image of Alvaro Ugalde climbing hill

In Alvaro’s Words

From the February 2002 edition of Nectandra Institute’s newsletter

Thoughts and Stories from our President

Throughout my life I have adopted the conviction of my parents and elders—that there is always something good about everything, especially moments or events we perceive as crisis or unwanted changes. We just have to look for the good and the opportunities in everything, they are always there. Although the events of September 11 2001 brought moments when some of my assumptions were shaken, I concluded that this too shall pass, that life must go on and that the environment must be protected in times of peace and, much more so, in times of war.

Actually, I think that the real challenge ahead in spite of this strange new war, is how humanity will maintain and redouble its efforts to avoid environmental catastrophic events, probably of much greater and lasting consequences. But my faith in humanity and in the resilience of nature keeps me going. Also, in moments of anguish, I think of people like you, our readers and supporters, and I simply keep going… If you didn’t know it, you are and have always been my sustainable sources of energy.

I have been thinking on how to approach my series of stories in this newsletter, so they can also be useful to a broader audience within the conservation and development community. My problem is that I can go many ways, both in approach and in the timeframe I use. I can speak of independent anecdotes as I did in the previous issue, I can divide our history of conservation in decades or years; I can talk about financing or bio-diplomacy, I can be very personal or very institutional and so on.

For the moment, under pressure of deadline, I have decided simply not to decide. So here we go again.

1969. The year was relatively calm with respect to tangible conservation actions, at least for me. It was basically a year of preparation and learning. Our Congress discussed and finally approved legislation to regulate forestry activities and to initiate conservation. A few articles in the law mandated that a system of national parks and biological reserves be established, gave the President the authority to create parks via executive decree, denying his authority to de-gazette them, and gave the government the power of eminent domain when creating protected areas.

And that’s all Costa Rica needed to get going.

While our Congress was legislating, I was in my last year of my Bachelor degree in Biology at the University of Costa Rica. Early in the year Mario Boza, my colleague, asked me if he could look for funding to send me to an International Seminar on National Parks and Equivalent Reserves, a course that was then offered yearly by the US and Canadian Park Services and the University of Michigan. At first I was reluctant, thinking that finishing a degree was my most pressing personal priority.

But when Mario came back in May with funding, the pressure from him and my friends was insurmountable. Finally I dropped out of school for the year. In August 1969, together with 25 others from many nations, I went to Jasper National Park in Alberta, on an one month journey through Canadian and US national parks—a journey that would change my life, the history of my country and the life and history of many, many others.

The Seminar started at Jasper and Banff, where we discussed with rangers and superintendents, the Canadian side of the art, the management systems, the problems and the challenges, the beauty of it all. From there we flew into Yellowstone, canoed through the Snake River with the great Tetons on our right, visited Indian Nation monuments and visitor centers, Petrified Forests and many other wonders and ended at the Grand Canyon. The group melded together like a flock of pelicans, and our motivation and sense of global mission grew as we became better friends.

Near the end of the trip, while at the Albright Training Center of the USPS located in the Grand Canyon, I was offered the opportunity to stay, right at the edge of the biggest crack in the planet, for two more months, to attend a US Parks Operation Course. I considered the cost of it, including not going to school that semester. I counted my pennies and decided to stay. And I really mean pennies. For two months I had to pay around ten dollars per month for the apartment and to feed myself.

Or so I thought. I figured I could do it with one bowl of soup a day, until one day I dropped to the ground while jogging with Bill Wendt, the toughest of our instructors and at the same time the most motivating one. He must have felt good about saving from starvation this naive fetus of a conservationist from Costa Rica. Bill later jumped into the international arena, working with the International Program of the USPS. His discovery of my hunger predicament came towards the end, but in time to feed me more than well, to the end of the course. Others also helped, the family of my friend Bien from the Virgin Islands and Rose from the national parks of Hawaii.

I was lucky and able to walk twice to the edge of the Colorado River, down and up the Canyon all in one day. By the end of both of these hikes, I hated the burros on the trail and envied their riders, and of course, gulped two beers at the end.

Not so skinny, I arrived in San Jose in December 1969 to discover that one week earlier our Congress had finally put out some white smoke. We had a mandate for conservation. More than that our Costa Rican dry season was on, along with school vacations and Christmas just around the corner. What an optimist...I was 23 then and I guess I didn’t know better.

Sometimes, more frequently as I grow older, I refer to 1970 as the year when History begins. That is, the history of conservation in Costa Rica, the history that threw me and many into making history, the history without which I wouldn’t be writing to you.

But as you see, the only thing I did in 1969 was to travel and to faint at the Grand Canyon, and then return to Costa Rica in early December. So, just between you and me, history does not begin in 1970 in spite of what don Alvaro thinks. History of conservation in Costa Rica begins closer to the time of my birth in 1946. History begins in 1940 with the Washington Convention, when Costa Rican delegates signed the Western Hemisphere Convention for the Protection of the Flora, the Fauna and the Scenic Beauty of the Americas.

Costa Rican Conservation History went dormant during World War II and reappeared in 1966 when our Congress ratified this Convention as a law of the land. And history kind of went dormant again until our Congress past the 1969 Forest Law, the one I mentioned before.

But true history, a la Ugalde and a la Boza, really started around 1963, when two beautiful persons I call “Our Messengers from the Future” succeeded in convincing the Costa Rican government and a few donors from England and Philadelphia to create the “Cabo Blanco Absolute Biological Reserve”. It is the only wildlife protected area, created before the existence of the Costa Rican Park Service, to survive properly managed. Oloff Wessberg from Sweden and his wife Karen Mogensen from Denmark were our messengers from the future they were also our mentors and a constant pain in the lower back. There was no way to calm them in matters dealing with problems in Cabo Blanco. Painful, yes, but we learned from them. At the same time, we were able to apply their lessons in building the rest of the then baby park system.

But the story of Karen’s and Nicholas’ (Olof) life and legacy requires a lot more than the allotted space. It will have to wait until another issue of the Nectandra Institute Newsletter, as part of my tales series.