In building a durable encampment at the wild frontier we often face daunting
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
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.
Already they had extracted or damaged five
large trees, including a beautiful Santa Maria specimen. (See related
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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,
Terra Folia, Inc.
Next edition: Wilderness Rules II (Is it "payback time"?)