Alvaro and I met because of the exquisite poison dart frogs and tree frogs from Costa Rica that I had seen in a traveling display. These live frogs excited my imagination like no travelogue or photos ever could. Within the year (1997), David and I were on a plane to see the frogs in their native country. The travel brochure from the Nature Conservancy International Trips was tantalizing and brief, mentioning that one-quarter of the small country was federally protected. I had then just finished reading the biography of Gifford Pinchot and his influential role in the establishment and management of the vast US National Forests. It occurred to us that Costa Rica’s strong conservation ethics might also be traceable to a similarly crucial and influential counterpart(s). A short trip to the local library and a reading of The Quetzal and the Macaw (by David R. Wallace) later, we learned that indeed, two individuals by the names of Mario Boza and Alvaro Ugalde were the movers and shapers of that country’s impressive conservation policies. They instantly became our contemporary heroes. I mentally filed away the interesting information and concentrated on the preparation to meet my frogs.
Two days after we landed in Costa Rica, the Nature Conservancy designated naturalist local guide, Arturo Jarquin, announced unexpectedly that he had arranged an unofficial surprise side trip for us at the end of our tour. He wanted us to meet his friend and mentor Alvaro Ugalde. On hearing the name, I nearly fell off my chair, and thanked my luck and Arturo for giving me a chance to meet Alvaro in the flesh. As we neared the end of the trip, two fellow passengers in the group started to lobby aggressively for a shopping trip in downtown San Jose instead of meeting Alvaro. David and I favored (and prayed for) a visit to Alvaro’s and the third couple was neutral. Arturo was in the hot seat, but he kept his smile and announced on the last morning that he had a mysterious plan that would please us all. Our van winded through downtown San Jose, and then finally stopped — in front of Alvaro’s house. To this day, I can still see those two ladies’ unhappy faces and hear their grumbling as they entered Alvaro’s home. I can only imagine what crossed their litigious minds (one was a lawyer and the other the wife of a lawyer). Just as Arturo knew, the two ladies may have walked into Alvaro’s disappointed and even angry, but they left utterly charmed by their host and couldn’t stop talking after the visit about the photos on the walls — of Alvaro being greeted by Queen Beatrice of the Netherlands, shaking hands with Ronald Reagan in the Rose Garden at the White House, of the Getty Prize, and the other innumerable awards. David and I, on the other hand, were utterly impressed by Alvaro’s sincere conviction, his vision, his love and dedication to save his country’s biodiversity for our planet’s future generations. During our 5-hour plane ride home to California, we decided that we, too, must do our share.
We returned to Costa Rica the following year, made our proposal for a tiny conservation project to both Arturo and Alvaro. It took them a year to decide. By then, Alvaro was in between jobs and Arturo had resigned from Costa Rica Expeditions for personal reasons. They both accepted our proposed venture. Alvaro would pitch in whenever his public duties permit; Arturo would work fulltime as project manager. And thus the Nectandra project was born.
Over the years, I discovered that Alvaro’s face and voice read like a book. Normally optimistic, cheery and downright playful, his countenance would turn hard, his eyes from grey to glowing green, and his voice to steely quiet whenever his causes were threatened. He could hold an entire audience spellbound with stories, conveyed complex concepts with just a few heartfelt examples, or nailed his opponents in their place with a few short sentences. He could be singularly decisive, enough to negotiate and convince hundreds of angry gold miners to give up their digs to create a national park, yet would agonize for weeks before deciding whether to accept a lecture invitation or to receive an award. He thought nothing of putting the president of the country on hold, but couldn’t bring himself to deny his time to the downtrodden. In the 17 years I had known him, the country went through four administrations. Knowing that his beloved parks were at the mercy of the unpredictable and new politics, Alvaro would pace the floor and chewed his nails like an expectant father. It was heart wrenching to watch him before and during each national election.
For Alvaro, Costa Rica’s national parks and biodiversity were his life, wife, mistress and children all rolled into one. He always said he had no greater wish than to die for his causes, in the trench with his boots on. And so he did.