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Nature Benefits on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula

By Shane Feyers
Scarlet Macaws by Roy Toft

From the Winter 2019 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

If there is one place that embodies Costa Rica’s national maxim—pura vida, or “pure life”—it is the Osa Peninsula. Because Osa is brimming with life in many forms, a home for more than 450 bird species and 700 tree species, all concentrated into a place that’s half the size of Rhode Island.

Add it all up, and Osa hosts 2.5 percent of the planet’s biodiversity on a peninsula that represents less than 0.0004 percent of the world’s total land area.

Osa is also home to a booming business for nature-based tourism, catered to by dozens of ecolodges. According to a study by University of Florida researcher Beatriz Lopez Gutierrez, tourists come to this forested peninsula jutting into the Pacific Ocean off Costa Rica’s southwestern coast because they are eager to see primates and tropical birds. It’s the only place in Costa Rica to see all four of the country’s types of monkeys in a single forest (white-faced capuchin, howler, squirrel, and endangered spider monkeys). And it’s the best place in Costa Rica to see Scarlet Macaws, which paint the sky above the Osa’s rainforest with vibrant shades of red, yellow, and blue accented with a flourish by their extravagant tail feathers.

Though seldom seen, wild cats also roam the rainforest here. The Osa is one of the last landscapes in Central America to sustain five species of jungle cats—puma, ocelot, margay, jaguar, and jaguarundi (the petite relative of the jaguar). Altogether, Osa offers tourists the chance to see the wildlife of their wildest dreams.

But it wasn’t always this way. Four decades ago the peninsula’s future seemed more like that of the mid-1800s gold rush in the American West, when settlers quickly cleared large tracts of old-growth forests for mining, farming, and timber. Or like the Amazon at present, where agriculture and forest-cutting are turning complex ecosystems and safe havens for endemic species into monocultures for domestic cattle and commodity crops.

Yet today, Osa stands strong as the largest remaining tract of humid lowland rainforest in Pacific Mesoamerica. That’s not by accident—it’s the result of dedicated nature-protection efforts driven by a vision that saw the value in Osa’s natural capital and its wildlife.

On the Osa Peninsula there’s another maxim: “a forest left standing is worth more than one cut down.” It’s the motto of John and Karen Lewis, Osa ecotourism pioneers and founders of Lapa Rios ecolodge—and it encapsulates the mindset that fueled a rainforest revival.

Once a country with nearly 100 percent forest cover, Costa Rica was quickly becoming deforested in the latter part of the 20th century due to logging and development. By the 1980s, Costa Rica’s forest cover was down to less than 30 percent.

On the Osa Peninsula, a wave of settlers from Panama, Nicaragua, and other parts of Costa Rica arrived by the 1960s and began clearing by way of slash-and-burn agriculture. Some came as ranchers looking to raise cattle. Others came in search of riches as a gold rush hit the peninsula. With no roads and only one small town on the coast, these new residents subsisted on the food they grew and wildlife they hunted. Osa gold trader Patrick Jay O’Connell reportedly said that any animals not large enough to defend themselves or fast enough to get away were killed.

Costa Rican conservationist Álvaro Ugalde, known as Father of Costa Rica's National Park System.
Costa Rican conservationist Álvaro Ugalde, known as Father of Costa Rica's National Park System, in Corcovado National Park. Photo courtesy Osa Conservation.

Legendary Costa Rican conservationist Álvaro Ugalde, heralded as the father of the country’s national parks system, could see that Osa’s pristine rainforest was well on its way to being completely destroyed. But he envisioned a future of protection rather than extraction. Ugalde proposed an ecological reserve that would encompass half of the Osa Peninsula. Using his authority as national parks chief and backed by a legislative ruling from the federal government, Ugalde traveled to Osa in the 1970s to see through the eviction of an American forest products company and the compensation and relocation of settlers (farmers and miners who had moved in but held no official titles to the land). Ugalde was making way for what would become Corcovado National Park in 1975. To avoid conflict, the few farmers and miners who resisted were allowed to stay behind to continue their work under promise of using low-impact practices.

In the 1980s the price of gold surged, and the problem of intensive mining returned to the Osa, this time with well-equipped prospectors from North America who brought heavy machinery for dredging and mining. Ugalde, again facing his fear of a felled rainforest, sought more help from Costa Rica’s legal system, now using the authority of the courts to remove everyone operating in the area.

