Terra Folia

Wilderness Rules
Terra Folia's Rainforest News

In building a durable encampment at the wild frontier we often face daunting odds. Rainforest Canopy With its rugged terrain, mercurial hydrology, and precarious access, tropical montane rainforest is especially challenging. Ceaseless troubleshooting and concern for safety always dominate management process.

In the Atlantic lowlands of Costa Rica moreover 'banana economics' combine with capricious law enforcement to encourage illegal loggers, poachers, and squatters throughout the region. Although violence is rare, in isolated areas we often defend our borders against encroachment.

Indeed our field station at Terra Folia is ten kilometers (an hour) from the nearest township. We communicate by hand radio and cellular telephone. Mostly we travel by four-wheel-drive vehicle; during torrential rains we rely on "chapulines" (tractor-pulled covered wagons). Occasionally we ride horseback (optional).

In the five years since we first invested in the tropical rainforest we've faced a litany of thieves and plunderers, including three separate incidents of tree thefts. Even neighbors have stolen trees and harvested protected species including anteater, brocket deer, monkey, paca, peccary, sloth, and tapir, plus innumerable birds, butterflies, and rare botanica.

Just one year ago we caught the infamous Vargas brothers with a bull-dozer in a section of primary forest. Stolen Santa Maria tree Already they had extracted or damaged five large trees, including a beautiful Santa Maria specimen. (See related photographs.)

How did we respond? Last December first, our foreman at the time, Trino, and I inspected the damage and we talked to the "chapulinero" (tractor owner-operator) who confirmed that Nando Vargas hired him to take the trees out. Several "tucas" (logs) already were loaded onto a "chinga" ('18-wheeler') for transport to the local sawmill.

The next day I contacted officials at FUNDECOR, the U.S.A.I.D.-funded local NGO responsible for reforestation efforts along Costa Rica's central cordillera, which includes both capital city San Jose and our local area. Two forestry engineers, Pablo and Coto, and I discussed the incident and the infamous perpetrators, and after a review of governmental policy, I began to formulate a plan of action.

Following my meeting with FUNDECOR I made an official "reclamo" (accusation) at the regional office of the Direccion General Forestal (forestry Poached Tree on Logging Truck directorate) and fired a figurative 'shot' over the head of the regional sub-director, Jose Carmela, who has alleged close ties to Coca, Lorenzo, and Nando Vargas.

Finally on the morning of Tuesday, December third, Trino and I climbed into Carmela's relatively new, double-seater white Toyota truck. Behind us were Pablo, Coto and two forestry inspectors (Vacori, Puto) in FUNDECOR's red Chevy. For about ninety minutes we traveled along the Plastico road--we made one brief stop to wedge Pablo out of a ditch--until we reached Terra Folia around ten o'clock.

Briefly we discussed the inspection procedure and we proceeded to the site. For several hours I watched as two idealistic, young, university-trained engineers dutily inspected, measured, and photographed the damage; and two entrenched, older forestry inspectors gave chase. Nonetheless, Carmela clearly was in charge.

The extent of the damage was gut-wrenching, and left no doubt of the Damage from log  poachers loggers' intentions to stretch the law. Numbered in the fluorescent markings prerequisite to any tree harvest in Costa Rica, fresh 'stumps' punctuated the forest fringe. Unwieldy severed limbs encumbered our movement over an extensive area. I thought, finally we've got them--these pictures will tell a revealing story--and even their own employees have confessed.

One postcard group shot--"Hi Mom, here we are in the rainforest"--clearly highlights tractor tracks navigating out of Vargas pasture, over a clearly marked boundary, crushing understory left and right, into a half-kilometer of old-growth, "primary" forest. Why so bold? There at the end of the dragway stood a towering, thick "votarrama" (Volkysia sp., name means 'throws limbs'), with a large diagonal section of tree trunk removed, sawdust all around.

In fact, as Vacori confided, none of the brothers had permission to log in standing forest; legally they could extract only "remnants" in open pasture. He also reported that Lorenzo Vargas, the permit holder, had two previous court convictions for illegal logging and, according to the rule "three strikes, you're out", after one more conviction Lorenzo will face a mandatory jail term. Still I knew, like a double-edged sword, vengeance offers only a mixed blessing.

So who gave permission to cut the trees? In Costa Rican forestry the national forestry directorate is the "competent" legal authority. Only DGF qualifies forestry inspectors and approves logging permits. Undoubtedly Jose Carmela, pioneer of frontier justice, played a direct role in this case. To wit: In his inspection report, Carmela asserted that all extracted trees (actually one tree) stood at the edge of Vargas pasture and, as such, we had insufficient evidence to prove either a violation of the permit or malicious intent to trespass.

What about the huge, teetering votarrama well inside the forest? Camela told me that, despite obvious trespass and malicious intent, legally until the tree falls no crime had been commited. Since the "ministro publico" (public prosecutor's office) will not pursue a criminal case without official support from DGF, we are left with a few months to file a civil claim against our wonderful neighbors in the Costa Rican rainforest, the notorious Vargas clan. Great.

Could we appeal to a higher authority? One San Jose lawyer suggested we 'sue' the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy, and Mining, for failing to enforce current forestry laws at the local level. (Yeah right.) "MIRENEM" administers the national parks, forestry policy, hydroelectric development, and commercial mining.

So now what? Don't worry, the Vargases are not off my 'hook' yet. Stay tuned for the next edition. Until then you guys keep planning that trip to the rainforest, and we'll protect endangered wildlife and habitat, including the forest giants. For now, send us an email with questions or comments. Our family would love to hear from you. Later.

For the Earth,

Rick Chatham
Terra Folia, Inc.

Next edition: Wilderness Rules II (Is it "payback time"?)

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