image of Alvaro Ugalde climbing hill

In Alvaro’s Words

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


Corcovado National Park and the Squatters

I am going to talk a little bit about details of our actions in Corcovado after the president signed the executive decree creating the park, at least the first executive decree. There was another one later by President Carazo. In looking for people already inside the park, and looking for a site to put people there might be by the park service or the staff, I ran into the first person that was born in Corcovado. His name is Feynner Arias. Feynner, just for the record, is now in charge of a reserve in the US, in CA, called Big Sur. He has been working there many, many years. He may be retired by now. But he was impacted tremendously by our actions, so much that he became a ranger and a park administrator as well, in the US. Feynner was the son of Evo Salazar, although their last names don’t coincide, but that’s pretty common in the field. Evo whom I also met shortly after, was a fierce leader within the people affected by the park. I will speak more about Evo and these leaders later. Feynner was sympathetic himself as an individual. He was young, I don´t remember, under twenty for sure. I asked Feynner to please... no, I take it back. I will finish my phrase but I will go back. Feynner helped me get a clear picture of what was going on inside the park. Before that, somehow using wrong information, I told the president that the cost of relocating people there was only a million and a half colones, until I hired Feynner. He gave me a real analysis of the situation, as a son of one of the affected families. That’s when the situation became clear and horrifying to me to learn that there were 166 families and some information about all of them. That was because of him. Feynner kind of remained on the side throughout the process, but not his father. His father was a fighter. He was a person who would speak, and then after speaking, he would scream. After he would scream, he would threaten with all kinds of things. He threatened us, the government. The government was represented, among others, by me. But I liked Evo. I knew right after the meeting, the screams and the threats, he was a friend, a human being like all of us. So, I began to establish somewhat a double relationship with him, disagreeing in many things, but friends afterwards. This was very clear in my mind after one of these huge meetings with all, with many, many of them in the park itself. We would land on the beach, because there was no other place for us to get there, other than if we took a boat many days. We decided to fly government planes. One of the things that President Oduber did was to tell the air section to “please do what Alvaro asks, period.” We literally ruined most of their planes, but they really did support us all the way through. Oldemar Madrigal was the character who was the head of that section who was and still is a conservationist. We were very lucky to run into this kind of people.

So we would land on the beach and walk to wherever the meetings were. I remember the big mistake in the first meeting, not because of me, but because of other government officials, we took some guards with us, some police. The first thing that we were met with when we got off the plane was “If those police don’t stay here, we won’t meet with you.” “Stay here, guys.” And we walked in the forest to the meeting, usually very turmoilish meetings. At first because of the creation of the park, and then, after they agree along with their representative, this communist congressman, that they would accept the park, then the arguments were about how much money each one of them was going to get, where were they going to get new land, how they are going to get the cows and pigs out, families and chickens and everything. They were very rough because most of the time they didn’t agree on the initial appraisals, the avalúos, in this case by the IDA people, the Instituto de Desarollo Agrario today, the Institute of Agrarian Reform, back then called ITCO (Instituto de Tierras y Colonization), in short called by the squatters as ISCO, not ITCO, ISCO a joke among many people. Those people were ordered by the President... you have to remember that everything the President ordered was because I asked him to order. I drafted the letters and everything, so he just called them all and signed the letters. Since he was the most powerful President I have ever seen in my life, at least in this country, everybody runs to please the President in everything he asked. To... he asked ITCO to send his teams of appraisers, just to survey the entire park, to go and count the cassava plants, the banana trees, shacks and everything they had, had to be paid. And to evaluate everyone to see if they really deserved land somewhere else or not. Because remember, most of them didn’t own the land; they were just there squatting. So IDA teams were all over the park, an incredible job, very difficult. I used to be very quiet at these meetings because the decision to establish the park had been made, so all I had to do was to get them out, because the decisions had been made. There were no negotiating anymore, except for prices, monies and land, etc. So I didn’t have much to say because I didn’t own land, I was not ITCO. I was the Park Service. My role was to clean the park of human activities, and my personal principle was to do it nicely with them, because they were terribly affected. I would be on their side if I had been there.

