image of Alvaro Ugalde climbing hill

In Alvaro’s Words

Alvaro Ugalde Oral History – Transcript and Audio Recording # 7, Aug 30, 2007


The Beginnings of the Parks Service, Santa Rosa National Park, and Thoughts on Mario Boza and Others

Another important character right at the onset was Kenton Miller. Kenton was Mario Boza’s professor at CATIE University in Turrialba, and was a very good professor, a motivated professor, who motivated his students, very knowledgeable person, extremely patient and nice person. So Kenton was the first professor in Costa Rica, even though CATIE was not a purely Costa Rican university, but Costa Rica was and is a part of CATIE. Kenton was teaching wildlife management. Mario got his inspiration from Kenton, as a student of CATIE. That’s where Mario did his thesis on a management plan for Poas Volcano National Park. Kenton has remained a strong player since then until today, 40 years later. Not only was he professor at CATIE, a professor of Mario, he did the management plan for Santa Rosa at the request of ICT, as I mentioned. He taught Mario how to do a management plan for Poas. He brought his student classes to Cahuita, because it was close to Turrialba, every year and every semester. Every semester there was a new management concept for Cahuita even though it was not a park still, but those concepts made by Kenton and his students were very good once we decided to nominate Cahuita as a national park. Then he wrote the first book I have ever seen called Planning National Parks for Ecodevelopment in Latin America, a couple hundred or a three hundred page book on point by point of how you do parks, on how you discuss their situation, their planning, their objectives and the concept of development for that park. Then he became head of a FAO, a United Nations project, national parks in Latin America, which had operations in Chile, Costa Rica and several other countries. We were part of that, and Kenton continued to be part of us. Kenton was a professor at the University of Michigan when I went there for the second time. I went to Michigan twice, in 73 and 79. He was my advisor in 1979. Before that, he became the director general [of] IUCN, International Union for the Conservation of Nature in Switzerland, a world wide organization. Kenton was director general there and influenced the policies of IUCN towards protected areas. Has been since the head of protected areas commission of IUCN for probably the last 30 or more years. He is a character that has really weighted his knowledge and advise on what happened in Costa Rica, through Mario, through me and in general terms through everybody who came to respect and like Kenton and his teachings.

Another paragraph on Mario Boza... very difficult, very difficult to talk about Mario because his role has been simply the main protagonist in the 40 years in conservation in Costa Rica, a very strong, motivated person, somebody you simply you cannot stop once he has made up his mind on something. That has a lot to do with our success, even though he was the director of [national] parks department for only four years out of its entire history. He marked the future and he imprinted a good ethical framework for how we should work, incorruptible person, not afraid of anything or anybody. Mario graduated from the school of agriculture at the university, not the school of biology. Then he went on to get his master’s at CATIE, previous to 1969, the latter 60s. I already mentioned his contact with Kenton. His thesis, as I said, was on the management plan for Poas Volcano. After that, he joined the Ministry of Agriculture (MAG). When I met him, he was an employee of MAG. He was in MAG in the planning department, collaborating with Congress in the final writing of the first forestry law in Costa Rica, the first Ley Forestal. I think the bread was already cooked. When that law passed, Mario was going to become the head of the Parks Department, and another man, don Arnoldo Madriz, was going to become the head of Forest Service. That was decided, or at least envisioned by them, previous to the approval of the law. So the law passed on 29th or 26th of November, 1969. They didn’t have to look for a director of either one because they were already there. They just changed positions. Don Arnoldo became the head of the Forest Service and Mario became the Jefe del Departmento de Parque Nacionales de la Dirección Forestal del Ministerio de Agricultura. [Talk] about the catacombs for the conservation movement! Yes, catacombs but with a live mummy there, very alive!

I remember witnessing this, because I was not in any government position, I was simply Alvaro who had come to the round table who was studying biology, whom he wanted to collect or capture as an employee for his department. That’s why he pushed me to take the seminar on parks. The funny thing ia as soon as I returned from the seminar, early December 1969, a few days after the approval of the law, Mario took off on a plane to take the same course I just had just taken. So the entire park service was on that plane, just Mario (laughter). There was nobody else - a law and Mario and Mario was at the Grand Canyon. Mario had taken the seminar before me, but the park operations course which I stayed [behind for] at the Grand Canyon, where I met Bill Wendt as instructor for me, it was taken by Mario after me. So, I was nobody. I had been to this seminar and to this Park Operations course. I had lost my semester at school and I had no job. At that moment, I don’t think I could perceive the future. I felt like now what do I do? (laughter). I know we have to do parks, but I have no job. I didn’t finish my biology degree.

