Welcome back to Sol de Osa
|Pablo is a hermit shut-in that owns several under-performing Osa businesses, some opportunistic, others craven, and publishes this rag, at least till the money runs out. A jack-of-all-trades and master of none, he may be reached at email@example.com.|
The Osa Peninsula has never been an easy place to earn a living or get ahead. But with fruit growing on trees, fish at the end of the next hand line, a forgiving climate, it’s always been easy to survive here. Anyone can get by. Yet the Osa has always been rich in resources, and living here has always had a feast or famine aura about it. Many of the Osa’s people have long relied on non-renewable resources and a commodities economy to advance our lives and get ahead. All of us pay homage to all the conservation etiquette, while a few of us still ply the old economy, however on the sly.
Allowed to proceed, this economic model will fell the trees, kill the animals, pollute the waters, and erase much that is great about the Osa. By my count the peninsula has enjoyed eight economic boom-lets in its short history. Of these, cattle, bananas, gold, rice, lumber, African palm, and real estate have been in unsustainable industries, what I call the commodities economy. Only the most recent boomlet—ecotourism—in full swing in current times and the peninsula’s most important economic experiment in all its history, is an economic model founded on renewable resources and sustainable development, what I call a services economy in the ecotourism sector. There is a lot riding on this experiment, and at Sol de Osa, we aspire to contribute to ecotourism’s solution to our region’s present and future.
But what is ecotourism? I’m sure there is a good book-ish definition. But I understand it according to a model, a kind of thought experiment. I frame it in terms of a single old-growth tree.
At any moment, our hypothetical tree has perhaps as much as $25,000 worth of raw wood that can be monetized (legally or not) at any time, but only once. Yet, the same tree has symbiotic relations with a large number of animals and plants surrounding it and living within its canopy and has ecologic feedback loops that continuously renew the surrounding forest and ecosystem. It is the forest and its ecosystem that drives tourists to visit and spend money to see this natural phenomenon. So there is value in the life of the tree that extends across all the years of its life in which an ecotourism enterprise exists to capitalize a market that would otherwise not exist. For this economy to succeed, the people that would have cut the tree in the first place must take advantage of tourism dollars to show it off instead. Perhaps a modest bungalow rented out on its periphery. Perhaps a guided tour that includes a stop for fresco beneath its shade. A few horses for horseback tours. With modest sustainable agriculture of fruit, row crops, and a few livestock on the side, a rural family with a modest hand in ecotourism can monetize that standing tree for decades; more ambitious entrepreneurs would surely do better. A successful ecotourism model requires that the long-term monetization of the living tree in a services economy yield greater wealth than the one-time cutting of the tree in a commodities economy. The ecotourism model, in order to be sustainable and viable, must be economically viable in terms of the raw returns. If it is necessary to introduce a negative value to associate with the tree’s hypothetical cutting, then the model itself fails. You can’t make it work with accounting gimmicks. Either ecotourism works on its own merits or it fails, a passing boomlet. For several decades the Osa Peninsula has been experimenting with this model, and its success or failure is an existential battle underway all around those of you reading this essay.
But in the spirit of nonlinear thinking, it’s time for a digression.
I posit that it is the places and not the people that inhabit them that define and guide a region’s destiny. The people that dwell in a place influence this—of course—but those people never explore and settle and dwell in a place accidentally. Manhattan and San Francisco hardly rose in a vacuum and neither Vanderbilt nor Brannan chose to live there by chance. We’ll get back to the Osa, but think for a minute of Panama. It is where two oceans are near, a bustling center of trade, its eponymous canal nearing the end of an expansion. Could we have had an Eden without a cradling Tigris and Euphrates Rivers? Could Japanese culture arise anywhere but on an island? What might the Dutch be had the nation been mountainous and land-locked and not a vulnerable lowland strand? Can we imagine a Caucusus without horses? An Istanbul absent the Bosporus? A Timbuktu without the Sahel? A Colombia without cocaine?
Written records of the Osa Peninsula date to around 150 years ago. While we know from archeological findings that the region has been inhabited for the past 2000 years, there is nothing written, no remaining oral traditions from which to extrapolate. Indigenous people were certainly here; the Boruka gold and Diquis spheres speak to that. By western convention the boundary of history and prehistory falls at the advent of written language; for the Osa we can point to around the year 1880 as the Osa Peninsula’s dawn of history, many thousands of years later than in other parts of the planet.
