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Expanding ACG

Land acquisition for ACG is a story of the open market.

In the very beginning

Begun on 1 July 1966, with the decree and expropriation of the Casona and 1,000 hectares of Hacienda Santa Rosa as a National Monument to Costa Rica's early conflicts with U.S. filibuster William Walker in Nicaragua, the first land that was to become ACG was decreed Parque Nacional Santa Rosa (PNSR) on 27 March 1971. PNSR is today Sector Santa Rosa in Figure 2. The 9,904 terrestrial hectares of PNSR, expropriated from the Nicaraguan Somoza family, extended from the Pacific Ocean to the Interamerican Highway, and another 12 miles out to sea to the national limit. Growing from that start to today’s 169,000+ hectares (Fig. 1,2), has been a complex concerted effort by private individuals (both national and international), governments, non-governmental agencies, legislation and national policy. Here we touch on just a few highlights and key policies.

ACG topography shown in 3-D map, looking east from the Pacific

Figure 1. 3D contour map of Área de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG), the area enclosed in the white boundary line. The tallest volcano on the right is Rincón de la Vieja (2000 m), and on the left are Volcán Orosi (far left) and Volcán Cacao. The black horizontal line through the center is the Interamerican Highway from Liberia (out of sight to the right) to the town of La Cruz (out of sight to the left). The Peninsula Santa Elena extends directly at the viewer in the center foreground. Red lines are rural roads, and the ACG Administration Area is at the right hand of the short black spur off the Interamerican Highway at the image center. Playa Naranjo is where the red road extends from the Administration Area to contact the sea. Sector Del Oro is delimited by an orange boundary to the left of Volcán Orosi. Sector Rincón Rain Forest, encompassing low- to mid-elevation Caribbean rain forest, is within the white-bordered ACG peninsula at top center of the colored image (pale green on the right in Figure 2). (Image: Waldy Medina, ACG staff).  See here for different views of ACG’s geography.

Figure 2. The 18 Sectors of ACG, all of which are formally the Área Silvestre Protegido (Protected Wildland Area) of ACG, but owing to their different biologies and histories boil down to a mosaic of “national parks and protected areas” all under one administration and budget and a complex set of Programs that encompass all. (Image: Waldy Medina, ACG staff). See here for more views of ACG’s geography.

The northern coastline of Sector Murciélago was expropriated from the Somoza family in 1979 and added to Parque Nacional Santa Rosa. The expropriation of Sector Santa Elena began in 1978 and was complete by 2000. In these, and in the only other expropriation in ACG’s history, the government paid what an international court viewed as a reasonable market price. All the rest of the terrestrial ACG was acquired by voluntary negotiated sales or donations. Beginning in 1974, the 11,700 ha Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja was decreed a national park, and in 1978 another 2,384 ha were added to it (now known as Sector Pailas, Sector Santa Maria and Sector Aguacateles, see Fig 3). The first willing sale was conducted by Alvaro Ugalde and Spencer Beebe to obtain the yellow rectangle.

Map showing different land purchases in different colored blocks

Figure 3. The pictorial history of the formation of Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja, beginning in 1974 with the green area of 11,700 ha, and the yellow rectangle, purchased by Alvaro Ugalde in the mid-70s with the help of The Nature Conservancy and a private donor. This was the first non-expropriated purchase in the early formation of what has come to be ACG.

In June of 1985, Janzen and Hallwachs wrote a report on the experience of seeking a protocol for non-violent removal of about 1,500 gold miners (Fig. 4) from Parque Nacional Corcovado in southwestern Costa Rica. This produced a set of concepts that came to govern the subsequent expansion, through purchased land acquisition, of the original PNSR into today’s ACG.

