|Where the Wild Things Are
|Paul is an engineer and geologist and the publisher of this mullet wrapper. Write him directly at email@example.com|
When I first waded ashore from the lancha in 1985, the peninsula was in the middle of a gold rush that continues to weigh heavily upon the Osa thirty one years later. Little did I know then that I would return in fifteen years to settle in Puerto Jiménez and make my life here. And beyond my ignorance then and now of what the future holds, I had no idea that I was caught up in the midst of history’s narrative arc.
I think few people view their daily lives outside of mundane concerns and that fewer still try to imagine what the future will hold, not just for themselves, but for things that surround and are familiar to them: friends, family, community, and less tangible things like the economy, politics, society and culture that so dramatically affect all human beings everywhere.
On that sunny June morning, as Dan and I bemoaned the salt-soaked legs of our blue jeans, the Osa’s rivers had yet to be bridged and today’s paved highway was then a 4WD two-track that with a bit of luck and preparation could be four-wheeled only in the dry season, when the Rincon and other rivers were low enough to forge. There was no pier then, just a clutch of fishing boats moored off a remote coastline. The town’s electricity was supplied by a diesel generator that was turned off at ten p.m. and restarted the next morning at six. We stocked up on food at the Mini-Tigre downtown where tight rows overflowed with foodstuffs in boxes, sacks and cans in a hot dark claustrophobic store. There were no foreigners in the streets of town, and Dan and I with our new backpacks and shiny young gringo faces drew curious looks from the cowboy town folk and women peering out over the steam of things cooking in open-air sodas on Main Street. It was ten years before the first wave of tourism, and though we were oddities, there were indeed foreigners paving the way for us, hard and fast men, mostly, here to pick up a quick fortune. But we didn’t bump into any of them till our last day, when they came out of the woodworks to see if we had any money to cajole or swindle. Corcovado National Park was then ten years old, though we never heard any mention of it. As we would discover over the next four days, the peninsula was elementally wild. In retrospect, had I been told a recently-inaugurated 41,000 hectare national park was nearby, it would have seemed absurd. Nature’s exuberance touched everything, and it would have been difficult to imagine how a protected park could distinguish itself from the rest of the peninsula, or at least what we saw of it on that first visit as we hiked its perimeter from Jimenez to Carate and then overland to Dos Brazos. Puerto Jimenez was a squalid little town with unpainted store fronts and wooden shacks for homes and muddy puddles in the potholes of Main Street, and we stocked up as cheap as we could, eager to get on with our adventure. The outskirts of town were then located where the BM supermarket, the bomba, and the hardware store today comprise a towering trifecta of retail commerce, and we put our fancy hiking boots to the task on the road south. It was graveled for a while, a regular road all the way to today’s suicide bridge over the Platanares River. There it turned into a clay two track. Today it is National Highway 245 and goes all the way to Carate. We hiked gamely into a growing heart of darkness not at all warm and cuddly but strange, foreign, yet still spectacular. We camped the first night at Playa Tamales, where our cheap rice and beans were dead weight in our Londonian inability to build a fire. There was a twelve-foot crocodile floating stilly in the river mouth and a dead ray belly up on the beach picked at by a clutch of vultures and the promise of rain in low dark clouds over the gulf. Leary of the water in the river and very thirsty after hacking our way through spiny palms to get there, the coconuts were our salvation. It was a lot of work to get to the coconut water, and we spent a good half hour simply watching our thumbs and hacking at husk, the dues required to slake our thirst. In the advancing afternoon we set up a tent in the pregnant stillness, failed to start a fire, and soaked in the Golfo Dulce, washing off the salt in the tannic estuary, vigilant for that croc that had moved and was surely casing us unseen for our alimentary virtue. Our first howlers gaveled the forest to order the next afternoon. The misty highlands of the cape drew near with their inexorable forest as we made our way across the lush Carbonera savannah, and we shuddered with trepidation at the ominous sound, certain that it was the roar of jaguars. We heard them every day thereafter, but it was years before I realized that what had terrorized us were gentle vegetarians and that we were wrapped inside a fear of our own making. We slept each night in a pup tent, ignoring drips from the constant rain that seeped through the din, each of us clutching a spanking-new hunting knife in one hand and an Army Navy Surplus machete in the other, thusly armed against our nemesis’s temptation for a midnight snack of tender, pampered, milk-fed white meat . . .
