, but instead people find drugs that have been thrown overboard in the ocean and have floated down the Rio Colorado.
“They go out to fish, and there are no fish, but in the water they find a bag of drugs,” said Johnson. “To feed the family, they pick the drugs up and sell them.”
This is not all people, but some, he clarified.
“There is a saying that says don’t judge a person until you know how tight their shoe is,” he said.
Although citizens say there is no big problem with crime, they have taken matters into their own hands to create opportunities. Members of the Asociación de Desarrollo Integral Barra del Colorado are searching for ways to have better opportunities and better education for the children.
“We have the same opportunity that the metropolitan area has, but the government has forgotten us,” said Ricardo Fernández Hernández, association president.
There is no answer for this, he said. It was the association that invited newspeople to visit the area for two days last weekend.
To emphasize the point of the government lacking care for the community, treasurer Carlos Martínez Méndez stood at a sign located at the end of the cities new airstrip and told the disappointment of the day of the ceremony.
The sign was from the Óscar Arias Sánchez administration and commemorated the area as a place of peace and nature. People were excited and stood in the area with signs to welcome the former president, but he never came, Martinez said.
For the most part, the city has been unchanged. There have been few developments like the new airstrip, a new lodge and the addition of two Ebais clinics in Barra del Colorado Sur and Norte.
Alejandro Villanueva, a physician, spends two days a week at each clinic, and the other days he travels to the other areas of the Colorado district. The main illnesses he treats are hypertension and diabetes, he said.
The equipment in the clinic is basic, and for advanced treatment persons must travel three to four hours to the hospital in Pococí. This ride includes a one-hour boat trip.
The system works, said Villanueva. Yet at night the travel becomes problematic.
“The problem could be solved if we had oxygen tanks for the boats and lights to use at night,” he said.
Technology has also been introduced to Barra del Colorado. The high school has a computer lab that the community uses.
“I know how to work the computer and have email and Facebook,” said Martinez, the treasurer.
After high school, many of the youth leave to go to universities or to find work, said Johnson.
With a health care system and slightly improved resources, the next necessary step, according to the agency, is to promote ecotourism. Barra del Colorado is located on the Rio Colorado, Rio Chirripó and the Rio San Juan which is Nicaraguan territory. The rivers connect with an interweaving system of channels, lakes and lagoons and are surrounded by various flora and fauna.
It is also the home of the West Indian manatee, caymans, crocodiles, monkeys and many types of birds. The area has everything its neighbor Tortuguero has, except for the turtle nesting, said the community leaders.
“It is no reason Barra del Colorado cannot have big business like Tortuguero,” said lodge operator Cunningham.
Yet, a pulperia owner admits that no one comes to Barra del Colorado for ecotourism, just for sports fishing of the local tarpon. His sentiment is echoed by the empty airport runway that conveniently serves as a soccer playground for local children.
That hasn’t stopped citizens from trying and turning their homes into lodges.
Johnson used his construction experience and four years to build his own place of lodging for tourists. Joruki Hotel Lodge, which opened a year ago, is in an ideal location with the river in the front yard, and beach in the back. He uses his son in the States and family spread across the country to advertise, he said.
Yet, like the small town, it remains desolate. The 56-year-old stands on his property, smoking a cigarette, looking out and dreaming after the day when his business will be prosperous.
Like Johnson, the community maintains hope because they know that a failure to advance tourism would mean a death to their homeland.
“To me this is the best place to live,” he said. “We don’t have problems, we don’t have the smoke like the city and everyone is friends. But to live here you need jobs.”
Barra de Colorado served as a base when heavily armed Fuerza Pública officers assembled there in late 2010 and early 2011 to counter an invasion from Nicaragua on mostly deserted land to the east. Since then the government has made some improvements along the border, which is the south bank of the Río San Juan. But there really has not been any job development.