image of Alvaro Ugalde climbing hill

In Others’ Words

Steven I. Apfelbaum & Susan M. Lehnhardt

May 9, 2015

Alvaro – Our Very Own “Yoda”

Susan and I looked so much forward annually to being with Alvaro, Arturo and others on what had become annual trips to Costa Rica.

Story #1: Firm and Resolute Regulator

My first encounter with Alvaro was a remarkable experience. He was working for MINEAT on Osa peninsula projects. We were working on behalf of a developer from Minnesota who unknowingly purchased an inholding in the marine whale park near Dominical. The developer asked us to put together a development plan for their own private “Nature Park” that included one home and then access to the beach. They wanted to protect the rare primary forest, and wild cliffs and beach zones, and restore degraded areas of the property.

We prepared a very sensitive site development plan that was focused on honoring the concession boundaries except for giving beach access, which was insisted on by the developer. We presented the concept to Alvaro (after three attempts to get a meeting with him) and he said no development should occur on the site, even in the area not controlled by the country, in the protected set back from the shoreline. He said, “This is a property that needs be added to the marine whale park and should not be developed in any way”.

In spite of the overly sensitive development design and commitments to restoration of many of the existing degraded areas on the land, Alvaro was firm and resolute in his conviction on the best use for the property. I immediately recognized this and suggested to the developer to pull the application and work on a donation plan for the land to the parks department.

Seldom in my nearly forty years of doing conservation and conservation development type projects have I met a regulator that exuded the resolute convictions, and sense of what’s right, as Alvaro. I truly appreciated this decisive and clear direction.

Of course the developer was left in a quandary with an expensive piece of property and sought solutions to recover their investment. But, they too were conservationists and began a process to do more to protect the land.

Story #2: “Yoda” the Watershed Guru (or “Charming his way to breakfast with Doña Abigail”)

Alvaro spent his last two weeks of employment with MINEAT attending a course a group of us taught through the University of Vermont, during January, at Playa Junquillal, near Liberia. The class led by Will Raap, was focused on watershed restoration and entrepreneurialism. Because of the watershed sciences being taught and because Alvaro was going to shift over to watershed work with Nectandra Institute he asked if he could become a student again to learn more about watershed sciences. We gladly allowed him to do so. Alvaro was a great student and when it became time to go out and meet individual landowners in the watershed to talk about their interest and role in improving/restoring the watershed, Alvaro really shined. One of the most important meetings was with doña Abigail, the matriarch who operated a restaurant along the Andamojo River in the watershed. As a restaurant owner, with very good appreciated food by the locals, we wanted to see if doña Abigail was interested in serving as leader to help organize other landowners in the watershed around restoration. Twenty of us assumed our positions and sat on the concrete patio outside the front door of doña Abigail’s home along the main road into Playa Junquillal and watched and listened intently to Alvaro and doña Abigail. Alvaro easily stepped into the interpreter role while most of us who were marginally Spanish literate listened on. We would offer questions to Alvaro – how has the river changed since she was a child growing up on the river? Have her children moved away from the community? Does the restaurant serve fish from the river? When did the forested mountains get logged and what happened to the river when that occurred? Did she notice changes in species of wildlife after the logging and has the river changed?

For what seemed like hours, Alvaro and doña Abigail were deeply involved in conversation around our questions. Every once in awhile Alvaro would come up for air and look over at us and utter a few words suggesting they were working through our questions. Often they would seem to be entertaining themselves with laughter and would both look around at our curious faces, knowing we didn’t get the joke between them.

“Roseate spoonbill birds used to be here and used the freshwater wetlands that were filled in when eroded mud from the logged mountains filled in the valley bottom in the 1960’s. Doña Abigail wants her river back and wants to entice Roseate spoonbill birds back”, he said.

“Her kids moved away when the fish and freshwater shrimp disappeared and the river became intermittent. Doña Abigail wants her river and her children back”, he said.

Then with an abruptness, Alvaro turned to us and said,

How do I explain to her what a watershed is? She thinks it’s the row of trees growing along the river itself. Should I tell her it starts at the very tippy top of the mountain ridges on either side of the valley?

“Yes”, we agreed, “It includes all of the land that the rain falls upon that is tributary to the Andamojo River and the ground water beneath the river valley.” After what seemed like another 20-30 minutes of their conversation and laughter, he emerged again, turning to us and said, “She wants to see where her watershed starts.” This conversation started a journey for Alvaro in communicating about watersheds.

Doña Abigail opened her restaurant for all of us, cooking us breakfast. As we sat at the restaurant tables, Alvaro was catching us up on the conversation. But, as each plate of food was delivered Alvaro and doña Abigail would again take up conversation with the latest curiosity she may have had about watersheds. In the end, we never really understood what was fully communicated between them. We didn’t understand the bursts of laughter they shared, which occurred regularly in the conversation.

One thing for sure is that doña Abigail and Alvaro had become good friends. Over the years nearly every time we stopped to have a meal at the restaurant, doña Abigail would ask us about Alvaro. “Where is Alvaro?”, “Where is your funny bald-headed friend?” she would ask. Occasionally, if the restaurant wasn’t busy, she would sit down with us and say, “So tell me about Alvaro.” Was he really with the Costa Rican government? Where does he live?

We told her, “Alvaro has become a “watershed guru” like “Yoda” from the Star Wars movie. Alvaro now teaches others about watersheds. You were his first student, doña Abigail.”

Story #3: Alvaro Meets Roger

In Madison, WI at the Society of Ecological Restoration international conference, I had the honor to help organize and moderate a session with Alvaro and Roger Labine, a Native American from Michigan. As is customary, Roger thought it appropriate to share a gift of friendship with Alvaro prior to each of them telling their story. Standing on the stage, Alvaro introduced himself to Roger in Spanish and then translated this into English, while I and the crowd of 500 participants intently looked on. Alvaro handed Roger Costa Rican coffee to which Roger thanked him.

Then Roger turned and faced Alvaro and spoke in his native America language. Alvaro’s eyes lit up, as he had never before heard such a language spoken. Then Roger handed Alvaro a plastic bag with hand-processed wild rice, which Roger had harvested. As Roger finished the introduction in his native language, Alvaro was looking at the gift trying to figure out what it was.

Then Roger presented to Alvaro and the crowd, the English translation. He finished the translation, saying, “Alvaro, I have given you a gift of Menomin, which is a sacred food of our people.” “This Menomin is called “wild rice” and I have harvested it from Lac Vieu Desert, a place where my people have lived for thousands of years. I give you and your family this gift from our land.”

Alvaro looked very sincerely curious and looked at Roger and said, “What do I do with it?” Roger said, “You eat it.” “Oh,” Alvaro responded.

Thus was the introduction to a wonderful presentation they each gave on the relationship between indigenous persons and ecosystem restoration. Alvaro and Roger had to reconcile their perspectives because Roger’s role is as the keeper of the wild rice knowledge and tradition in his tribal group, where restoration is absolutely required to bring back wild rice, and to restore the relationship between his people and the land. Alvaro’s life work was focused on protecting conservation worthy lands and reconciling the need to do restoration in Costa Rica had more recently become a tangible part of his mindset and vernacular.

The presentation they provided was very touching and well received. Many participants came up with questions after the presentation.

Steven I. Apfelbaum & Susan M. Lehnhardt
Juda, Wisconsin