We came across a lone man in Tamales our first day that said he was Lebanese and taught us how to find turtle eggs to supplement our diet. On the second day there were three men on horseback in the Matapalo highlands near the present-day entrances to Bosque del Cabo and El Remanso. We walked along eating stolen new corn and dropping the shucks along the trail. Dan and I sweated it a bit, stealing their baby corn and all, but the jinetes did not double back to confront us as we trundled on beneath overloaded packs in our descent to the Piro. We reached civilization again around noon of the third day in the outskirts of Carate. We walked into a bustle of humanity fighting nature for its gold against the full array of the elements and bought cans of tuna at an obscene price at the general store and took the wrong road toward Madrigal instead of our Dos Brazos destination and happened upon a single magic mushroom along our way. It was just coming on when a punishing rain on the march up the mountain swept suddenly over us to leave us suddenly drenched. An hour or so later a little girl, all alone in a shack at the top, shouted beneath torrential rain from the door that we had gone the wrong way. On day four we found the right turnoff after back-tracking and hiked overland to Dos Brazos along the trail that I have since hiked two more times and christened the El Dorado Trail. But back in 1985, after the grueling climb to the peninsular ridge, the Piedras Blancas headwaters were easy going, and we walked all pura-vida tranquilo through a post-apocalyptic upland watershed with holes in the ground and rough men in the river working gold and black-plastic camps with wisps of wood smoke tended by the effeminate and the whispers of beans, rice, and coffee.
I had seen a lot for my 24 years. I had been to wild places in Alaska, Canada, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Mexico, including places completely uninhabited in vast wilderness. I had been to places with tenuous footholds carved out by man and inhabited by rough but competent folk where adherence to laws and conventions of society was still optional. For a white-bread doughboy with newly minted degree in geology I had seen plenty of sketchy things, and after all, I spoke the language fluently. But I never felt more out of my element than on that fourth day of our curious Osa adventure. The wiry and hard-strung men in tattered shorts and rubber boots offered us coffee and were friendly and curious, boisterous and funny. They’d seen foreigners, but all of them men in their own mold, hard men like Patrick O’Connell who would in five years become in the legend of biographical fiction the Goldwalker and Cizia Zyke, the indomitable and cruel Albanian mercenary raconteur, roustabout and writer, the rough hard-drinking mining engineers and foremen from the Canadian gold operations in Carate and Dos Brazos, a few desperadoes either wanted or unwanted back home out seeking fortunes safely beyond the long arm of the law, men like those miners were themselves, part of a brotherhood without borders . . . Dan and me were not like those men, of course, or if we were did not realize it at the time. We were curiosities, space oddities, fresh threads in the new fabric of the daily-changing tapestry of Osa life.
Thirty years later, as Vanessa Quiros points out in Sucesos, people still do not mine gold because they are poor or because there are not enough jobs. People mine gold because it is there to be mined. The Osa boasts not only 2.5% of the planet’s biodiversity but also the single largest gold accumulation in all of Costa Rica. Tamar Mora stows her twin environmental sais in this seventh Sol de Osa edition to take a long objective view in Medioambiente at the impact of our gold upon a peninsula striving to consolidate ecotourism as a primary economic vehicle and acquit itself altogether from the commodities mindset. Ericka Becerra explores the social economic transition in Sociedad y Cultura from commodities to services. I provide a review our gold’s geology in Medioambiente.
There are three primary threats and challenges to Corcovado National Park and the Golfo Dulce Forestry Reserve and really the Osa environment as a whole: 1) illegal hunting; 2) illegal logging; and 3) illegal gold mining. As Mora examines in a separate Sucesos piece, the mining laws are clear on paper, but their even enforcement remains elusive in a society in which hand-mining is a deeply-engrained cultural phenomenon. Still, as biologist and environmental activist Ifigenia Garita-Canet points out in her turn on the subject matter in Turismo, even artisanal hand-mining carries lasting impacts that have adverse environmental consequences. Whether for good or bad, the gold is here and is not going anywhere. It remains incumbent upon our collective will to either combat its lure with an enforcement paradigm that the authorities themselves say they are unequipped to successfully execute, or to incorporate gold’s heritage into the anastomosing ecotourism paradigm upon which the Osa is well-embarked, a mission from which there is no turning back.
Corcovado National Park in 1985 was a spectral threat from central government overreach as hand-miners were pushed off the land by security forces and ranchers and farmers expelled from park boundaries without consistent and fair remuneration. The Osa turned for a spell into a hotbed of Communist-Party organization and agitprop—though never violent—a political rebellion against central authority. Today, Corcovado National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Crown Jewel of Costa Rica’s vaunted national park system and a wellspring of economic vitality, our peninsula’s sacred touchstone, a place name that sends shivers of inspiration down the spines of academics and naturalists around the planet.
Sol de Osa shall feature Corcovado’s three greatest threats individually in three editions, focusing first in this seventh August-September run on gold and its influence on the economy, society, polity, and culture of our protean little peninsula.
Let the wild rumpus start!