And so the character called Tex Hawkins appears, a Peace Corps volunteer, who was at that moment helping the Fish and Wildlife Section of the Ministry of Agriculture. Maybe I met Tex at that round table too, but I am not sure, but not too long after that. Why do I say that? Because it was Tex who brought to my attention the fact that there were 10000 hectares purchased by the [Tourism] Institute around the historic building in Santa Rosa, a property not being cared for, not managed, full of squatters who were getting ready to finish up the forest of Santa Rosa. Quite a big surprise for me. Having seen the US national parks and the Canadian national parks, I felt then something that my parents taught me came up, and I said “I have a responsibility here” and just went to Santa Rosa with Tex to see that. We wrote an article for La Nación on the mammals of Costa Rica, etc. Then we began a fierce effort to save Santa Rosa from being logged completely by these 40 families and the lack of management from the [Tourism Institute] people who had purchased that property. One big dilemma was present. Congress had said, just a few weeks before, that the parks ought to be managed by the Costa Rican Department of Parks within the Ministry of Agriculture and not by the Tourism Board. That was like a bucket of cold water for them. Even though they had paid for Santa Rosa, they didn’t care for it. That’s why Tex and I had a role there, because nobody was managing 10,000 hectares which were being burned and logged by these 40 families and a neighbor who was trying to steal 60 hectares from the park, very wealthy neighbor, and cows all around the park, hundreds probably thousands of cows in the park area. So it was a role, me as a volunteer, simply a “metiche” if you want to say that in Spanish, none of my business but I was there, and Tex as a Peace Corps volunteer to do something about it. One of the first things we did was obsiously to write a letter to Mario Boza, which was a clever decision, because then a letter came from Mario and hell exploded in the media and in the press.

Continuing with Mario, Mario finished his park operations course in February and came back to resume his role as the jefe, the head of the department, and I was deeply involved in trying to save Santa Rosa, driving government cars without authorization, just doing the government’s job without being a public employee. Why they did that? I guess government was more flexible back then about these things, but it was wrong, it was illegal also. Until one day I got into nearly an accident with another car. That day I decided that I could not continue doing that, because nobody was going to respond for my actions, or my wounds if something happened, since I was nobody. So I told Mario I could not continue like that and found myself a short term job interviewing national leadership all around the country, which was good afterwards too. You never know. Mario finally moved the strings to have me appointed by a presidential decree as administrator of Santa Rosa National Park. I believe that decree was signed by don Pepe, the new president, in June or July 1970, that’s when I legally resume, or assume my responbilities with Santa Rosa National Park. Mario went on as Director of the Parks Service and he was the director of the Parks Department, it wasn’t declared the Park Service yet, just the Parks Department of the Forest Service, Forest Directorship. At that time, Mario proved to be an unstoppable character. Having met doña Karen, having access to the first lady, he really promoted the signing and creation of several parks by presidential decree. Santa Rosa was inaugurated on March 20, 1970, sorry 1971. March 1970 we were still trying to get the squatters out of Santa Rosa. It was the next dry season that it was inaugurated by the first lady and the minister of agriculture, and [with] very interesting visitors at that ceremony who later became presidents of the country. So they were already being trained [for] something new in the motherland called national parks, whatever that meant, but they were present at inaugurations and speeches. [As a side note,] I remember a local politician in Liberia who was invited to the ceremony, then he came to me afterward and said “God, you are going to be way up pretty soon; this was so important.” He had a political eye. He saw what was coming in the future. This is during the Figueres administration, the parks created during Mario’s tenure as director: Santa Rosa, Poas, Tortuguero, Cahuita, Manuel Antonio, and others. There were several national parks created by don Pepe by presidential decree, and those are the ones I remember at the moment. Some of these were also created by law. But the president was authorized, still is, to create parks but not to change them. That is an interesting trick. I think Mario created that trick, that you can trick the president into creating something, but you don’t tell him that he cannot change it (laughter). You just write the speeches and prepare the decrees. Even though it is a little bit of a joke, it’s a great deal for the system. We played with that human nature a lot in the building of the park system.

