image of Alvaro Ugalde climbing hill

In Alvaro’s Words

Alvaro Ugalde Oral History – Transcript and Audio Recording # 5, Aug 30, 2007


Conditions in Costa Rica Prior to Personal Conservation Efforts

I am going to say a little bit about the environmental conditions of Costa Rica previous to my joining the conservation effort, end of 1969. Not so much because I remember, but because we had data available. The country had suffered a dramatic change after 1950, after WWII. I am told, because obviously I was not there, that my country remained pretty forested up to 1950. That means less than one million people and 2/3 of the country in forest-cover. If you take maps of the forest cover of Costa Rica after 1940, or actually beginning in the 1940s, you see that 1940s map is 70% of the country, then it comes down and down every decade, until in the end of the 60s, was already down to 20-25% of the forest cover left. So the initial major destruction of ecosystems came when coffee was introduced and was very successful. It expanded to throughout an ecological zone called by many of us the coffee belt. It extended in certain altitude of the country and climatic conditions etc. that’s where coffee grows. Of course, hybridization has produced varieties that now occupy different altitude, but our coffee plantations were mainly located in the Central Valley in the 1940s. That was the main crop, industry and source of income for the country. Then came, of course, the wave of the banana plantations and the corporations that came for bananas. You can see these waves of unfortunately exotic monocultures coming to Costa Rica, of exotic practices like cattle raising on an extensive basis using African grasses. Things like that kept pushing the forest, cornering the forest. You can see the legislation of the country at that time promoting the elimination of waste of poor forest, because they contribute nothing to the economy. Change them into something productive, and if you do that, we will give you a prize: we’ll give you title to the land. That was the legal policies of the nation, to tumble the forest down, because in their eyes, they were good for nothing. Therefore, it was normal, legal, and applauded to destroy forest for the benefit of society.

In general terms, even though I don’t remember, except when I joined the university in the 60s, 1965 or so, that some professors began to speak about how our ecosystems were going to pieces, and coming from a family surrounded by coffee plantations, it was true and then you saw what was coming. In a nutshell, it was a country already very devastated in terms of ecosystems. I am talking about the 60s when I began to become an actor, a student and later a public employee. Destruction of major part of the territory, not destruction of the territory, but the destruction of the ecosystems that used to be there, change of land, change of use, from forest to anything else. The beginnings of problems, like erosion, like landslides, even the scarcity of wildlife, and water, were the prevailing winds in the 60s and early 70s.

The international scenario was at least beginning to be heard. Rachel Carson, writing her book, international conventions on the protection of the fauna and the flora, like the Washington Convention for the Flora and Fauna of the Western Hemisphere. If you follow the beginnings of the environmental movement of the planet coincided with the beginning of our work in the 60s. The information on the richness of the biology of Costa Rica was already known by some of my professors and very famous researchers of the late 1800s and the early 1900s. Costa Ricans, Germans, Europeans in general, who had described, actually partially studied the biology of Costa Rica, but who had already concluded how rich it was, and how unique it was. So we had the legacy of those important researchers as well. And then you get the presence of persons and organizations beginning to set foot in Costa Rica, probably for two reasons. It was democracy where security was not an issue at all at that moment, in those years, and friendliness to foreigners. It was easy to settle here and study here. I am talking about Leslie Holdridge as an individual, Joe Tosi as an individual, CATIE in Turrialba attracting people like Gerardo Budowski and Kenton Miller, people who were already talking about wildlife and wildlife management, wildlands and wildland management, a new talk for us and for everybody, because the previous talk was natural resource mining, not managing. That was a talk of changing moral, of changing paradigm which is taking so long for us to really understand. But they were here already. So, it is no surprise to us that the Organization for Tropical Studies based its field operation in Costa Rica. They actually purchased the property from Leslie Holdridge to become the La Selva [Research] Station. Putting all these things together, researchers, conservation, research organizations, biologists, and the state of the country, I think it made a pretty good scenario for what followed.