In its most brief form, this pragmatic land acquisition was driven by the realization that for a large biodiverse tropical wildland to survive through its acceptance by society:

a) It has to be large (and diverse) enough to sustain the biological needs of hundreds to thousands of ecologically fragile species and do this while being able to tolerate mild footprints, and accidents, by many different kinds of users of its society. To attain this size, the land must be purchased on the open market through normal arm’s-length transactions (climate change problems, for which large size and diverse ecosystems are at least a partial remedy, did not become painfully visible for ACG until about 1990). This meant that land purchase was opportunistic, slow, scattered on the landscape needed, and of variable pricing. It only gradually consolidated ACG into its current highly irregular shape, which is largely due to different histories, rather than biological planning. But this also meant that ACG was not born into a community of disgruntled former landowners.

b) It must provide goods and services to its local and national neighbors, payment that is at least somewhat adequate compensation for ACG presence as a conserved wildland; it must not be a parasite on its society. In the ACG example, this began as 100% local employment for the entire staff (150 at present), intense field-based science and biology education for all neighboring 4th, 5th and 6th grade children, water (once it has flowed out of ACG), intellectually interesting employment, and novel interactions with neighboring commerce. All of this provides a sense of occupation and neighbor ownership, something that a conserved wildland conspicuously lacks, but is widely accepted in Costa Rica and other countries on their way to greater civilization.

Heavily eroded dirt and stone slope with many semi-clad gold miners hacking away in channels

Figure 4. A river being worked by Costa Rican placer gold miners (oreros) in Parque Nacional Corcovado in June 1985. Exposure to, and friendships with, these hard-working Costa Rican freelance miners revealed that they felt morally justified in mining in a national park, irrespective of the damage that they knew full well they were doing, because this terrain appeared to have no owners and no use to society. They even convinced themselves that they were helping the national debt, a concept that was reinforced by the Costa Rican Central Bank opening a branch office inside the national park to buy the gold. This experience led to Janzen's and Hallwachs' realization that not only did a surviving national park need to be big enough to be able to tolerate an occasional assault of this nature, it also needed to have “owners” working in its fields, so to speak; ACG resident staff today is exactly that, reinforced by the neighbor-to-neighbor land purchase process.

c) It has to be based on the concept that “if there are seed sources, tropical forests can and will restore/regenerate themselves”. This in turn means that the purchase process extends to large areas of land and vegetation in all stages of previous destruction and perturbation, and that species and fragments of communities that are in no apparent danger of extinction are valued members of the eventual community in their role as promoters and perpetuators of naturally-occurring restoration processes. When beginning the centuries-long restoration process for tens of thousands of newly acquired hectares, the process must be ongoing naturally, since there is no way that the resources could be available to restore this by human hand, and besides, in many cases there is no model to follow. Four centuries of use have thoroughly erased any semblance of pre-Colombian ecosystems. Nature has to be left to re-find itself with the contemporary actors and their dance floors. While there are many innovative ways to speed restoration (e.g., planting cover crops to eliminate old pasture, using agricultural waste to rejuvenate soils and reroute deflected succession), they all are costly and GDFCF and ACG generally decided to use these funds to purchase more habitat for long term restoration, or for speeding recovery of severely disturbed small critical sites.

Expansion of PNSR to the agroscape, and consolidation into one continuous parcel

The period 1985-2013 may be characterized as “buy every neighboring farm and ranch available, to the degree that donations permitted, and apply any-and-all management actions that would allow the exhausted pastures and low-grade croplands to begin to regenerate their forests, and build a staff of “psychological owners” who specialized in carrying out their specific ACG management specialties. A critical component was stopping the logging and hunting, but most critically of all was putting out the dry season fires set by a multiplicity of causes. The results were spectacular, with young forest rapidly beginning to fill the unburned areas in dry forest (e.g., Fig. 5,6), and doing the same in rain forest if we had the funding to plant a woody cover crop to shade out the grass.

Open area of golden African pasture grass before effective fire control

Figure 5. A dry forest ungrazed pasture clothed in 1-meter tall jaragua grass (Hyparrhenia rufa) that was a deliberate introduction from Africa for improved cattle fodder. This pasture has been maintained this way for several hundred years by annual dry season fires (that kill tree seedlings in the grass). The Crescentia tree (jicaro) in the center of the pasture is about 5 m tall (30 December 1980). Compare with the young forest in Figure 6, which is the same photograph (taken from the top of a tall tree), 4 November 2000 after 20 years with no fire. The forest in the background, encircling the pasture, is dominated by lowland oak (Quercus oleoides).

