image of Alvaro Ugalde climbing hill

In Alvaro’s Words

From the July 2001 edition of Nectandra Institute’s newsletter

Thoughts and Tales from Our President

The last thirty years have been the most exciting ones during my 55 year-old visit to Planet Earth. For reasons only vaguely understood by my mind, in my early twenties I became an individual with a clear mission: the mission to convince the Costa Rican society, and the world at large, that conservation is a must for every society, every community, every corporation and every individual, that is, if humanity is to survive. And, that the only way to accomplish conservation, is by going through the process of actually doing something specific. In my case, I became one of the architects and builders of the Costa Rican National Park System, and today people call me the father of the management system for this extraordinary set of natural jewels. I feel they will soon elevate my status to grandfather.

To be able to tell you the details of my personal and Costa Rica’s saga in the pursuit of conservation, it will take more than a book. But, if you are interested, through the series of this newsletter, I can attempt to tell you many pieces and even anecdotes that, bit but bit, will give you most of the story. Please keep in mind that somehow or other, although individually some of the thoughts or tales may seem to you only threads of a web, I can assure you that just as it happens with species in ecosystems, each one is critical to the existence and maintenance of the web and, sometimes may even be funny.

During my years at the University of Michigan, my friend and mentor Kenton Miller, eloquently expressed his general concept of conservation by stating “that conservation is to development, what maintenance is to a building or a construction.” Kenton was able to instill in me, and many others, the sense of reverence for ecosystems, for rivers, for lakes, for forests, for oceans, and for the role, value and beauty of all creatures that inhabit them. But what Kenton conveyed most clearly to me, was the feeling of urgency, the feeling of individual responsibility and the concept of management of ecosystems. Without management, the planet will suffer and get transformed to the point of no return for most ecosystems and for species, including ours. The National Park Concept is nothing but the most successful tool so far, that has been applied to manage, in perpetuity, the best and most beautiful ecosystems of our planet.

Through the invention of complex and technologically advanced tools, humans have been busy stripping the pipes, organs and wires that maintain living conditions. Instead of maintenance, we have denuded the planet of its skin and other critical organs, we have and still are, driving innumerable species to their extinction, and in this process, we have diminished and endangered the options for humanity itself. Very clearly, we have neglected the application of conservation as described by Kenton Miller — as a tool for all generations, if we really want to construct a development model that also includes as the end result, the continuation of a livable planet for our children.

But, while immersed in this incredible saga, I have also become acutely aware of the capacity of nature to heal its wounds, just like humans do when cure is properly and timely administered. And that is basically what I believe we have to do. To make sure that we enthusiastically and timely, apply protection and rehabilitation, maintenance if you wish, as a global human effort to restore the conduits, the wires, the vital organs and the beauty of our only Planet. That is called conservation and that is what we have been trying to do in Costa Rica since 1970.

Let me start by saying that, without a vision and a sense of mission, there can hardly be a saga to tell or follow in any human endeavor. Second, that I believe, at least in conservation efforts, that there is no such a thing as a one-person show. The role of the leaders is to motivate and to enroll as many humans as possible in the pursuit of her or his vision, thus transforming it into a socially run mission. If leaders can accomplish this, then the best next step for them may even be to get ready to let go and to allow new generations to take responsibility.

As Smithsonian Magazine said in 1979 about our work in national parks, “Costa Rica is a country that really tries.” Among other things, the country has successfully provided minimum education to the majority of its citizens, it has eliminated the armed forces, it has provided an efficient healthcare system, it has practiced democracy and it has build a tangible economic and ecologically valuable National Park System.

I’m sure that in the process of accomplishing these national landmarks, the country needed the same critical ingredients that were needed for conservation. But I must say that the pre-existence of the others, made it possible to focus efforts in the building of the National Park System. It sure was so much easier to gain allies for conservation in a country where peace, security, respect for human rights and the rule of law, are nothing but common, where basic needs are possible to get and where opportunities are there for most individuals to seek.

So, for those of us who played the role of leaders or agents of conservation thirty years ago, the key challenge was, and continues to be, to get everybody to adopt the vision, and to make sure that the present and new generation, include conservation as part of their mission.

The national parks of Costa Rica were created, are maintained and will be improved, only because the majority of citizens and leaders learned to consider them as part of the national soul, have learned to use them as part of the national economy, and have included them as part of their personal mission and dreams. Even though in the early days the number of individuals who worked for the Park Service and for conservation organizations were just a few, their motivation greatly multiplied their efforts and impacts. And the host of other Costa Rican persons, institutions and organizations, and of friends from abroad who applauded and supported them, ensured their success.

It was the year 1974. I had never been so scared in my life. The crowd was composed of several hundred people, most black, some white and several representatives from indigenous territories. They had been brought in trucks specifically for the occasion, although they had little to do with issue. The provincial and local leaders and authorities were there and so was a solid representation of government officials like myself.

The gathering had been organized by local leaders, enemies of Cahuita National Park located in Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast. They wanted to get rid of the Park, so that private activities could be developed instead. Although the gathering they called -referendum-would have had no immediate impact, whatever the final perception of the people’s feelings was going to be, it would be the basis for the local congressman to present an abolition bill in the Legislative Assembly.

My recollection of the moment indicates that my mind was on a full state of alert, as if a premonition had told me that all the odds were against me and the Park. Even my boss, the then head of the Forest Service, was not fully behind me. I definitely could not count on him.

The leaders took the podium one by one. The list of demons and pests that would fall upon the local people if the Park survived, grew with every vociferous speech. My boss was last, and then my moment of truth finally arrived.

Up to that moment, the Park detractors were winning. Nobody had defended it, and the crowd was thirsty for blood. It all seemed like in moments I would be in serious trouble. With a sense of resignation that must be common to those in death row, I stared at the colorful crowd and started my speech with a somewhat elaborate line of thought.

Then, just one minute into it, like a lightning, a thought dawned on me. Wait a minute Alvaro, remember…most of these people speak English, not Spanish! You speak English too…

And boom. To the confusion of all, especially those who didn’t speak English, most of the leaders, bureaucrats, and Indians, from one second to the next, there was silence. I fixed my eyes on the eyes of the descendants from Jamaican fathers and mothers and spoke only to them, in English. They were the only ones directly affected, one way or another, by the existence of Cahuita National and I needed to force them to speak. Not quite, I also needed them to speak in favor of the Park.

Whatever happened within my mind at that moment, neither was planned, nor was it something I had ever been trained for. I recall myself suddenly speaking in English, and acting as if I were some sort of a mix between a black singer and a black religious minister. I started by making a statement like: “The fact that some us want to convince you to accept this Park is, in the first place, because your ancestors kept nature the way it is.” But the extraordinary thing was that, after a short pause, my mouth uttered the following very loud question “Isn’t this the case?” The answer came loud and clear. Speaking at one, a resounding YES came from the crowd. It sounded like coming from heaven, but it turned me into a demon…

The series of statements, questions and answers that followed are not even clear in my mind today, except one. “Your ancestors conserved this land as if it were a park. Does the present generation, YOUUUU, want Cahuita National Park?” The loud YES arising from the heart of all those black brothers and sisters, still resounds in my mind when I think of Cahuita. My final THANK YOU put a quick end to the referendum.

Cahuita is a National Park that still exists in Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast. In the year 2001, it is protected by the descendants of the people who supported it in a public referendum 25 years ago.