Our fights to save Santa Rosa were very complicated and very diverse. One of our, at least [as] we perceived him, main enemies was don Daniel Oduber, who was in Congress and later became president. Just to continue with Mario’s story. When Daniel Oduber became president in May 1974 and due to the fact that Mario was very pushy, a very decisive person, lot of the times swimming against the political currents, etc., he had been perceived as a member of the opposition party to the new party coming in. He was assigned from the parks department to the plague or pest control department in the Ministry of Agriculture in 1974, after the president took office in May. This was not planned by Oduber, of course, but it was planned by the minister of agriculture and some of his people near him. So by September or August 1974, when Mario was given such a blow in the face, sarcasm, he resigned. He didn’t accept that humiliation, and he resigned just about the time I was coming back from my first time in Ann Arbor. So by September 1974, I was appointed the new director of Parks Department. Mario went on at that moment to be a professor at the National University at Heredia, very, and justly so, angry about politicians and government, but leaving a tremendous legacy in only four years. Let’s say five because he was there before the Parks were started. One thing that I haven’t mentioned, for reasons that are still incomprehensible to me, Mario and I became sort of an unbeatable team. We simply clicked, not as close friends in the sense that we were going to parties together, no, no, no. It was purely that we had exactly the same goals, the same fearless character and we complemented each other a lot, in the thinking process. Every problem had a strategic session before. When Mario left and I became director, very soon after that, I was approached by a Spanish [publishing house], and I was told that if I want to participate in a very nice version of nature books around the world, I could do it. The money was there provided by Spain, but I had to provide things. Among the things I had to provide was a writer [for] the book. To me the perfect person to write the first book on the national parks of Costa Rica was Mario. I called Mario and said “I want you to write a book on the national parks, the description of biology of the parks, not scientific biology, but of life, of natural history of the parks, with beautiful photographs, etc.” Mario said yes. I had to provide transportation for the photographer’s team, which I got through president Oduber in the air section of the government. We actually crashed one or two planes while doing that. Nobody died. I had to purchase $15,000 worth of books. That’s a lot of money, because this is 1977 or early 1978. But it wasn’t a problem at all because I had president of the country, Daniel Oduber, to ask $5000 from the banana corporation, $5000 from another one and $5000 from another one. I had all the requisites. Mario wrote the first book, which he later edited into a new version. That was the prototype of quality of books in Costa Rica, nature books. Mario was a pioneer of that as an author. I think those are still coming out.

Mario’s career continued as a professor in the Universidad Nacional, then he moved to the Universidad Estatal a Distancia, UNED, which is a university where students only go from time to time to labs and exams, but study at home, open university I think it is called in English. He worked there. Then, he of course being the leader, a kickstart leader, probably a good word for us and for Mario especially, then he was also part of the NGOs we had to create to pursue our movement. So when we created the National Parks Foundation, Mario was part of the complot to create it, so it was with the Neotropical Foundation. We were and are the members of the Tropical Science Center, of the Biologists Bar Association. So Mario’s role, throughout the years, as a strategist, as a terrific Machiavellic thinking person for the good of conservation, but with no fear, fearless strategic thinking (laughter) as to how to overcome a political problem. I can talk a lot about incidents where he was with me plotting, how for example, the first lady should come in and at which moment she should start crying and she would agree with us and do it. The strategy worked. It’s a lot of (inaudible) and a lot of Machiavellism in our history here. A lot of it coming from Mario, the bad parts, the good parts from me (laughter)... no. I remember Mario and I fearlessly going to Congress, talked to Congressmen and Congress ladies, and asked them to change the budget so we could get more money in the Parks budget, things that I’m quite sure were illegal, but with the help of Congressmen you can also do illegal things. [We were] very blessed that the constitutional court didn’t exist back then. We might have been put in jail had it existed. The role of Mario continued to be very strong, eventhough he was not part of the system, until 1990. He left in 1974, he collaborated to write books. He was Rasputin behind me as well most of the time. But with an authority position, Mario came back in 1990 with President Calderon, when he became Vice-Minister of the then Ministery of Natural Resources that was created 1986 by Oscar Arias, by the way. So, Mario came back to the government as vice minister. I think he hung in there for a good three years but then no more. He resigned. It would be not comprehended at this moment, but I had resigned in 1986. Mario brought me back in 1990 to work for government. I actually went and worked for him for three years and then left government. Author, leader, founder of NGOs, fund raiser, Mario is here and Mario is there. Mario has a brilliant intelligence in general, but his emotional intelligence, I think, is not as developed, in terms of relations with people. Mario has always been involved for the good causes, in controversies. He takes a position, and the people oppose him, and here we go. Things start getting hotter and hotter until in many occasions, they come to me and then I try to build a bridge between Mario and INBio or between this and that. It is good. Everytime Mario gets involved with something, I know there is bitterness and conflict, but there is resolution at the end, agreement, conversation. Mario is an outspoken person, sincere when he speaks, and that has brought him a lot of personal trouble from people who tried to give another meaning to his intentions or to his words. [To date], Mario remains [as] the famous kick-start leader of the Costa Rican conservation movement, and still a strong actor, player. Although both of us, have not retired, but kind of moved to the sides and shoot from there, as opposed to being in the center of the hurricane. I am sure I will mention more of Mario in this document later.