A sense of sadness swept through the national parks of Costa Rica this week with the passing of ‘conservation crusader’ Álvaro Ugalde who had long been considered the father of Costa Rica’s world-famous national park system.
Ugalde, who died of a heart attack in his home close to San José, a day short of his 69th birthday was an environmental leader who co-founded the Costa Rican National Park system which now covers nearly 25% of the country’s land surface.
Eduard Müller, President of the University for International Cooperation, who worked closely with Ugalde, said: “Costa Rica has lost a founding member of the National Parks Service and the conservation world has lost a dear friend. He will be remembered for his work all over Costa Rica, particularly in the Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica, which he maintained throughout his life. It says it all that just days before his passing he met with the President Luis Guillermo Solis trying to get greater protection for Osa from the threat of hunters and gold miners that have again taken hold in the park.”
“During the last years of his life, he devoted half his time as a volunteer taking care of elders, and the rest of the time he was actively involved in conservation efforts, working with journalists, conservationists and many organizations. Álvaro’s legacy is still well alive and he has catalysed a large community of professionals, friends and organizations that are coming together to further pursue his dreams of conserving life under natural conditions for the future.”
In the 1960s, Costa Rica’s pristine rainforests were being torn down as developers looked to turn this natural paradise into power stations, gold panning expeditions and towns and cities. However, Ugalde, then a 22-year-old biology student, had other ideas. Having visited various parks across Canada and the United States, he realised that his homeland had enormous potential if they could only have the foresight to manage these forests. Working alongside his colleague Mario Boza, he began to develop their national parks system, protecting key areas such as Corcovado National Park.
Their lobbying, campaigning and hard work soon paid off as Costa Rica emerged as the one of Central America’s leading lights in eco-tourism, helping to bring in over two billion dollars in tourism annually. Alvaro received many awards in his more than 30 year dedication including the “J. Paul Getty World Wildlife Award”, from US President Ronald Reagan and “Environmental Leader of the Century” by Time Magazine; and “Environmentalist of the Year” by Latin Trade Magazine Bravo Awards.
Pedro Rosabal, Deputy Director of IUCN’s Global Protected Areas Programme, who was a friend and a huge supporter of Ugalde’s work, said: “I admired his firm position on the importance of protected areas and his critical views on problems affecting them which he presented courageously, “sin pelos en la lengua” as we say. I will always remember his love and dedication for his lovely country, Costa Rica, and the sense of urgency he showed in the many times he called for ACTIONS and for doing things NOW. We have lost a true leader and an icon in the protected areas movement.”