I remember this meeting in Boca, the mouth of Rio Claro, just north of the Rio Sirena, a beautiful place, full of gold miners there. There was a school there. Kids walked for hours to come to that school. If you go today, all you would find is jungle. Obviously you say “What?! There was a school here?” Well, we were there. I remember the school, I remember the 300 or so people gathered in meeting. Since I get seasick in small airplanes, I used to take a Dramamine, air sickness pill, then by the time I got to Osa, when people were ready to fight, I was ready to sleep. I kind of sat on the roots of trees, on the gambas, the big roots of the trees, didn’t fall asleep, but I wasn’t eager to speak or to be heard, by anything they said. The ITCO people were the ones doing the fight on behalf of the government. This meeting ended late. It was almost dark by the time it ended. The usual thing I do after these meetings is to go to embrace everybody, asked them questions, where do you live, how many kids do you have, where are you from? etc. One of them, I only remember his nickname, we called him Beto Bullas. Bulla means noise. Beto was loudspeaker, blah blah blah blah, so we called him “Beto Noises”. He said “I live behind the laguna.” Wow, it sounded like... to me being ignorant about where it was... walking the in the forest at night... If I had known where it was, I wouldn’t have asked the question I did.” Why don’t take me with you?” “Are you sure, don Alvaro?” “I’m sure. Are you ready? I’m ready.” God, Lord, it was going through swamps, three, four, five hours until we got there by midnight. It was a very, very humble place, house with pigs inside and outside of the house, chickens and everything. It was really a campsite. They gave me this little... I can’t call it a bed... more like a little bench and bed and everything at the same time made with canes from palms. They had cut long palms [inaudible]. The pigs were sleeping under me, and I was sleeping on this thing. It was quite an interesting night, because of the mosquitoes, the pigs, the hike and the mud, but that’s how I got to be a very good friend of Beto and his wife and his children and everybody in the neighborhood, ten, twelve houses across the river, a few minutes or half hour walk from him in the neighborhood.

Beto was from Pérez Zeledón, San Isidro. Many of them came from San Isidro del General. From Isidro to the park, they had to take a boat, drive to Sierpe, on the side of the Sierpe River take a canoe out to the very deadly mouth of the Río Sierpe. Many people died trying to cross that mouth with the technology of back then. Simple thing today for the tourist hotels, going through that mouth with huge waves in boats with huge engines. Not dangerous as before. Then they would take the ocean to a certain cove near Corcovado, near Llorona. Then they would hike for hours to wherever they had made their camp. I remember Beto himself was not an extremely poor person. He had a house he owned in San Isidro del General, maybe a little pulpería. It’s been too long for me to remember details about each one of them, but he qualified to be paid for everything he had and to be given transportation back to his house in Pérez Zeledón. He didn’t qualify to get anything else, let’s say a lot somewhere else. ITCO’s rules were very strict about landless people, not to make people richer but to get them out of extreme poverty. He was also a loud speaker, like Evo. He would scream at meetings. We called him Bullas, noises, because he could scream loud. He was a very nice person also and became my friend. I don’t know whether he is still alive today or not. That attitude, to tell you the truth, of sitting there being quiet and being their friend was my direct experience with many of them. Beto Bullas was one of the leaders. Evo was one of the leaders. They had formed a committee, and they had sort of sub-committees. Remember it was a big park. People from 166 families were spread out over these 40,000 ha or more area. Along the coast, Evo lived in this little house, if you can call it a house, near the mouth of the Llorona River, and Beto lived 3 or 4 hours into the forest behind the laguna. And the other leader that I can remember now, was Félix Avellán, who owned Sirena, owned the airport, the landing portrero, the landing cattle field [the landing strip] in Sirena. And Marenko, Félix and Marenko. I’m trying to remember his name, but his last name was Marenko. He lived about an hour and half or two hours hike into the forest. They were the big ones. And I mean big ones. They had hundreds if not thousands of [hectares of] land that they called theirs. Those guys left the park with checks of millions in their hats when they finally left. Right now I clearly remember Avellán, Marenko, Evo and Beto Bullas as four leaders of different districts so to speak of the park, but there were more than those. I don’t remember right now who they were. They all were settlers and hunters; they were logging to turn the forest into farms, some of those second farms, second properties. Some of them just settlers, with nothing else outside, some of them were speculating with land. They would clear it up, make it better in their eyes and sell it to somebody who wanted a farm, not a piece forest. So there were all kinds of humans there, from the very poor people with nothing outside to speculators and then second property owners or at least they were trying to become second property owners, 160 made or half-made properties which amounted to about 5% of the park. Nothing huge from the air, but if you put it all together 5% of 40,000 hectares is a quite a bit land, pieces that obviously closed very quickly after they left and it went back to [being] forest. Their presence there, not only legally impossible, but also from the ecological perspective and the objectives of the park they couldn’t remain there. There were too many, they were logging, hunting, etc. simply working against the principles of conservation there.

