Postcard #14 from Costa Rica: A Biodiversity Superpower

A titi or squirrel monkey, the rarest in Costa Rica,  Terraba Sierpe Mangrove, Osa Peninsula
A titi or squirrel monkey, the rarest in Costa Rica, Terraba Sierpe Mangrove, Osa Peninsula

How did it happen?

How did Costa Ricans (Ticos) come to protect 28% of their country from development, to have a national park system that biologist Peter Raven has called “one of the great accomplishments of the human race over the last thirty years?” To have 6% of the world’s biodiversity, to be a superpower both in species and ecosystems (900 different bird species, 250 species of mammals, 800 species of ferns), when it’s such a small country, covering only 0.03% of the earth’s surface, smaller than Nova Scotia?

The first answer we heard was that it started when Daniel Oduber, the country’s president from 1974-1978, saw a turtle half-killed by a poacher, her lower carapace missing, her entrails trailing as she struggled to lay her eggs on a beach.

Actually, Daniel wasn’t the first.

As we found out, by accident. In a hotel we didn’t want to stay in, in the hippie hamlet of Montezuma we didn’t want to be in. (Our chosen hotel, Ylang Ylang, a short distance away, was full that night.)

On the outdoor stairwell wall leading up to our room, we noticed sepia photographs of a local couple, Karen Mogenson and Olof (also called Nicolas) Wessberg (also spelled Weissenburg), with faded news copy commending their efforts to preserve Costa Rica’s biodiversity.

That led us to Moon guide’s recommendation of David Wallace’s The Quetzal and the Macaw, where we discovered how this Scandinavian couple kickstarted Costa Rica’s land preservation soon after they arrived to the Nicoya Peninsula in 1955.

Nature lovers, entranced by the howler and capuchin monkeys, the Wessbergs bought a steep piece of jungle near Cabo Blanco, at first living off the land, then gradually planting a fruit orchard. Early hippies. In December 1960, they noticed a nearby square of jungle had been axed. On Boxing Day Olaf wrote an appeal that was published four months later in the American magazine World League Against Vivisection. Even before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) there was a new willingness in the US to support the environment—and the Wessbergs were the first to attract American capital to Costa Rica for this purpose. The Philadelphia Conservation League stepped up first, followed by the Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy and Friends of Nature. By springtime, government biologists from San José, Costa Rica’s capital, were surveying the area’s suitability for a nature preserve. In less than two years, Costa Rica dedicated 1,250 hectares to Reserva Natural Absoluta Cabo Blanco.

It’s not as if things went smoothly for the next seventy years.

Olof had to go to San José twenty-three times because the government never answered his letters. Although Costa Rica had declared two “paper parks” in 1939, no money was allocated to them. When wardens were sent to Cabo Blanco, more than a few of them cut down trees and killed monkeys. Between 1950-1990 one-half of the country’s forest cover was burned to clear pasture for cattle. Ranchers from the north sent gangs of workmen to chainsaw the land. Development began in the 1960s, mostly logging and rice cultivation.

In 1969 the government, led by José Joaquín Antonio Trejos Fernández, mandated a park system, albeit under the Agriculture ministry, and made Mario Boza, at the tender age of only 27, its first fledgling director. Mario had gotten the government’s attention. After a scholarship enabled him to visit a national park in the Smoky Mountains, he wrote an editorial in the local paper saying he thought Costa Rica should be establishing national parks. Personally, he knew José Figueres, the unprecedented three-term president of Costa Rica (his last term was 1970-1974) who instituted many major reforms, including abolition of the armed forces. (Costa Rica to this day has no army.) Although the president wasn’t especially interested in national parks, First Lady Karen Figueres was, and deserves much of the credit for her influence on her husband’s good work in this field. Even with her encouragement, Mario’s proposal to create a national park in the Osa Peninsula (“a 2,400 hectare mini Galapagos”) failed to get government support. A Japanese company wanted to buy the forest and grid it into chips to pack stereos. An American firm wanted to start a huge citrus plantation on logged area. Squatters were killing tapirs for fun. Wealthy Americans wanted to build homes and dredge for a marina…

And then in 1975 Olaf was murdered.

Olaf had gone to the Osa to look for wild avocado trees to graft onto his orchard stock. But as David Wallace writes, “He probably also wanted to add his voice to the rising chorus of alarm about the situation.” Olaf was murdered by a guide he hired, quite likely a hitman hired by opponents to the creation of Corcorvado Park.

In 1979 Mario finally convinced the government to set up the National Parks Foundation with five board members: himself, Alvaro Ugalde (a gregarious biologist who went on to serve as park service director for two decades), José Maria Rodriguez, Pedro Leon and Luis Diego Gomez. Mario’s goal was,“Not simply to preserve remnant wildlife and scenery for sentiment and recreation—as park systems have traditionally done—but to perpetuate all of Costa Rica’s biological resources—habitats and ecosystems as well as scenery and wildlife.”

Mario and Alvaro recognized the need to hire local people not just Joséfinos. They organized a system of regional conservation units. They attracted UNESCO’s interest and created La Amistad Biosphere Reserve. Their ultimate goal was to maintain Central America as an ecological bridge. As Alvaro said years later, “We were influenced by biologists, not just a few park planners from the U.S. So recreation and scenery were secondary.” Today, Costa Rica counts twenty-eight national parks and reserves, three that are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Forest cover increased to 51% by 2005, up from 21% in 1987. About one-third of the country’s landmass is under some form of protection.

So where did the government get the money to purchase all this land for national parks?

