19 / Oct / 2021
By Bradd Johnson – Founding director of the Corcovado Foundation
The Corcovado Foundation Origins captures stories of the Osa and the creation and development of the Corcovado Foundation, seen through eyes of some of the people who first brought it to life, and those who breathe life into it every day.
Bradd Johnson, one of the three original founding members of the Foundation, is a long-time resident of Drake Bay. He owns the Aguila de Osa Rainforest & Marine Adventure Lodge, a Greentique Hotels property. Here is his story.
If Trees Could Scream…
I never expected to feel both rage and desperation in the same moment. But I did. One morning I heard the violent, high pitched whine of chainsaws echoing across the hillsides. They were tearing through living trees in the place I now called call home. And on that day, to my great surprise, I became an environmental activist. But let’s start at the beginning…
Discovering the Osa
I first saw the Osa Peninsula in 1987 while sportfishing with friends off its coast. Only 35 miles long and 25 miles wide, it nonetheless harbors 2.5% of the planet’s biodiversity and is the home of Corcovado National Park. Even though I had lived in Hawaii for years, I was absolutely stunned by the untamed beauty of this pristine part of Costa Rica.
There were miles of golden beaches wedged between waves of lush green coastal rainforests on the one side, and the crashing breakers of the Pacific Ocean on the other. A vibrant blue sky dipped down to meet the water, the ebb and flow of its waves sparkling in the intense sunlight. Whales, dolphins, rays, flying fish, and sea turtles would break the surface. All of it was somehow in sync with the rhythm of the wind and the water. So, I decided I needed to come back and explore this place.
Getting from Dominical to Sierpe meant crawling our way along something that resembled a road but was more of a trail winding through the jungle and dumping us into rivers and streams. We were lucky we had a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
But, after surviving that, what awaited us to get from Sierpe to Drake Bay, the town on the north tip of the Osa, discovered by Sir Francis Drake in 1579, was a whole other adventure.
We found a somewhat seaworthy boat and headed downriver. The Trifecta of Small Boating Adventures was our run down a jungle river, shooting the breakers from its mouth into the open ocean, then across the bay for a wet landing on a beach. If you know the old Humphrey Bogart movie The African Queen, that’s what it felt like to me.
On the way to the Pacific, the scene on the riverbanks suddenly transformed. We were passing through a massive and dense tidal forest, a thick maze of mangrove trees, their tangled roots rising out of the muck. It was filled with wildlife and exotic plants, a fascinating and foreboding place sliced by tributaries, sloughs, and mysterious inlets that disappeared into the jungle. I later found out we’d been in the Terraba-Sierpe, the largest mangrove on Central America’s Pacific coast. I would come to know it well in the years ahead.
A place and a people like no other
Most people who came to Drake Bay in the 1950s and ’60s were trying to better themselves. The government was offering free land. If you developed the property and stayed 13 years, you could get the title. It was a chance to start anew. People came to farm or raise cattle. Some came looking for gold. But that’s a sad story for another time.
For the hundred or so people who lived in the area, life in Drake was challenging. This was the coastal lowland rainforest on one of Costa Rica’s frontiers, basically isolated from the rest of the country and from other communities scattered elsewhere on the Osa.
There was no electricity, which meant no refrigerators or other typical 20th century conveniences. There were no stores, no doctors, lots of nasty snakes, and marginal drinking water. People grew their food and fished and hunted to live. To this day, I’ve never seen a community work so hard to survive, meeting the challenges thrown at them every season as just another thing to deal with to support their families.
It only took a couple of trips for me to realize how remarkable the Osa Peninsula and Drake Bay were. And while I certainly didn’t know it then, I had already been hooked for life.
If I build it, will they come?
I decided to build a small hotel, so I bought a title property close to Drake. When not camping on my land, I used to stay in a 5-room hotel called El Caballito del Mar (the Seahorse) that sat on a hill where the Agujitas River spilled into Drake Bay. Eventually, I came to grips with the fact that my beautiful piece of property wasn’t going to work for building and operating a hotel. So, I bought El Caballito, knocked down the termite-infested buildings, and started the rebuild from scratch.
Since Drake Bay had no electricity, I had to bring in a generator to build and run the hotel. Unfortunately, there was a minor hiccup in hiring local people to help build —no one from town knew how to use power tools.
There were other challenges, too. About 90% of all materials had to be sourced in San Jose and brought to Drake Bay by boat. And the stores in San Jose would close for lunch from 12 to 2, which drove me crazy. But you know what was really crazy? I was about to build a hotel in the middle of nowhere before there was very much tourism in Costa Rica!
