When I was a CBC Radio host in the late 1980s, I bought title to one acre of cloud forest in Costa Rica for 25 dollars and then did an interview about it with someone from one of the environmental organizations supporting the project. Now, 25 years later, I may just have seen my acre of forest in a visit that I made with my wife Martha to Monteverde. On one of our hikes, our guide to the trees and trails in the reserve was Ricardo (Ricky) Guindon. He is the son Wilford and Lucky Guindon, one of the Quaker families that settled there in the 1950s, and who have played an important role in protecting the forest. It’s quite a story.
Costa Rica is a small country with a maximum distance of about 120 kilometres between its Caribbean and Pacific coasts. It is mostly mountainous and was once covered almost entirely by dense forests. Eighty per cent of that forest cover had been lost before the government stepped in to begin reversing the process in the latter years of the 20th century. As we will see, private groups were working toward the same end.
What is now known as the Montverde cloud forest exists on a high spine of mountains that run generally northwest to southeast in Costa Rica. Here you encounter the Continental Divide, with streams tumbling off one side of the mountains toward the Pacific and off of the other toward the Atlantic or Caribbean coast. The predominant winds at Monteverde are from the Caribbean side and the mountains are often draped in a mist and fog that occur when the breeze touches the canopy of trees. The forest is home to an abundance of plant, animal and bird species.
In the 1930s, Costa Rican (Tico) families headed from the lowlands farther and farther up into the mountains, cutting down the forests in an attempt create subsistence farms and sell logs. It was a difficult and harsh existence.
Oddly, these farmers were joined in 1951 by a group of about 10 Quaker families who had decided to leave the United States. The American government had in 1948 reinstated its practice of drafting all eligible young men for service in the army. Four young Quakers who lived in farm country in Alabama were among those who decided that they would not serve and they were put into prison for several months. They, and others, decided that the U.S. was becoming too militaristic for their liking and they chose to leave. They decided to move to Costa Rica, a country with open spaces, a good climate, and one that had abolished its military in 1949.
The Quaker group trekked up the deeply rutted mountain trails in 1951 and they began, like the Tico families around them to cut down the forests to develop their farms. In fact, it was the Quakers who introduced the chain saw to the area. A person with a saw could fell trees much more quickly than someone with an axe. The Quakers were soon focused on creating small dairy farms and in order to use all of their milk, they built the Monteverde Cheese Factory in 1953. It still exists. They also built a school and a Friends Meeting House, which continues to host gatherings on Wednesdays and Sundays.
Although they were farmers who cut down trees, the Quakers feared that if the steep mountain slopes lost too much forest cover the community water supplies would be threatened by erosion and pollution. They decided to set aside a 550-hectare portion of their forested land in a preserve.
By 1970, there was growing pressure upon the forest from other farmers, mostly poor peasants attempting to create homesteads. American scientists Harriett and George Powell came to the region in that year to do graduate work. They were alarmed at the loss of habitat and began to buy land to protect the forest. They worked with Quaker pioneer Wilford (Wolf) Guindon to promote the establishment of a natural reserve. It was called the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve. The project was administered by the Tropical Science Center, an organization that had arrived in the area to do biological research.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve was created in 1972 and was expanded several times through the purchase of land from locals, mostly peasant farmers. The project coincided with a growing interest among international environmental groups who were also concerned about deforestation and the loss of habitat in species-rich Costa Rica. In 1988, a venture called the Children’s Eternal Rainforest Project purchased an even larger amount of forest. There are now more than 60,000 hectares of protected forest in the Monteverde and neighbouring Arenal volcano regions.
Wolf Guindon provided a particular leadership in the Monteverde preservation project. He is elderly now but his enthusiasm for the project and his stamina for hiking are legendary in the region. Ricardo Guindon, our guide on one of our day hikes in Monteverde, is Wolf’s son. He said that his father, now in his 80s, rarely hikes any more but that he had been on the trails once in this season.
Ricardo is an amazing guide. Using a scope resembling a long telephoto camera lens, he was able to provide our small group with sightings of a variety of animals and birds, including the legendary Quetzal. He also pointed out the names and characteristics of all manner of plants, everything from towering trees to creeping vines and tiny orchids.
As a youth Richard had gone to study in the U.S. but decided to return. He married a Costa Rican woman and although proud of his Quaker heritage he is now a member of a more evangelical church. When a couple of days later we visited the cheese factory, the blonde young woman who was our guide said that she, too, had grown up in a home where her Quaker father had married a local Costa Rican woman. Our guide said that she attended a Catholic church with her mother while growing up. The young guide, too, had married a Costa Rican and lived in the nearby village of Santa Elena.
We visited the Monteverde Friends School and attended a Friends meeting on a Wednesday at 9:00 a.m. The room was of the simplest wood frame construction and almost completely unadorned, saved for rows of benches arranged in more semicircular fashion. Between two bare studs on one wall was a blue sign that had written on it, War is not the Answer.
The room was soon filled to near capacity of about 100 people, with perhaps a third being adults and the others students from the Kindergarten to Grade 12 school that is located next door. The meeting began with a long period of silence and we were impressed at how the school children, even the youngest ones, were able to participate in that silence without talking or even fidgeting.
Occasionally, someone would stand and make a simple comment, which, depending on its origin, would be translated either into English or Spanish. Those few statements, either delivered extemporaneously or read aloud, were of a type describing how one should respect and listen to others, being slow to judge and quick to forgive.
The meeting continued for about 45 minutes and guests, about six or eight of us, were asked at the end to introduce themselves. This was followed by a brief period of chatting and visiting, and then all went their separate ways. It was a plain and sober service but also a moving experience.
Down the mountain
After four days at Monteverde, we traveled in a shuttle bus down the mountain – it takes about 45 minutes to travel the first 18 kilometers of unpaved road. The views back to the mountaintops, frequently and fleetingly enveloped in cloud and mist, were quite stunning.
Our shuttle took us on a four-hour ride to the Pacific beaches at a location called Manuel Antonio. It is a beautiful area but touristy. The government, however, has created Costa Rica’s smallest national park at Manuel Antonio. Amazingly, given the tourist traffic, the park was teeming with birds, amphibians and animals, including various species of monkeys.
Our local guide was both knowledgeable about the park and exuberant. At one point when he was talking about protected areas, we mentioned that we had been at Monteverde. Ah, Monteverde, he said, where the Quakers came in to cut down the forests and then got credit for protecting them. Did we know, he said to everyone in our small group, that the Quakers at Monteverde smoked marijuana at the beginning of their religious services?
I said that we had just attended the Quaker service on a Wednesday, two days earlier, and that we had not noticed anybody smoking up. Ah Wednesday, he said, without missing a beat. They don’t smoke on Wednesday. They smoke before the Sunday service.
Whatever. I don’t mind who gets the credit – but the effort to save habitat and living things in Costa Rica is impressive.