To develop the first visitor centre (at Poas National Park), Costa Rica negotiated a 1.8 million loan from the Central American Bank of Economic Integration—the first such loan in Latin America. In 1981 they received $300,000 from the Caribbean Conservation Corporation and ~$5,000 from the World Wildlife Foundation. Six years later Costa Rica completed its first debt swap for $5.4 million worth of credits. Strategically, they encouraged private reserves. Two of the finest in the country are La Selve, owned by the Organization of Tropical Studies, and Monteverde (where Magellan and I spent three happy days), owned by the Tropical Science Centre. And as we’ve talked about in so many other “Postcards from Costa Rica,” in every place we stayed—albeit some more than others—the owners have established wildlife preserves, replanted with indigenous species and are encouraging responsible tourism. Including Karen Wessburg, who after Olaf’s death moved into Montezuma and operated her own small hotel—now the site of the Sano Banano Hotel where Magellan and I stayed—while working to the end of her days on preserving Costa Rica’s biodiversity. In her honour, Asepaleco, a communal non-profit association for conservation and environmental education, established The Karen Mogensen Nature Reserve in the mountains of the Nicoya Peninsula, 960 hectares of protected land and an additional 12,000 hectares of secondary forest surrounding the reserve.

As is so often the case, no one woman (or man, or however one identifies oneself as a human) deserves the credit for Costa Rica being called “the living Eden” by scientists and naturalists around the world—it is the result of an intelligent diversity of characters, public and private, local and foreign, then and now. Including thousands whose names are missing in our story.

How refreshing—perhaps even more today—to hear Alvaro’s words, a philosophy we here in Canada, locally, provincially and nationally, would do well to heed:

I will not resort to tourism as a way to maintain parks. Management of the ecosystems in parks in perpetuity is the Park Service’s main goal. My personal goal is get public and government recognition of the parks program, so that when the average citizen says ‘park,’ he doesn’t just think recreation. The word should call to mind the complex of values associated with maintaining life support systems within the parks. What I want is for every citizen in this country to see parks on the same level as health, education, and defense.


UPDATE: Costa Rica is a leading country in another area: healthcare. Read “The Costa Rica Model” by Atul Gawande in The New Yorker, August 20, 2021.

Baker, Christopher. Costa Rica. Berkely: Avalon Travel, 2015. An early advocate of independent travel (1973) and written by journalists who have lived in the countries they write about, Moon guidebooks are our favourite.

Wallace, David Rains. The Quetzal and the Macaw. SFO; Sierra Club Books, 1992. A superb read of the early development of Costa Rica’s national parks and bio reserves.

Agneta Tjäder, Agnetea and Tidning, Ulricehamns. “Olaf Wessberg, the Founder of the Cabo Blanco Na􏰀tional Park.”Aug 8, 2000. For more photos of Karen and Olof and their life, this article, translated from  Swedish to English, is an interesting read.



8 Responses

  1. Don’t forget Alvaro Umana, the first Minister of Environment under Oscar Arias (1986 – 1990). He oversaw the implementation of many of the reforms (like debt to nature swap) responsible for the forestation cover going from 23 percent in 1986 to more than 50 percent today.

  2. Indeed some fantastic species of birds, mammals-reptiles and fauna extraordinaire.

    Mother Nature has provided us all with a wealth of living species to protect and preserve, let us not squander the opportunity to insure that future generations have the same options.

    Keep in mind that Canada has much to offer and needs just as much effort to protect and preserve.

    Cheers to summer 👍👍

    1. Agreed. Our city park board has a development division! Quite the opposite of Alvaro’s words. Parks shouldn’t have to mean primarily tourism and recreation. Why can’t we, as he says, “see parks on the same level as health, education, and defense?”

    1. We were very lucky that during our first week in Costa Rica we were part of two guided wildlife tours by Backcountry Journeys. Ben, our very knowledgeable leader and photographer who lives part-time in Costa Rica, was joined by local guides in each region who knew exactly where and when (including very early morning and after dark) we would have the best chance of viewing birds, animals and insects. It made it a lot easier for us during the next three weeks on our own to be more observant and able to photograph birds and animals that weren’t even seen by other resort guests.

  3. These 14 postcards (and the literally hundreds of fantastic photos) have really given us an understanding why so many friends and family love this paradise. From a salesman that worked for me (in the late 90s was the largest single winner of the lottery in Canada) and renounced his Canadian citizenship to become Costa Rican, to our dear friend Glenn Taylor who has found Costa Rica his salvation after a devastating auto accident, we have been reminded how special this place is for so many. Thank you for all your hard work in presenting this amazing .03% of the earth’s surface to all of us. Pat & Dallas

    1. So glad you enjoyed it. We haven’t told you about the tumeric ice-cream we ate there, the capital city’s highlights and so much more. One more article may appear outside the Postcard Series, a picture you don’t want to see that Magellan is calling “It Hertz.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



The Feminine in Granada

The other day I was seeding a pomegranate, such a sensual fruit with its ruby-red arils clustered together. It got me thinking about Granada, the

Read More »

Any Doubts, Any Questions?

Every time we do a posting about Bhutan, I sense our guide Namgyel thinking to himself, “After all those dzongs, temples, monasteries and chortens I

Read More »
Art & Architecture

A Natural Souvenir from Bhutan

Remember when we were younger travellers and spent hours looking for souvenirs for ourselves and our friends and family? If you’re like us, you’ve stopped

Read More »

Away for Thanksgiving

Rolling and rising across the country, the fourth wave of the pandemic and the wake it’s leaving behind is dampening not only our travel, but

Read More »