I remember this particular man, Rojas from Pérez Zeledón, on the other side of Sirena, actually on the side of Llorona, not too far from Evo’s house, across the Llorona River. The Llorona River is a beautiful river, the mouth is just beautiful to swim there. His property was in front of a beautiful rock, called Arch Rock, a beautiful arch made out of rock, just as the trail to the north to San Pedrillo, Drake area, begins. You hike that trail, and you see trees that you have never seen before, in terms of the height. Incredible... beautiful trees, not in the swamps, but in the hill there next to the beach... oh, and a waterfall, coming right into the beach from the forest... a paradise. There is no other word for it. One day I was walking somewhere and happened to go to the mouth of the Llorona. I saw this beautiful, beautiful lady there, green or blue eyes, white as if an amazon, as we see them in movies, a really voluptuous beautiful lady, and a kid. They were sitting in the river there. So I approached and met Maria for the first time, Maria Rojas, daughter of señor Rojas, and her son. Through them, I met her father. He was the first person who said, “Don Alvaro, I agree with what you are doing. Please take my property and make it into your headquarter. If you can, pay me later.” That was our first... I breathed with relief because I could say now that I had a few square meters base in the park. The rest was claimed by somebody, except the lagoon and the beach of course. It was obviously the wrong place to have a base, but at least we could land a kilometer or two on the other side of the river. I remember we were trying to put better water and building something because he didn’t have anything but a little thatched roof thing. I almost stepped on a huge terciopelo, two meters long. A huge thing. I never seen a terciopelo so close to my feet and there were dangers like that. This señor Rojas was a farmer from Pérez Zeledón. Maria, I learned, was an educated person. She went into having restaurants in Pérez and San José, crepe restaurants. Her little son, whose name I don’t remember but I have seen him a lot on television these days, he went to Mexico and became an actor in Mexico, in soap operas and maybe movies too. He became a star for different reasons. His grandfather became a star to me for conservation reasons. I remember I was able to pay him something later but obviously he didn’t own any land. He was right on the zona marítima. Nobody can have title there. Years later, when I got a prize, the Getty Prize from WWF which carried $25,000. To me, that was a fortune. It was 8.5 colones per dollar. It was a real fortune. I remember that I thought I was so rich that I wondered “What do I do with this money?”. Mario Boza immediately said, “ Of course, I am going to put it in the bank and make interest out of it.” “Hm, OK.” I wanted to create prizes with my humongous wealth. I put it in the bank, make interest, out of the interest a prize for the best neighbor of the park system , a prize for the best ranger; there were four or five prizes that I expected to get out of the interest of my $25000. You can imagine how naïve I was. I actually created the prizes, put it in the bank. Years later, I realized that was a mistake, it was not really that much money, maybe a $100 for each one. It was very hard to find... to compete for the best neighbor of the park system. It wasn’t just Corcovado. It was a bit noisy to compete who was the best ranger of the year, so on and so forth. So I decided to eliminate all this nonsense and buy computers for the park service. That’s how my Getty money ended up. Of course, nobody had seen those strange apparatus in those offices, this was 1983. Mario, of course, now can count the millions he has got out of those $25,000 and I envy him because I don’t have any money (laughter). The impact of computerized work in the park system really was a pioneer thing and caused a second order change for us in many respects, slowly but obviously we were preparing for the twenty first century by doing that and I don’t regret it at all. I do remember handing out a few prizes, to Mr. Rojas and others. That was the end of my philanthropy in that sense (laughter).

