image of Alvaro Ugalde climbing hill

In Others’ Words

R. Michael Wright

December 3, 2015

I first met Alvaro Ugalde in mid-1975 shortly after starting the International Program at The Nature Conservancy (with funding from WWF) and went to Costa Rica representing both organizations to explore the possibility of the creation of Corcovado National Park. Alvaro and I had numerous interactions—large and small—over the subsequent three decades but Corcovado was the physical and emotional heart of our relationship. Since retiring I have been writing up personal memoirs of my professional life to share with my children. The Corcovado chapter (attached as a separate document) describes my futile attempts to get Jay Pritzker to donate the OPF land on the Osa Peninsula for the park and of Alvaro and my struggles to raise the funds to address the squatter issues even before the park was declared. Happily I got back in touch with Alvaro in 2013 to ground truth my memory, correct an admittedly egocentric document and supplement my parochial perspective from Washington with his harsher reality on the ground. After the intensity of the Corcovado years, our careers diverged as I began to work in Africa and Asia but much of how I worked over the subsequent period was impacted by the insights I gained from this remarkable man and dear friend.

Alvaro’s remarkable life and leadership in Costa Rica is, I suspect, relatively well recognized but there at least two critical conservation impacts outside the country where Alvaro played a key role and may be less well known.

In the midst of the maelstrom that accompanied Corovado’s birth, Alvaro answered our plea that he fly to Washington DC to become a key member of a team of us working to amend the US Foreign Assistance Act. The result of that effort was what came to be known as Section 118 authorizing USAID for the first time to support conservation projects overseas. Alvaro was also critical in enlisting President Oduber’s engagement in that effort which gave it gravitas and helped overcome the complaint of one key geriatric congressman that he was tired of being lobbied by members of the “children’s crusades”. Ah we were all younger in those days. The fact that so much was at stake on the Osa and yet Alvaro was willing to take the time to help make changes that ultimately bore fruit in many other parts of the world says much about his commitment to conservation where ever found.

The second event was what was to become the Silver Bank Whale Sanctuary off the north coast of the Dominican Republic. In 1982, a group of us were working to establish a sanctuary for the 2,000-3,500 humpback whales that wintered on Silver and Navidad Banks. To further the cause, WWF was bringing key scientists from the Dominican Republic to assess the relatively inaccessible site. I asked Alvaro if he would be willing to join us on a leaky 100-year-old three masted ship, the Regina Maris, which was conducting whale research on the Banks. The rest of us might as well have stayed at home as Alvaro passionately argued the case for the sanctuary. Alvaro was especially credible rebutting the doubts of the Dominicans about whether “a small country” like the Dominican Republic could take on such a large project. Costa Rica was equally small, Alvaro insisted; he would have none of it. As was always the case, there were twists and turns before the sanctuary was finally declared in 1986 but I firmly believe that it was Alvaro’s engagement—his professional credibility and his passionate advocacy—at those critical first moments that launched the project.

In the Corcovado chapter, I describe Alvaro as effervescent and indeed he was but he also wrestled with what Churchill called the black dog. He was a three-dimensional human being and was always open and honest about all that life had thrown at him. He was first and foremost a professional but he was never afraid to show his human side, and over the years I’ve come to realize how truly rare that is.

Alvaro seemed to have an unquenchable passion for conservation, and I suspect that some of us on occasion abused his willingness to do whatever the cause demanded. He was a rare and, I now realize, nonrenewable resource that should have been saved only for those special moments. His sudden loss is an aching hurt but I simply can’t imagine Alvaro ever retiring and so perhaps his remarkable life has ended as it should have—too soon, but engaged to the very last moment. We will not see his like again but the world is vastly richer for him having walked on and cared deeply for this earth.

image of Michael Wright and Alvaro

R. Michael Wright, Alvaro in Corcovado National Park (1976)

image of sailing ship

Regina Maris sailing ship (1982)

image of Alvaro on sailing ship

Alvaro on Regina Maris)