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Threats to the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor

Preface -- Threats to the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor

In February 1972, I first visited a ranch called Hacienda Barú, located on the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica. At that time, about half of the land had been deforested and was being used for grazing cattle and growing rice. The other half, approximately 170 hectares, was tropical rain forest, one of the few, large forest reserves left in this part of the country. My wife Diane, our four old daughter Natalie and I had moved to Costa Rica in December of 1970. Our son Chris was born in San Jose in May of 1972. Between 1976 and 1978, I worked full time at the hacienda, commuting weekly between there and San Jose. Then the whole family moved to Hacienda Barú. For eight years we lived without ordinary conveniences, such as electricity, telephones and all-weather roads, that many people consider to be basic necessities of life.

After having grown up in the typical, pampered lifestyle of upper-middle class America, the experience of living and raising a family in rural Costa Rica was sometimes trying, sometimes frustrating, usually fulfilling and never boring. The children thrived, Diane survived, and I found myself drawn ever deeper into the fascinating realm of tropical ecology, while at the same time, losing interest in livestock and farming.

The year 1979 marked the beginning of a long period of transition for Hacienda Barú. Thirty hectares of grazing land was retired as pasture and allowed to regenerate naturally into secondary forest. In the tropics, when you quit chopping the weeds, land quickly reverts to jungle. Today, 90% of the hacienda has been restored to natural habitat, and farming and ranching are no longer practiced. It has been officially designated, by the president of Costa Rica as Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge and has the same protected status as a national park. The refuge is known internationally and is visited by people from many different countries.

The year 1986 was a milestone in the history of the region. Electrical lines made their appearance and the road from San Isidro, 37 kilometers away was paved. Additionally, the bridge across the Barú River was completed, shortening the driving distance to the small town of Dominical by seven kilometers. This was significant in terms of our daily life because the only telephone in the region was located there. All of these welcome conveniences, however, came at a cost. Development always brings environmental problems, and the impact of our new infrastructure and the influx of people, was felt throughout the region. In response to increased environmental pressures, a group of 17 concerned local citizens banded together and formed a vigilante committee with the objective of controlling illegal hunting and logging. From its humble beginnings that group has evolved into the most important environmental organization in the region. Today it is known as ASANA, and it is the primary force behind a project called the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor.

It was from these years of experience that I drew the substance for a series of essays that I began writing in the year 2000. These were published by several local English language monthlies including "Quepolandia," from Quepos, "PZ Guide," from San Isidro and the, now defunct, "Dominical Current," formerly published in Dominical. Monkeys are Made of Chocolate is a collection of thirty of those essays.

While reviewing the articles and thinking about how to fit them together an informative and entertaining collection, it occurred to me that a speech I had given at the opening of a seminar sponsored by ASANA on May 27, 2000 and entitled "Workshop for the Identification of Threats to the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor," would be an appropirate prelude, aptly setting the stage for the stories. I offer it to you as an introduction to Monkeys are Made of Chocolate. Jack Ewing - June 2003

Distinguished Representatives of The Nature Conservancy, Representatives of MINAE (Costa Rican Environment Ministry,) community representatives, ladies and gentleman: We are gathered today because we recognize that there is a serious problem between man and the environment where he lives and we are searching for solutions. In his book "The Diversity of Life", Dr. Edward O. Wilson said it in words which leave no room for doubt. Dr. Wilson said: Human demographic success has brought the world to this crisis of biodiversity. Human beings--mammals of the 50-kilogram weight class and members of a group, the primates, otherwise noted for scarcity--have become a hundred times more numerous than any other land animal of comparable size in the history of life. By every conceivable measure, humanity is ecologically abnormal. Our species appropriates between 20 and 40 percent of the solar energy captured in organic material by land plants. There is no way that we can draw upon the resources of the planet to such a degree without drastically reducing the state of most other species.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, all of the forests of this zone were primary and in a state of ecological balance and equilibrium. The ecosystem had recovered from the intervention of the pre-Colombian inhabitants 400 years earlier, when agriculture was practiced in conjunction with hunting and the collection of natural products from the jungle.