Ah, the Osa Peninsula: so far from God yet just an hour’s flight from San Jose . . . We can point to its trees, the gold, its fertile coastlands, the heavy rains and modest climate, the animals, mountains, rivers, mangroves, as integral to the peninsula’s physiographic identity, things that make the place what it is and how it has evolved historically. While all that is true, I think that it is the Osa’s remoteness that is most responsible for the forging of its history and for the complexion of its current society and culture. You might infer that because of this remoteness the Osa’s influence on the rest of Costa Rica would be small and tenuous. But it turns out the opposite is true. Even back in the Osa’s prehistory, at the dawn of Costa Rica’s own history, the Osa was quietly influencing a wider audience, taking no credit, but ever on the vanguard of national destiny.
The very name Costa Rica, attributed apocryphally to both Christopher Columbus during his fourth and final New World voyage in 1502 and Gil González Dávila, who led the west coast exploration in 1522, is directly linked to the Osa Peninsula. For it is here on the Osa that the Borucan people exploited large deposits of placer gold and developed the craftsmanship of casting gold into figurines that made their way through indigenous trade far and wide. When slapped with its Rich Coast moniker, whether by its Atlantic or Pacific conqueror, it was Osa gold from our local rivers that forged the ironically inaccurate name, Costa Rica. It was a cruel joke to any Spanish dandy that forsook first Iberia and then passed over Guatemala and Peru to settle instead as a first generation hidalgo to Costa Rica. Here life was hard for the new expats, filled with lots of work to do and few slaves with which to do it. Sometimes it was even short, life.
I have more than once imagined being a gecko on the wall of González Dávila’s brigantine bridge in 1522 the day he weighed anchor in Golfito Bay and stared from the fo’c’sle across the Golfo Dulce at the green smudge of low mountains rising off the water to the west. I imagine myself chirping loudly from the wall and our Spanish lord sighing as the winds catch the canvas and the rudder hews not for a port of call in Jimmy a few hours away but to Cape Matapalo and the open Pacific beyond. Does he imagine malaria, dengue, and yellow fever across the still water as he glasses the low beaches of today’s Puntarenitas Point and its mangroves behind? Couldn’t have been fixed on the gold or he’d have sailed right over. Was he driven by impatience, visions of El Dorado in Nicaragua and Honduras? Was it discovery fever, chomping at the bit to move? In the end, he pulled away from a Golfito that would not see white men for another two hundred years. Captain Gil bypassed the Osa, surely glassing the Matapalo Cape for hostile natives in failing light as he rounded that bend, scoping the lowland strand of Corcovado Basin on the western shoreline as dawn broke over the peninsular spine. Perhaps he even spotted—I like to imagine it anyway–tapirs on the beach, flopped down in the sand, and wondered at the flavor of their meat. He piloted the two-master he built in the Pearl Islands around Costa Rica’s largest natural gold deposit even before it was called Costa Rica and under heady offshore Pacific winds sailed away from it once he put Violines Island astern. He would find the evidence of the Osa’s gold in many ports of call on what remained of his voyage, around the necks of Quepoa noblemen, adorning the chests of Choluteca princesses, and plenty of mouth from the tittering classes up and down the coast. But that gold came not from local mines but from trade with the Osa.
The pre-Colombian population of Costa Rica is estimated to have numbered as high as 500,000. By 1570 less than 5000 natives survived, the isthmus decimated by a European pestilence to which the New World people had no resistance or immunity. Centimated, really.
How curious that our beloved Puerto Jiménez—Santo Domingo on late nineteenth Century nautical charts—would remain “undiscovered” by non-native people for three hundred years after gold-hungry González Dávila first scanned its shores and tagged out to give the Osa’s dense, gold-rich forests, a pass and push north toward that cornucopia of riches in that land easier to plunder.