People in San Jose had barely heard of Drake Bay, much less foreign visitors knowing it was a place to come. But it was the place for me. So, in 1992, I opened Aguila de Osa for fishing, diving, and nature tours. My life in the Osa had become something quite remarkable.
The hook for most people wasn’t the just the fishing. It was the wildlife.
Over time, the locals realized that people would come and pay to explore the rainforest and spot the wildlife on the Osa. Corcovado National Park and the waters off Caño Island were drawing adventure travelers from around the world. Tourism was generating more and more hotel and tour jobs. There were options now.
Family members could work in tourism, hotel service jobs, sell more produce and seafood, and open small concessions.
Subsistence hunters could apply their skills and knowledge to become paid nature guides.
Fewer hunters would offset the growing pressure on local wildlife, which included poaching for an increasingly problematic black market in animal trade.
Families could now earn enough money to feed themselves and improve their lives. There was a future taking shape, and I felt a part of it all.
Progress always has a price
As tourism grew, the residents wanted a road to Drake Bay to bring in electricity. Yes, the town certainly needed electricity, but I knew the road would change things forever. So, I was against it. As an outsider, it was hard to tell people that a road was not in their best interest, and though electricity was needed, I didn’t think we needed a road to bring it in.
Then in early 1998, word got to Drake Bay that towns on the northern part of Osa would get electricity. The townspeople got excited and started building a road.
The sound I will never forget.
In September of 1998, the road broke through. From there, a mob of loggers went directly to Don Victor’s land to clear cut the primary forest — the irreplaceable anchor of any forest biosystem.
From my hotel, I could hear the chainsaws ripping into the trees. Everyone could hear it. It felt like a massacre. I reached out to Mike Kalmbach, who owns La Paloma Lodge. Mike and I decided we had to do something before any more first growth trees on local farms were cut down.
We immediately contacted the environmental department of the Osa (MINAE). Tragically, it took the MINAE three days to get here, and by the time they could stop the carnage, 85 first growth trees had been felled.
Three hotels join forces to birth the Corcovado Foundation
Drake Bay was becoming more and more vulnerable every day, as others showed up intent on doing more damage to the under-protected region. Mike and I asked Steve Lill, owner of Casa Corcovado, to weigh in on what this meant to us in tourism and now that the road was open, what kind of action we could take. A plan was devised to hire a lawyer to investigate where and how many Planes de Manejo (permits) had been granted to cut lumber in the Osa.
Things in Osa move slowly, very slowly. We finally got the right lawyer who uncovered 128 permits and discovered that 112 of them were illegally obtained. The lawyer pushed forward and had the 112 permits dismissed. Of the 16 legal permits, we three hoteliers purchased eight of them. With time and persistence, we convinced MINAE not to issue any more permits unless they were for trees that had already fallen.
A few years earlier, Steve Lill had filed to create an organization that he called the Corcovado Foundation, so the name already existed when Mike and I approached him. As he had not yet formally used it, we thought it was the right name to represent us as a group. The Corcovado Foundation, as we know it today, was born.
By 1999, there was no actual management plan to prevent more wood cutting in the Osa. As three hotel owners with our hands full running our businesses, we needed a way to move forward. At a meeting, I suggested we find someone that could put their heart and soul into making this Foundation a strong organization that could continue the fight to protect and preserve the rainforest and the biodiversity on the Osa. That person was Alejandra Monge-Jimenez.
Transforming the Corcovado Foundation
I had met Alejandra a few times and knew she already had an excellent job as a property manager in Manuel Antonio. But she also had the spirit we needed and was already involved in the emerging sustainability movement in Costa Rica.
I believed that she was the perfect person to become our Executive Director and lead the Foundation. After a few meetings with the Board, she (thank God) accepted the position.
We have thrived under Ale’s leadership. Her passion and dedication to the vision and purpose of the Corcovado Foundation have seen us accomplish amazing things, not only in the Osa, but elsewhere in Costa Rica.
Her story, and the how and why of her shaping and organizing the Foundation, will be part of this series, and we all look forward to it.
As the country moves deeper into the 21st century, and with the help of staff, donors, and volunteers, the Corcovado Foundation will help ensure that the precious resources and biodiversity of this fragile land will have a chance to be restored, regenerated, helping Costa Rica to remain a cradle of life that benefits the entire planet.
— Bradd Johnson
To find out more about the Corcovado Foundation and how you can help, please visit our website http://www.corcovadofoundation.org/