image of Alvaro Ugalde climbing hill

In Alvaro’s Words

Alvaro Ugalde Oral History – Transcript and Audio Recording # 8, Nov 9, 2007


Cocos Island National Park and Joaquin Alvarado

The Corcovado (sic. He meant Cocos) Foundation was created by a few of us. It was instigated by Joaquin Alvarado, the one ranger that I have to speak a chapter on, one of the characters Joaquin Alvarado. He passed away in the island, of diabetes, alcoholic. Anyway he died on the Island. Carazo, Joaquin, myself, and a few others, are the founders of Friends of Cocos Island Foundation. One of the very wealthy families of San Jose has taken that up, the owners of Perifericos, those supermarkets which were recently sold to Walmart, the Uribe Family, his father, Carlos Manuel and his father etc. They remained very involved. They use to maintain the food situation in the island because they were selling food in the supermarkets. They continued the foundation and raised money and give the rangers what they need, etc. etc. One of the ways they try to bring more allies to the foundation is by these yearly dinners or galas. People have to pay $300 to get in, and everything is donated by others, the Uribes, and others. They actually get all the amount raised by the lunch, by the dinner itself and probably get new members. Naturally, you would say why have these pompous galas, why spend so much money to get donations? They probably get lot of money from both, from the reservations fee and from the new friends. I don’t know when they started giving certificates of recognition to people. I remember going last year or two years ago to one when Dan Janzen was honored and I guess the son of Philippe Cousteau, or someone like that. I always tried to go. I had forgotten about it until they called this year and said that, “This time it’s your time.” They honored Mario and me, and they honored a French international corporation because they gave 1.2 million Euros to Cocos, and they honored this famous lady, the shark lady, from the United States, Clark I think is her last name. She wasn’t there but sent a DVD, an eigthty plus year-old lady who is still diving and studying the sharks. She spoke very highly of Osa, I mean Cocos. Cocos was one of the first acts of Carazo when he became president. He put the entire Cabinet in a boat; vomiting they all arrived on Cocos, and they vomited on the way back. While there, he declared the island National Park. That was another good thing of Mario’s because Mario was his advisor before he resigned in disagreement with Carazo for other reasons. Then we tried to get it as part of the World Heritage list, as a natural site, and finally passed after a lot of work pushing it through UNESCO. It is now National Park and World Heritage Site.

Mario, as I sent you a copy, had written his speech two months ago, before he went to Egypt or wherever he went recently. Mario is a lover of ancient archeology. In his mind, everything is a target when he hasn’t been there yet, Petra, Egypt, the countries that have great ancient ruins. I told you a few days ago, I hadn’t thought about it until a couple days before. Actually, just before I went to Tortuguero, or just before I returned, I decided to organize my thoughts. The famous coordinator of Peace with Nature was going to pick me up and take me to the gala. It was practically forty minutes into the gala when he picked me up at the house (laughter), so when we got there it was 8:00. I was surprised. There were three or four hundred people there. The Vice-president was supposed to be there, Laura, Laura Chinchilla. Part of my speech was about her father, who was the comptroller general when we started the Park System. He was the most conservationist comptroller general I have ever seen. As I said the other night in my speech, he was a comptroller general with a soul and a heart, as supposed to what we had after that — money, money, money. They don’t do the good things, or bad things, but just stop the government in most everything. Anyway, she was having problems. She was ill. So the Minister was there, the French, the ambassadors, this and that. You can tell it was the crème de la crème, except the rangers and I, and a few others like Didi, but Didi is part of the crème, a famous artist. It was a huge crowd of people, half I knew, half I didn’t. I spent most of the time embracing and kissing, embracing and kissing, embracing and kissing (laughter). I took my mother and I took Adela instead of you. So we got there and everybody was sitting but they hadn’t started serving. Then came the long chain of delicious food that you missed and the long chain of different wines that you missed. I could tell from the very first cup of wine, oops, this was at least Pouilly-Fuissé, or something like that, because it was delicious wine, then changing from white wine to red wine to the third wine, sparkling wine and of course, by the end of the dinner, every was very happy, happy, happy, so was doña Socorro, my sister, Mario and everybody. So there we sat, my mother and I at the main table, with the Minister and the ambassador from France, president of the Foundation, Mario Boza, the people who were receiving the honors. That’s how it flew. I could hardly eat. I was going to eat somebody tapped on my back “Don Alvaro” and so I stand up, kiss, embrace. Tack, tack, tack. One of the plates was taken away entirely when I got back. My mother said “They took it away.” That was fine. Too many things to eat, including the marine stuff, mariscos. I forgot how you call those in English. Not just fish, but mariscos, some of those little animals that look like fingers attached to rocks. They have a name. They are delicious, and salmon from plantations, not from the wild, that was about the only thing that kind of balance things a bit. I was surprised that we had seafood in that dinner, just because of the relation between the diminishing resources in the oceans and the objective of the Foundation. Anyway, they are humans too. We ate it all. Shame to me as well.