Back to remoteness, the Osa was first colonized in its nineteenth-century prehistory by refugees from Colombian justice. Allowed to escape into exile, Colombian authorities did not bother to chase these judicial emigrants, even though their exile was within six leagues of colonial David of gathering Panama. The early twentieth century found the Osa Peninsula in a demographic tug-of-war between the Costa Rican nation and the Colombian region of Panama, its destiny apparently dependent, of all things, on a fertility race. It was in the throes of this hegemonic feud between rubes and hayseeds that cattle were introduced as the region’s original industry by an aggressive Costa Rica pushing back on border skirmishes and boundary incursions by what was first Colombia, then Panama once Ted Roosevelt mixed it up. Cattle augured the first wave of local deforestation, “taming the land” as the barons of the time might have considered it. As land grants, charters, canons, and incentives boosted internal migration from the Central Valley and Guanacaste, Costa Rica leveraged this against dead ends of its opposition and pulled ahead in the demographic struggle to validate the Costa Ricanness of the Osa. The “discovery” of gold at Madrigal Beach in the early twenties forever altered the Osa’s economic trajectory and inked a full-frontal tattoo upon its social character as mercenaries and outlaws stood in line in their lands for tickets to come here. In the eighties the Osa swelled from 2000 or so to over 50,000 souls, many ne’er-do-wells and rapscallions out to get rich on the cheap, but also the merchants hot on their trail to sell or rent the goods required: guaro, gasoline, pumps, shovels, chains, food, cold beer, disco music, and cocaine. Canadian gold companies came with their equipment, overlords, payrolls, paid guns, stiff upper lip, and hookers came from far and wide to keep everyone properly laid.
Native hardwood, rice, African palm have risen to economic prominence since, much as bananas owned the market in the mid-twentieth and was the first to put wide swaths to work. Today, with logging in decline, gold mining in open rout, real estate a mature industry, and widespread opposition to monoculture palm plantations and fertilizer-dependent rice agriculture on environmental grounds, ecotourism is king of the Osa. It’s the anchor to which many here have moored our economic futures.
I may exaggerate by claiming that ecotourism is an economic model as experimental and innovative in its own way as the ideas of Thomas Aquinas, Adam Smith and Karl Marx were in their own eras and spheres. Our peninsula has a vast wealth in natural resources: gold, trees, fish, wild animals, water . . . It is a region that has historically been poor and self-reliant; its people are resourceful. But our region is small, and the nonrenewable resources can be raped and pillaged but once. Whether the beneficiaries of a commodities economy where resources are plucked and sold can be migrated fully to an ecotourism services economy, in which the trees are left standing, the animals breathing, the remaining gold undisturbed in river channels and alluvial banks, remains to be seen but is a work in progress. And our peninsula is a crucible for this experiment.
While the jury is still out on the extent to which tourism can supplant resource rapacity for sustained growth, forty years of pushing this model has catalyzed changes in regional attitudes and outlooks. The raiding of turtle nests for sale of the eggs, once a respectable trade, is today frowned upon widely, the actual poaching of turtles for meat verboten, capitalized only by a small racket restricted to a few Caribbean poaching gangs. Illegal logging today is hectored by an opprobrium no longer restricted to foreign-born tree huggers but shouted out across the full spectrum of society. Small-scale hand mining is still tolerated as part of our peninsular culture, but is an “artisanal” activity with few adverse consequences, far from the mechanized mining that raped watersheds and rivers in the eighties and fell to the wayside by the mid nineties to never rise again. In ironic keeping with the ecotourism model, hand miners can today make better money providing demonstration tours than they can actually mining gold.
At Sol de Osa we value our role in this experiment of existential consequence. We are being tested and the test is important and good and warrants reporting and community interest and attention. Communication of social and economic metrics is good for the stewardship of not only a delicate ecosystem but also a delicate economic model in an indelicate world. It is my hope that I can provide a space for dialog on the many things that remain as community wedges.
Unhappily, the term “sustainability” has become a catch-all that in developed-world think-tank parlance and across the cherubic lips of milk-fed liberal-arts academics has lost meaning and become suffused into the verbiage and dogma of corrosive political correctness. On the Osa Peninsula, sustainability is the very skeleton that supports the entire social anatomy; it is a key part of the ecotourism model itself. Without sustainability, the whole ecotourism model falls apart. As the community faces debates from both without and within about the meaning and about the limits of sustainability and whether different styles of tourism are good or bad for our ecosystem and our peninsular economy, lessons that are critical not just for the region but indeed for the nation and beyond arise daily and are debated by those of us that live here full time and those that travel through the region as either tourists, academic researchers, or lifestyle migrants.
Everybody’s voice and experience is important. It’s all relevant to this ongoing ecotourism experiment. I hope that Sol de Osa can be a marketplace of ideas and a platform for their civil exchange.
So we aspire to do that. Personally, I’d like to have a bit of fun along the way. They say you can’t win them all if you don’t win the very first one . . .