When the first pioneers arrived in this zone one hundred years ago, wildlife was abundant, and included jaguars, tapirs, peccary, marine turtles, scarlet macaws and more. All of the native tree species of the zone were abundant. Fertile land was abundant. The only thing lacking was the hand of man to put it into production.

The first agriculturists practiced a style of farming similar to the pre-Colombians, enriching their diets with meat from the tapir, agouti paca, and peccary. There were so many fish in the river and in the sea that they did not have any monetary value, and served only as food or for giving away. The land had no monetary value, nor owners, nor boundary markers, nor fences. Agriculture was done in a rotation -- cutting trees, burning, sowing, and abandoning -- moving to any new, unoccupied parcel when the current parcel no longer gave the desired yield.

With time, more people migrated to this zone. They began to mark the possession of property by chopping wide swaths through the jungle. The government offered title to 100 hectares of land for anyone who deforested it and put it into production. More land was deforested and more wildlife was killed. Later the construction of highways facilitated transport of agricultural products and cattle. They brought machinery instead of oxen, chain saws instead of axes, and herbicides instead of machetes. And they deforested more in order to produce more, until today, in the year 2000, one hundred years later, there scarcely remains a fraction of the original forest and the jaguar, the tapir, the white-lipped peccary, the hawksbill and leather back turtles, the scarlet macaw, the manu negro, and the cedro bateo, among others, have disappeared from our zone. And now, we mark our properties with concrete posts, barbed wire fences, walls and wire mesh, and we sell them not by hectares but by square meters.

Thirteen years ago, a small group of neighbors from Dominical, alarmed at the growing destruction of flora and fauna that accompanied the development, gathered in Dominical in order to form a committee to protect the natural environment. This was the birth of ASANA. Ten years ago, we began to speak of a biological corridor. Six years ago we gave the name "Path of the Tapir" to the corridor. Last year, the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor was recognized as part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor.

But before this important recognition, ASANA had already negotiated with The Nature Conservancy in order to carry out a Rapid Ecological Assessment in the area between the Terraba and Savegre rivers. Thanks to generous donations on the part of ASANA members and the United Nations Development Program, the study has been very successful and, is approaching 80% completion. The technical information has already been collected and organized. Today, we are gathered together to hear the preliminary results and exchange ideas between the professionals and community leaders. Then the professionals from The Nature Conservancy will edit the final results of the Rapid Ecological Assessment and elaborate a strategy to consolidate the dream of the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor as a zone where the communities live in harmony with nature.

After a hundred years we have come to the realization that our economic activities have, in many cases, produced grave effects on the environment where we live, that these effects may negatively affect future generations, and that the time has come to correct our errors. We must look for ways to give monetary value to the natural resources in their natural state without damaging or wasting them, ways such as wildlife management plans, butterfly and paca breeding centers, ecological tourism and bio-prospecting for natural medicinal materials. The public must come to recognize that the forests provide natural services such as the production of oxygen and water and that with our right to use these services comes our obligation to protect them. We must investigate new ways to place value on the environment therefore guaranteeing our grandchildren's future.

At the beginning of this speech, I read you the words of Dr. Edward O. Wilson, author of the book "The Diversity of Life". To finish, I would like to leave you with more of Dr. Wilson's words taken from the same work. Dr. Wilson says:

And let us go beyond mere salvage to begin the restoration of natural environments, in order to enlarge wild populations and staunch the hemorrhaging of biological wealth. There can be no purpose more inspiriting than to begin the age of restoration, reweaving the wondrous diversity of life that still surrounds us.

This ladies and gentlemen is the purpose of the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor and reason we are gathered here today. We are here to: "BEGIN THE ERA OF RESTORATION!" Thank you for joining us.


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