Then came the first part, a short speech from president Uribe. Then they called us up, with the Board, Mario, the ambassador, and myself etc. to be awarded big picture certificates, which said, “The Foundation has taken these acuerdos, these decisions,” (that was different for each one of us. I was in the category of “conservation and sustainable development”, something new to me, as I have always been in conservation. I am being now changed and broadened in my contributions, to sustainable development.) “because of my work in conservation, because I am called the Father of the National Parks, acuerdo No. 2, because I was named on the list of five people that were leaders of the 20th Century by Time Magazine, because I have been able to convince philanthropists to put money in Costa Rica, and because of my conscience and ideas that have moved many other people to act,” I liked it all, signed by Oscar Arias the President, the Minister of Environment, president of the Foundation. So I have it there and a nice medal from UNESCO about world heritage sites. Mario was not on the list of speakers on the program. Something strange happened. They first asked Mario to speak. So Mario decided that he would speak and I would thank them. That was fine with me. But then the Foundation decided that I had to speak, period, and not as Mario said, just to thank them. And then I appeared in the program and Mario didn’t. So we were standing on the stage when I said to Mario, “Are you going to speak?” “Of course!” He had his speech ready. They gave him the award, he then moved to the podium and read four pages of his speech right there where we were all standing. So I told one of my pals next to me “Oops, Mario, pst, too long a speech,” and he said, “No no. Let him go. It’s fine. It’s fine.” Mario was just reading newspaper quotations, about how bad the Park system is, La Nación here, La República there. The first question was, where everybody says…oh, he goes back into the history about the ministers, on how they were. He was at least decent. He didn’t say minister X he hoped would not rest in peace where he was after death. At least he didn’t say that, but he was kind of tough (sound of slapping wrist) on some politicians from the past. At that moment, I touched the back of the Vice-minister of Agriculture back then, 35-40 years ago, and I said, “Manfred”. He said “Alvaro, please, no me regañe, don’t be rough on me, when you speak.” I said, “That’s OK. That’s OK. You’re a good guy”. Mario was saying that tourism, because of parks of course, makes more money than everything else together. Some people, especially Ticos, say that it is a model, but is it really a model? And then he went on really all the terrible things about parks not having protection, etc. The Minister was there, listening to all this. So it was my turn to receive the thing. I was very confused, whether I had to read my speech. “No, no, no. Later. We will call you”. So all I said was, “I receive this with humbleness and I dedicate this to my true hero of Cocos Island, which was Joaquin Alvarado.” And then the thunder of applause came, I hope on behalf of Joaquin. The rangers were just delighted, and so was Joaquin’s widow and his brother, who was also a ranger of Cocos, they were all there. They were honored too. They were extremely moved by that. So the staff sat back and ate like pigs, I guess, like sharks, might better be said on this occasion.

