Time Magazine named Alvaro Ugalde "environmental leader of the century" in 1999. He is generally recognized as the "Father of the Costa Rican National Park System". Mr. Ugalde has dedicated nearly 40 years of his life to conservation issues. He has been the recipient of numerous and prestigious international awards for his achievements.
The O2 For Life Rainforest Foundation considers itself extremely fortunate to count Mr. Ugalde among it friends and mentors. Alvaro Ugalde was the guest speaker at the 2006 O2 For Life annual fundraiser in Del Mar, CA . On that same day, Mr. Ugalde also made a presentation at the La Costa Canyon High school in nearby Carlsbad. The interview was organized by the school’s O2 For Life Club.
Interview with Alvaro Ugalde
Alvaro Ugalde introduces himself:
I am Alvaro Ugalde. I was born in Costa Rica, a tiny little country in Central America; a country that got rid of its army over 50 years ago and that is doing good homework in conservation, creating national parks and trying to restore life. We have become a little case study for the world because of how we changed the way we deal with the planet and with nature.
Q: Tell us a bit about your life’s work and what your passion has been.
Ugalde: I started as a biology student and pretty soon I ran into professors who gave me a wider picture than just species and talked about ecosystems. That’s when I decided that instead of becoming a biologist I should save places where biologists can "biologize", if you can say that.
The country is home to 4-5% of the planet’s biodiversity and today we have about 25% of the country under protection. But we still have a long way to go in restoring our waters and rivers.
We are now launching the idea of "making peace with the planet" because the planet is suffering all over.
Q: Can you tell me about the Osa Peninsula?
Ugalde: Oh, the Osa Peninsula, the most beautiful place in the universe! That’s how I call it. Because it is extremely beautiful and extremely diverse.
It’s in the southwest part of the country where a lot of the biodiversity could not climb the mountains and move forward. There are many species that stayed around the Osa and a lot of new species that were born in the Osa.
Osa has a fjord right there in the ocean; it has whales that come from both poles and it has dolphins…
The marine life and the terrestrial life, the jaguars and the macaws, even the harpie eagles are coming back. It is just a paradise! It’s a treasure that we are asking the United Nations to declare a "world heritage site."
But it had been under pressure from mining and logging.
Over the past 30 years, when we started trying to save the Osa, we made a lot of progress and it has caught the attention of many people. So now, people come and see the animals of Osa and the beauty of it.
Now, the economy of Osa has nothing to do with mining and logging. It all has to do with nature. It's a place everybody should go and see.
Q: Can you tell me about your connection with O2 for Life?
Ugalde: O2 For Life has been exactly that: oxygen for me and Costa Ricans; because when you are living in an endeavor like this one, you need others to help. I found the people who started O2 For Life and I felt "Oh my god, there is somebody else helping us!" They have done a
marvelous job working in what we call "biological connectivity" in the Osa, uniting one part with another with biological corridors.
They are an exemplary group that I met several years ago and I am very proud of what they do, very proud.
Q: Tell me about the unique opportunities for kids that are offered at the O2 for Life facility in Costa Rica?
Ugalde: I think O2 For Life has a great impact in Costa Rica because they are helping us doing things in the field, with real forest, real animals. So it is a great opportunity for American adults and kids, especially kids, to come and experience the rainforest and the marine life of the tropics, learn about them and dive into the cause of saving the planet. O2 is located in the "most beautiful place in the universe" (wide smile) and we need a lot of people to come see it, fall in love with it and try to do things pro-Osa.
I think that the more students that can go there, the better, because it will change their lives, I can assure that! Come, learn and experience, and become addicted to saving nature!
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the importance of the individual, about what individuals can do?
Ugalde: I used to think that an individual could do very little. I changed my mind. An individual can be the beginning of a huge movement if he wants to. You especially need individuals who can inspire and motivate and who will get followed by others. Then big things begin to happen.
When I started the park system in Costa Rica, people in general thought that it was a lost cause: can’t deal with this government, can’t deal with this culture, can’t do conservation. I said, "well, we will decide about that after we try."
I have been trying for 37 years. There is no Costa Rican now who doesn’t know about conservation, doesn’t know about the natural wealth of the country and very few Costa Ricans that are not getting benefit from it. So, an individual can get the rest moving. We cannot at all neglect the power of the individual, especially if it is an individual who doesn’t want to do everything by him or herself, but one who wants to promote collective action. This is very important.
I am not saying that I am perfect in that, but I knew from the beginning that I could not do it by myself and I dedicated my first efforts to convince others that they had to get moving as well. And by doing that, we changed the course of our government, changed the economy of the country. We have a new paradigm, a different country than we had 40 years ago.
So, by all means, individuals can change things, even the course of the planet. And that’s why we need many, many more individuals jumping into this beautiful cause.
Q: Why is it so important to do this work now? What would you tell people?
Ugalde: We didn’t know way back that the planet was in trouble. Now, we are not ignorant anymore.
The collective behavior of humanity has now provoked a collective source
of dangers for the planet: global warming, the biosphere is deteriorating, species are disappearing, the poles are melting... So now, the canary is dying.You know that miners used canaries to check the quality of the air down in the mine. Well, we see a lot of canaries dying around the planet, canaries meaning species or glaciers, weather changes, the ozone, etc…etc...
So, we cannot postpone this anymore, we cannot afford that luxury anymore.
Postponing these things would mean: I don’t care about my children, about what I leave to my children. If people care for their children they cannot postpone the saving of the planet. NOW! And now might be late. But I am always optimistic. If we all do it, it will not be too late. Today, with the information we have, we cannot say: "this, we will leave for later or for others". It is definitely a must for individuals everywhere on the planet.
Q: Why O2 For Life ? Why give to O2 For Life in Costa Rica ?
Ugalde: Well, you can give to any organization. O2 For Life happens to be a great example. It happens to be something tangible. There’s people, there is forest, there is activity, there is education.
So I think O2 For Life is a great opportunity for the people of the United States to help. I am not saying it is the only one, but it’s a great one. It’s fun, it’s fun people, motivated people and they have a beautiful reserve in Costa Rica.
So for sure, I’d take advantage of O2 For Life if I was a US citizen.
The O2 for Life Club
The student members of the O2 for Life Club at the La Costa Canyon High School, Carlsbad, CA are actively involved in promoting “green” causes, organizing local conservation initiatives and supporting the O2 For Life Rainforest Foundation. Club members have been regular guests at the O2 For Life reserve in Costa Rica.
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