Sr. Marenko, the other leader of the committee, had large property adjacent to a river a couple hours hike from Sirena, Río Pavo. It’s right on the trail that goes from Sirena to the other side of the peninsula. It goes to another ranger station in the hills called Los Patos. That was where Marenko’s farm was. He was a chunky, tough man, was not as loud and as screamy as the others. He was serious and he really got my respect, a very nice person but very tough. I can see why people respected him so much. He had a wife, a bunch of children and a bunch of sisters, doña Braulia, who lived down the beach toward Llorona with her own farm. That was a clan, still a clan. I ran into them when I went back to Osa five years ago, not with him, but his descendants who were kids back then. Felix was the other one. He wasn’t that involved with the cause of the others squatters. He was the wealthiest person in the region. He not only had this few thousand hectare chunk, what is the Sirena Station today, but he owned the airport there, and hundreds of cows, hundreds of pigs, and the commissary, which is like the equivalent of a pulpería or minisuper in the midst of Corcovado. People hiked for hours to come and buy stuff from him. Where the big building is today, that’s where his comisariato was. He also owned thousands of hectares in the Rio Oro. When you come from Puerto Jiménez to Carate, the last part in the lowlands after the hilly part of the road, you come to Rio Oro, there was a school, another airport, and another comisariato. He was the butcher; he would kill cows and sell them. He was a real big shot there. He probably brought close to 30, if not more, people to this planet. He did it with several women. I knew part of it then and know better now how many children he had, how many ladies, etc. etc. He was tough [about] being paid for everything he had done. If a fence post was not counted, he would make sure I would count all the fence posts. Actually he came back with another suit against us because we had not paid a few rotten fence posts that he had hidden behind the trees. We had to pay him more because of that. I didn’t want to argue with these people, just want to get them out of the way, for their sake and for my sake, especially for the sake of the park. Quite interesting, it was a series of negotiations with the congressmen. And the congressmen elected one of them[selves] as my contact, the liaison between these committees in the park and the park service and the rest of congressmen. At some point, I have to try to dig up his name. I don’t remember now. He was suddenly behind the idea of the park, but even more on the defense of the squatters and their rights and justice, and I couldn’t have wanted any more than that, because I really needed and wanted for justice to be made, so that we could keep the thing forever.

The head of ITCO then was a man we should build a statue to. I have honored him on occasions. Don Jose Manuel Salazar Navarrete is his name. He is still alive. His deputy, the second in command at ITCO was Don Rodrigo Chavez, now passed away. These two men adored President Oduber. They adored me and they adored the parks, and everything was yes, yes, yes. Millions and millions of colones or dollars that that institution put in order to make Corcovado a reality and other parks. One of the big expropriations they did to give land to the landless, they gave the park service a gift of Carara. Simply a gift. They called and said, “You want a park? You can have it.” Six thousand hectares of Carara was a gift from them. I didn’t ask for anything. I said, “What the hell is that?” They took me to see it, and I fell in love with Carara, luckily, because it has the second largest population of scarlet macaws in the country. Going back to him, he was a tough decision maker, a very efficient decision maker, a very good friend of President Oduber, and definitely paved the road for everything else that followed, sent his teams and came up with a budget to pay them, to transport them, to give them food or money for a few months for them to settle, purchased the farms on the other side of the peninsula to move those who had the right to get land in exchange for leaving for the park, etc. etc. So a series of appraisals began to flourish. Then of course, the arguments “No, we don’t take that amount of money. It’s more than that.” Then, a second wave of appraisals, maybe a third wave of appraisals but finally the government had to make a decision. “You have to take it or leave it. We can’t keep going up and up, appraisal after appraisal. I don’t know how far you want to go, but this is what you’re worth and what your land is worth, and you will get land here. The rest will get on planes and boats and leave. One of the promises was to feed them for three months because... before they left... feed them until they left. This is inside the park, and then help them a month or two more to accommodate. The first decision I made was a BIG mistake, was to give them directly the food. Hah! I should have thought more about that. We, the park service buying rice and beans and meat and eggs, then trying to distribute it to close to two hundred people scattered throughout the park? Illogical, but we did it, until some intelligence came to our mind, “Why don’t we just give them the money and have them buy the food the way they’ve always done it? Oh my goodness, that’s a good idea.” That was easier but dangerous. Let’s say I had one or two million or three million in my desk, and we’re trying to put money in envelopes. Humans doing this? That was dangerous, but I had to trust my people, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to do it and probably some things were wrong. The trick to be able to do that, have money in my desk, deliver to them, and have them sign a receipt, was because I asked the President to declare Corcovado a national emergency situation, a public disaster or a national disaster area, which it was. It was part of a park system, not just a little old park down there. I asked the President to sign it for three months, then again for three months, then again for three months until somebody said, “Hey, can’t do it anymore.” That declaration gave me what it gives Bush today and any presidents, and that is the freedom to act, because that is what the law says. You don’t have to go to the comptroller-general. You don’t have to write a budget. What is today the Comisión Nacional de Emergencia, the National Emergency Commission, was called something different back then, but it was the same stuff. They would get the millions, and they would pass it on to me with checks, and I would cash the check, put the money on the table, put it in envelopes and give it to them. Wow! I don’t know how I am still free, because as I said, very dangerous. But that’s the way it was done. That was Jose Manuel Salazar Navarrete. That was President Oduber, trusting us, me, in full.