According to Ugalde, the courts’ decisions created a different kind of future for the Osa: “If the government had allowed [development] to go on in what is Corcovado today, it would probably look…ruined; clays, soils, floodings, no wildlife, and poverty.”

More About Community-based Conservation

Shortly after this second wave of farmers and miners were evicted and compensated, a new kind of opportunity was created, Ugalde thought. It was his hope that the people of Osa would realize, as he said, “The real gold in Osa is green.”

Ugalde’s vision of preserving this wild treasure finally began to take root in the early 1990s, when a new wave of settlers arrived on the peninsula. Attracted by the creation of a national park, the newcomers were pioneers in a budding new nature travel industry.

Building an Industry With the Community

John and Karen Lewis, a couple of former Peace Corps volunteers, were two of the first entrepreneurs to land on Osa. They quit their jobs in Minnesota–Mr. Lewis a lawyer, Mrs. Lewis a music teacher—and arrived with their own vision of an ecolodge that could create local economic opportunity by employing locals as custodians, rather than consumers, of biodiversity.

“We found the biggest tract of land we could buy with the limited amount of money we had, and we bought land as far away from the developed part of Costa Rica [as we could], hoping that its conservation would spur other people to do the same thing,” recalls Mrs. Lewis.

Interior of Lapa Rios buidling
Buildings at Lapa Rios were constructed with local wood, local labor, and local know-how. For example, workers from within the Osa Peninsula knew the best time to harvest palm leaves for thatched-roof weaving so that the leaves would be sturdier and the roofs would last longer. Photo by Layne Kennedy.

The Lewises settled into their new community on Osa by visiting their neighbors scattered throughout the forest— sometimes by truck, sometimes on horseback. From their Peace Corps training in Kenya, they knew that building trust and partnerships with locals would require a two-way conversation.

“I am going to learn what they need,” Mrs. Lewis says of her mindset during her early talks with the people on Osa. “I am going to learn about their culture by working together with them on something they want.”

It turned out the locals needed better educational opportunities for their children, so the Lewises led the charge to build a community school. In return, the locals agreed to help them build Lapa Rios, from the ground up.

The upstart Minnesotans faced plenty of skepticism from tourism industry experts: Building just eight rooms on 1,000 acres of land? Doing it all with local labor, and local wood, to construct open-air thatched-roof ranchos? But the Lewises responded that they were doing something different, something beyond typical tourism.

“Ecotourism,” Mr. Lewis explained, as he spoke of a lodge built with an eye toward minimizing impact and blending into the surrounding rainforest. “This is building for the community. This is a community project. This is their school and their hotel to work in.”

Mangrove Hummingbird by Arco Huang/Macaulay Library
The Mangrove Hummingbird is one of the Osa Peninsula specialties that draws birders to the area. Photo by Arco Huang/Macaulay Library.

Costa Rican Walter Morales was another ecotourism pioneer on Osa, a former pilot from the capital city of San Jose who used to shuttle food and supplies by air to the gold-mining communities in the 1970s. Morales said that before Corcovado National Park was created, he didn’t think the peninsula was much to look at: “All they had in this area was rice fields and cattle.”

Morales remembers a time on Osa when people cut down trees to sell the wood, and gold fever ran wild. But after Ugalde created the national park, Morales could see the potential for tourism. He and his wife Salma Polanco purchased land on Osa and built their own ecolodge, La Leona, with tent-cabins embedded in the rainforest.

“Having this property has been like having a diamond. Then you start polishing it, and with time…[we have] realized this has been even greater than we thought it could be,” Morales said.

Like the Lewises at Lapa Rios, Morales and Polanco ran counter to the prevailing trends in tourism at that time of building big and maximizing margins per bed. Instead, they made “rustic” their key point of differentiation.

“People will say we are still behind, and we are, but that’s what people want,” Morales says. “They just come because they want peace and quiet, and this is as far as you can go…this is where you can go to get it.”

Engaging the Local Community

A modest midwestern American couple looking for a new way of life; a pilot from San Jose who had seen the beauty of Osa many times from the sky—these were among the dozen innovators who brought a few beds-for guests into the rainforest and helped turn ecotourism into a model of protection for Costa Rican biodiversity.

But the model can’t work without communities, and communities can’t work without jobs. Locals must benefit in the process of ecotourism development. Lapa Rios has built a strong business, with an occupancy rate of 75 percent, more than 95 percent during the high season. And that business has created a steady supply of local jobs— more than 90 percent of employees at Lapa Rios are Costa Ricans, including most management positions at the lodge.

