In an amalgamation of art, conservation, and science, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and partners from a small community on Guatemala’s Pacific Coast recently unveiled an innovative tool to raise awareness about migratory shorebirds: a 90-foot-long, nine-foot-tall mural.

The interpretive mural, painted on the wall of a school in the village of El Paredón Buena Vista, depicts more than a dozen shorebird species and the entire Pacific flyway from Alaska to Chile. Key landmarks shown include Mount Denali, the Golden Gate Bridge, Baja California, and Machu Picchu, along with cultural scenes such as a giant head of the Olmec civilization.

In the center of the mural is Sipacate-Naranjo National Park, the most important of the shorebird stopover points on the Pacific coast of Guatemala, consisting of mangroves, mudflats and nearby salt farms that attract migratory shorebirds. Species shown include red knots, ruddy turnstones, American avocets, sanderlings, black-necked stilts, American Oystercatchers, semi-palmated plovers, lesser yellowlegs, stilt sandpipers, Wilson’s plovers, black bellied plovers, whimbrels, willets, marbled godwits, Wilson’s phalaropes, and least sandpipers.

Until recently, Guatemala’s relatively remote Pacific coast was a recognized information gap on where and when different areas were used by migratory birds. However, after three-years of work, WCS conservationists developed relationships across jurisdictions, cultures, and disciplines, with many of those gaps in knowledge and capacity now significantly narrowed – and key areas increasingly protected. Importantly, the work to monitor and protect migratory birds now continues under the leadership and expertise of Guatemalans.

WCS and the team of partners wanted to make a mural that reflects the importance of coastal wetlands and shorebirds at this site to promote their conservation in the community and its visitors. Bianca Bosarreyes, one of the WCS research, team highlighted “how the work depicted reflects a new understanding for her, where her local desire for conservation of these birds at Sipacate-Naranjo is shared with many other institutions from Chile to Alaska.” In addition, the interpretive mural aims to be a tourist attraction with which community guides can inform people about the biodiversity and importance of the Sipacate-Naranjo National Park as part of the Pacific Americas Flyway.

Said Miriam Castillo of WCS Guatemala: “We chose to make a mural because it is colorful and eye-catching. In addition, because it is an area with a lot of tourism, the mural becomes a local attraction and is an opportunity to raise awareness through art about the biodiversity in the area. An interpretive mural with information on geography, ecology, local activities, and biodiversity is something that has not been done here before. In many communities in Guatemala, people cannot read, and a mural is a way of learning for anyone.”

The base-design of the mural was created by the artist, Sunshine Soledá de Vries. Other artists and participants involved with the project include Luis Fernando Izquierdo (muralist), Jorge Rodriguez (journalist), and lead shorebird researchers Varinia Sagastume and Bianca Bosarreyes. The designer and muralists worked as a team combining techniques and styles always maintaining the central educational and conservation concept. The wall is exposed to salt, sand, wind and is on the main street; so the conditions are very damaging for a mural. To last at least five years, it is painted with latex paint for extreme weather. In addition, it is now covered with a layer of varnish to protect it.

Said Dr. Martin Robards, director of WCS’s Arctic Beringia Program: “The story of work in Guatemala links all of us in the Americas. This story is now told via one of the oldest forms of visual art – the mural – offering a shared language accessible to anyone; from those who walk by in the small village of Sipacate – one of the key shorebird migration sites on Guatemala’s Pacific coast.”

Added Robards: “Two things are abundantly clear to everyone who studies the plight of migratory birds; first, the need for urgent action given the reported decline of 3 billion billion over the last half century; and second, the need for well-coordinated efforts that bring people together to accomplish conservation across the full extent of their migratory pathways.”

Recent efforts have developed flyway conservation plans to highlight the most important information gaps or places where new management and policy can make a difference. Programs in the United States such as the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 2000 can provide grants to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, encouraging habitat protection, research and monitoring, capacity building, and education.