The one meeting I remember and the one instruction from don Manuel Salazar... I remember once his people and I were carrying 30 million colones, which was huge back then, in checks in a little suit case. That was the first attempt to give checks away, and to have the squatters to accept, which would have been the beginning of the end. I remember him telling us, “This is the strategy. Take this money there and have a nice trip, but I instruct you, beg you, to try to break the corn grains off the cob. That would be a successful trip. Don’t come back to me with 100% of the checks.” I remember we almost crashed in the car as we were leaving to the airport. It was with the brake screeching (simulating screeching noise) and I said “Oh God, we have 30 million colones.” I didn’t even think of ourselves. So we flew there, and we had the meeting at the mouth of the Rio Claro. As he instructed us, we put the checks on the table. We just told them “Here is a check for each one of you. If you are interested, I don’t even remember whether we read to them the list of the amount, but some of the members, the most loud members were screaming, “Nobody takes a check. Nobody takes a check. We don’t accept those checks.” I sat under the tree on the ground just waiting. They were insulting the ITCO people, government and everybody. I was sleepy myself. It was going on for an hour, then two hours and nobody took a check, until somebody said “Oh, the heck with it. Give me my check.” So the others came to him to stop him and grab him. We intervened and said “Wait a minute. This is a democracy. It’s fine that you don’t take it, but let him take his check.” “Me too! Me too!” Then a line formed to get the checks. We breathed in so much. I don’t think we had any checks left. That’s how the cob was beginning to break and then it was all pretty much down hill. The rest, of course, many arguments, others didn’t want their checks, and others got the check and then got drunk and lost it all, all kinds of things happened. The toughest process, well I don’t mean physically, but the toughest was then to get them all out of the park. Those that have received the check, as we had promised, got them transportation to wherever they wanted to go. That was costly. It was hard to put them in little airplanes, boats, etc. We decided to pay for the cows and the pigs, so we wouldn’t have to take them along. We would deal with that after the humans left. It was pretty good though. I imagine, we have no data, but with 160 hunters, scattered around the park, most jaguars, most pigs, most everything had been killed off. Actually, one the pictures that really moved me, it was depressing, was of a killing not made by them, but a killing made by people from San Jose who could afford a plane, land on the beach of the park, go in with machine guns and kill an entire group of pigs. Then they lined them up and took a nice picture of eighty pigs, dead. So, take these killers, and then take the families of the squatters, I imagine the population of animals must have been pretty much diminished. We left lots of meat for them to grow back, especially for the jaguars. Cows and pigs were there and they were eaten up. It was very easy to encounter pieces of skulls of cows eaten by the jaguars. Their population grew back very fast, up to the point when Eduardo Carrillo came back to record the high population of pigs and jaguars. Then the problems came back in the future. Later I remember that we were able to sell some cows and pigs left behind, and the rest stayed as food for the jaguars. Nothing was left after 3 or 4 years, maybe 5, when this land began to restore itself and the [wild animal] populations as well. I don’t know what else to say about all these people because my memory has kind of faded as to particular characters.