Same site, now densely filled with young trees about 7 m tall

Figure 6. The same photograph and pasture as in Fig. 5 after 20 years with no fire (4 November 2000). Winnie Hallwachs’ hand (center left) is 2 m above the ground, and the African pasture grass has been entirely eliminated by the shade from the entering native forest. The ACG purchased at least 40,000 ha of such abandoned forest-pasture mosaics in its early formation, almost all of which are now covered with young forest due to nearly perfect fire eradication by the ACG fire crew.

Between 1986 and 2013, a total of 300+ properties were purchased on the open market from a dense mosaic of rural owners in order to fully join the three disparate national parks (Santa Rosa, Rincón, Guanacaste), two wildlife refuges, multiple NGO-owned properties, and newly purchased properties into one solid biophysical unit. The purpose was to have that biophysical unit (Fig. 1, 2) extend from the Pacific Ocean across the lowland dry forest, up over the cloud forest tops of the volcanoes, and down into the Caribbean rain forest (there was never a realistic hope of it extending to the Caribbean shore). The goal was, and still is, that the entire unit would be an unbroken swath of intergrading ecosystems across which species can move with the climate changes that are now in progress. An illustrative case is the purchase of the Sector Rincón Rain Forest complex of former farms on the Caribbean side of the Rincón de la Vieja volcano. This land purchase progression, still underway today, is focused on the most northern portion of Sector Rincón Rain Forest.

Landowner Oscar, wife and child traveling on red motorcycle

Figure 7. Oscar Alvarado and family, on the way to their home and ecotourism lodge on the north side of Rincon de la Vieja in 2000. Oscar was the 1998 spark that led to the purchase of Sector Rincón Rain Forest by the nascent Guanacaste Dry Forest Conservation Fund, the current “official” NGO for ACG. GDFCF has gradually taken over most of the land purchase process for ACG that were carried out by the Fundación de Parques Nacionales (San José, Costa Rica) from 1986 to about 1996.

In 1998, when we all thought that land purchase for ACG expansion was nearly done, and intense fund-raising for that purpose was winding down so as to more intensively integrate the ACG with Costa Rican society, Oscar Alvarado (Fig. 7) arrived on his motorcycle in the Administration Area of Sector Santa Rosa, to beg that we visit “his” forest on the north side of Rincón de la Vieja. This forest borders the ACG boundary (Sector Aguacatales) and hosts his ecotourism operation “Las Bromelias”. The NGO for ACG, the Guanacaste Dry Forest Conservation Fund (GDFCF) had just been founded in 1997 with the funds from the Kyoto Prize in Basic Science to Daniel Janzen, and the focus at that time was on building programs (including building endowment for future staff job security) rather than on land purchase.

We told Oscar that we had almost no further donations earmarked for land purchase and had let lapse most of our connections to the world of those potential donors. However, Oscar was persistent and convinced us to visit. When we saw "his" forest, a forest that we had not realized was really there, and joined it, in our minds, with the oncoming climate drying that the dry forest side of ACG was obviously experiencing, we realized that we could not let that forest die by logging; which would be its obvious fate if not purchased. As for Oscar, he wanted it all purchased from his neighbors by ACG, so that his ecotourism lodge and land would be surrounded by good and protected forest.

Sigifredo Marin in roadside land negotiations with landowner, his son, and his mule

Figure 8. Sigifredo Marín (right, in blue jeans) negotiating with landowner Denis Alvarez (left) for the purchase of his property #40 in Sector Rincón Rain Forest (SRRF, Fig.10), in the main street of Dos Ríos (18 January 2000), with the Alcalde (mayor) and the mule La Pancha. Sigifredo negotiated and purchased 55 SRRF properties between 2000 and 2012. When purchased, none of the properties had an owner still living on them, but all farms would have previously had owners living on the property, making a subsistence living and clearing forest. Since 2012, several more properties have been acquired in this region of ACG.