Edwin Willareal leading a tour group. Photo by Layne Kennedy.
Edwin Villareal leading a tour group through a stream in Corcovado National Park. Photo by Layne Kennedy.

“Lapa Rios is like a school. It was open for me, it’s open for everybody to come and work and learn different things,” says Edwin Villareal, who grew up as the son of a gold miner on Osa. Villareal started at Lapa Rios in housekeeping in the 1990s, but management noticed his willingness to share his local knowledge of the rainforest with guests. Today Villareal works as one of the lodge’s head nature guides, which is one of the top-earning professions on the peninsula.

“Finding a job here in the hotel was a really big change for me,” he says. “I trained many years, and I have opportunities to learn more. It actually opened my mind in many ways.”

More than 20 percent of people on the peninsula are directly employed in tourism, according to a Stanford University study, while another 60 percent benefit by providing supply-chain services, such as growing food for the lodges. For the Morales–Polanco family, their ecolodge is sustaining future generations that are staying home to live on Osa.

“This is a business that benefits the whole family,” Morales said. “Everything that we have, our kids’ education, our grandkids’ education. We could afford for them to go to school and have their degrees. For them to have a job, have an income and opportunities. This has all come out of La Leona.”

The ecotourism-based economy on Osa has also spurred gains in forest conservation, as many ecolodges manage their lands for wildlife habitat in order to maximize the benefits they get from an intact rainforest—the more biodiversity they have, the more visitors they get.

“We are fortunate that many lodges on the Osa can be considered ecolodges that protect lands in a buffer zone of Corcovado National Park,” says Andy Whitworth, executive director of Osa Conservation, a science research station based on the peninsula.

The ecolodges around Corcovado significantly increase the area of protected wildlife habitat, says Guido Saborio, the regional Osa director of SINAC, the Costa Rican government’s natural resources agency.

“The ecolodges are an important ally,” Saborio said. “The lodges have the same goals that we do. They are interested in protecting forests and reforestation. And by providing jobs, they involve local people in conservation, and those values then get passed on within families.”

Government Support is a Key to Success

Osa’s ecotourism success story isn’t just due to a band of entrepreneurial innovators, or just the commitment from local peoples. Crucially, the entire conservation endeavor has enjoyed tremendous government support through national policies.

Costa Rica famously has no standing army, so the government invests in other priorities. For example, its energy sector runs 99 percent on renewable energy, and it has set a goal to be the world’s first carbon-neutral nation by the year 2021.

Costa Rican reforestation efforts are supported by its Forest Law, legislation enacted in 1996 that created the framework for a government program called Payment for Ecosystem Services. Funded through a small tax on fossil fuels, a car stamp, and a tourist visa fee, the program provides compensation to private landowners to recreate biological corridors and intact forest habitats. So rather than burning and clearing trees, farmers have a financial incentive to plant them.

This kind of environmental leadership by the government helps to draw 2.5 million foreign tourists every year. The flow of tourism dollars has helped create the financial resources to make Costa Rica the first country in Latin America to stop, and reverse, the process of deforestation. According to the United Nations 2010 Global Forest Resources Assessment, while tropical countries worldwide converted 13 million hectares of forest to agriculture and other uses between 2000 and 2010, Costa Rica restored thousands of hectares of forest, returning the country’s forest cover to 50 percent and growing.

Surrounded by countries with rapid deforestation, Costa Rica and the Osa Peninsula stand out as stories of restoration. What is taking place there is unique—aided by a proactive government in conservation policy, and the fast regrowth capabilities of tropical rainforests. (A cleared Costa Rican rainforest can regenerate into secondary forest within decades.) But there may well be lessons from Costa Rica for other countries experiencing habitat loss, such as the United States, which lost more acres of prairie in 2014 than the Amazon lost acres of trees.

Osa shows that conservation can open up new economic markets, which then become a financial engine for more conservation. But it all starts with engagement and agreement with the local community.

As Karen Lewis says, she and her husband started Lapa Rios by throwing a party and getting to know their neighbors in the Osa rainforest. Their business plan, she says, centered on “being the model for a community that worked together. And the key word there … is TOGETHER.

“With the community, we could make a difference, building a successful business, while [the locals] improve their lives because of doing this conservation work.”

Shane Feyers is a Yale Master of Environmental Management alumnus and doctoral researcher in tourism and conservation planning at the University of Florida School of Natural Resources and Environment. Feyers spent two months researching biodiversity conservation on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula as the Lapa Rios ecolodge scientist-in-residence.

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