Then they called me to speak. I have the notes that I can send you. I pretty much try to go by the notes. I was totally blinded because there were bright lights to my face. I had to use my glasses. I could see nothing of the audience. I tried to concentrate. It was probably better because when I looked at the audience and looked for nodding faces and concentrate on them, I couldn’t. So I concentrated on my notes. I began by thanking for the honor, talking about the Vice-president’s father and his contribution. Then I went on to say who was Joaquin Alvarado. I think this was recorded. It wasn’t known, but at least it was a speech that I already have for this oral history. I explained how he came, how we met. Joaquin came in the 70s, as a fifteen, sixteen year-old kid who came as a volunteer to Santa Rosa National Park, never left the park system and died, actually died in it. Without ever going to high school, or anywhere, Joaquin just joined in. I probably hired him as a peon to begin with back then. He remained a pretty obscure park ranger for many, many years. He began drinking alcohol in Santa Elena, a national park, one of those expropriated from an American corporation a few years ago. Then one day I gave him a challenge to consider, which was to save Cabo Blanco from a very bad situation, Cabo Blanco Biological Reserve. He took it up and brought Cabo Blanco out of the ashes into a well-managed reserve. We called him the Indian, the Indio, not only because he looked like an Indian, his skin color, complexion in general, but because he let his hair grow up to his shoulders, his beard grow down to his chest. He had his chest filled with chains with teeth of animals, rocks, you name it. He was like a native there. That was Joaquin, a very good thing for European ladies to fall in love with him. You come to this tropical exotic country and you find “el Indio”, who is trying to save wild life in the tropics? Boy, pretty soon Joaquin was on planes going to Denmark and Holland, having girlfriends from Europe. He became famous, because he fundraised and got the help that he needed, got positions in the government to help him and really pulled Cabo Blanco out of the doom. So when Cocos came to my and to the world’s attention as a sacred place, a magnificent cathedral under the ocean and above the ocean, endemic species, etc., pillaged by fishermen from all over the planet and Costa Ricans who went there. It was pretty bad, as put out by the Cousteau family and others. The problem with Cocos was that it was created by Carazo in ‘78, but at that moment I couldn’t think of sending even one ranger there, no rangers and no boats. It kind of remained under the oversight, I would say more under the pillage of the Ministry of Security, our Costa Rican naval section, you couldn’t even call it more than that because it was just a few boats, most of the time broken, but ocean vigilance, under the Ministry of Security. They kept a man there, usually for three months, then they went back to see if he was alive. Then they would load the boat with fish and corals on the way back. That was it. Finally when I came back, this time to the Ministerio del Ambiente, MINAE, I realized that there were two boats taking tourists to Cocos, the Undersea Hunter and Oquianos. And seeing the terrible situation: it was a national park and I was not in charge of it, I decided to talk to the tourist boats to see if they could carry rangers there back and forth. They said yes. So I went to the Minister of Security and said “OK, I want my park back.”

That’s when I decided to ask Joaquin to take up the challenge of Cocos. Lo and behold, Joaquin brought it up out of the dooms again. He got his European friends now to help Cocos. He had married by then. He married Annie Castro, a very charming Costa Rican, and had a little baby. So Joaquin took the challenge, got the resources, got the staff, got the reputation. He was a fearless man when it came to persecuting illegal activities in the park, with no fear in confiscating nets and everything. Later I learned that he had gone back to alcohol. It was pretty obvious that he was going downhill. He was getting very fat, diabetic, until the news came that Joaquin had passed away there. There was nobody to bring him back to the hospital when the final attack came. So that was what I explained, not in this length, but I explained that to the audience.

I went back to say that we had thought we had saved the park system, the world, by creating the park system. But we were absolutely wrong, when the ugly face of climate change was present, is present now, with more and more heads every day, ugly heads. I have been at least saying, not behaving myself, as a person who has made this peace with nature. I don’t care what the government does, any government, but individuals should make peace with nature. You are all sitting here I am sure like me, continuing to drive, continuing to use as much water as you need, continuing to light as many bulbs as you can, etc, etc, etc. That was not the way to go. The park system was made because of motivation and love for the job, for the cause. Now the cause will not be done just by rangers. It has to be by every human etc, etc. I pretty much dwelled a lot in that aspect, of how we should behave, etc. etc, how everybody should think and in spite of what we see, what the trends are, we should be optimistic and continue to work, die in the trenches. Blah, blah, blah. I thanked the Minister, don Oscar, and don Pedro for what they were trying to do and then I ended. People came to me later and said “You made me cry.” “Well, you should cry. If you cry, it’s because you are probably doing something wrong.” (laughter). It was good. We finished the dinner. There was a beautiful show of Cocos, there on YouTube and the Cocos Island Foundation webpage. They are there, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful underwater shows of Cocos, I think five or ten minutes. Probably the speech and stuff are also there. Then came the final things, the kid, the beautiful poem about global warming, how the adults are killing the world for the children, and then a beautiful singer, loud music, pretty much it. I really liked the experience the other night.