In 1999, Sigifredo Marín (Fig. 8), the former ACG director and then the GDFCF land dealer and field project director, told Oscar to call together all the 20+ very humble landowners (see Fig. 11 as well as the mule owner in Fig. 8) to a meeting in Buenos Aires, the neighboring rural town. We met and explained to them that we did not have funds for total land purchase, but were willing to start in again to raise them, if, and only if, they were all willing to pledge to do nothing to the forest on their lands for a year, and not sell their farms (almost all had already moved out, leaving the area dotted with abandoned houses and overgrown fields). Sadly, in 2000, we met them again and informed them that we had achieved only $100,000 for land purchase. We told them that we could therefore only purchase their properties one by one, as funds were accumulated, rather than in one fell swoop as we had hoped. We released them from their pledge, and the race against the speculators and the loggers began. In the seven years that followed, while GDFCF purchased 55 properties (Fig. 10), we lost two to the loggers (Fig. 9), and two to speculators.

Large tree trunks lying in bulldozed mud cut from forest, visible behind

Figure 9. A property adjacent to Sector Rincón Rain Forest for which we failed to acquire sufficient funds to purchase in time. Winnie Hallwachs is surrounded by tree cadavers worth $200-$400 each to the land owner at that time (19 April 2000). Sigifredo Marín is standing on the back of the bulldozer used to move the cadavers (which weigh 5 to 15 metric tons each) to the roadside, and Waldy Medina, the ACG mapmaker, is standing in front of Sigifredo.
Figure 10. Detailed property map of Sector Rincón Rain Forest of ACG. Each green numbered property has been fully purchased by GDFCF, about 8,000 ha at an average cost of about $1,000/ha – range $200-$6,000/ha, until about 2010. Since then, land prices have risen significantly to $3,000-$5,000/ha depending on size, location, and access. The property that encompasses the Leiva biological research station (section 15A on the map) includes a special Living Endowment reforestation area that was planted with valuable timber trees for ACG 50+ years hence.

Each individual land parcel purchase by GDFCF is backed up by a title and bill of sale, registration in the national property registry (Catastro Nacional), title checked to be certain that there are no liens on the property (often the seller uses part of the purchase price to pay off earlier loans from the bank, loans collateralized by the land), newly surveyed land map, and property taxes paid in full. Buildings on the property are either converted to field stations or allowed to be carried off piece-by-piece by the neighbors. If there are crops or livestock still on the land, a portion of the negotiated settlement generally allows the last crop to be harvested and/or 6-12 months for cattle grazing before removal (in the dry forest, ACG actually rented pastures to thousands of cattle acting as biotic mowing machines, in order to reduce the fuel load in case of fire, but this is not necessary in the rain forest side of ACG). GDFCF registers the full price of purchase, resulting in hefty annual land tax bills in subsequent years. The overall concept is that the land as a whole unit (e.g., all of Sector Rincón Rain Forest) will eventually be donated to the government and formally registered as “national park” under national park legislation at the time when Costa Rican national park laws have evolved to the point where ACG can fully perform the needed forest management protocols for the Sector, rather than be entangled in the strictures dictated by current national park laws. In the meantime, GDFCF receives several forms of private and governmental Environmental Service Payments (Pagos Servicios Ambientales) that help GDFCF with salary, operations and tax expenses for the land.

Sector Rincón Rain Forest is currently blessed with minimal protection, occupancy and surveillance by 8 parataxonomists working across four remote research stations who also double as Sector Caretakers (Encargado de Sector). For details, please see terrestrial parataxonomy and also the ACG website.

Closeup of landowner's boots and spurs during roadside land negotiation

Figure 11. Footwear of the land owner, Denis Alvarez, with whom Sigifredo is negotiating in Fig. 10 (18 January 2000).  Along with his trusty steed La Pancha, he happily traded his remote and abandoned frontier farm for something more urban on the edge of the main road to Dos Ríos.