Quakers save cloud forest in Monteverde

When I was a CBC Radio host in the late 1980s, I bought title to one acre of cloud forest in Costa Rica for 25 dollars and then did an interview about it with someone from one of the environmental organizations supporting the project. Now, 25 years later, I may just have seen my acre of forest in a visit that I made with my wife Martha to Monteverde.  On one of our hikes, our guide to the trees and trails in the reserve was Ricardo (Ricky) Guindon. He is the son Wilford and Lucky Guindon, one of the Quaker families that settled there in the 1950s, and who have played an important role in protecting the forest. It’s quite a story.

Ricardo Guindon, guiding at Monteverde, Costa Rica

Cloud Forests

Costa Rica is a small country with a maximum distance of about 120 kilometres between its Caribbean and Pacific coasts. It is mostly mountainous and was once covered almost entirely by dense forests. Eighty per cent of that forest cover had been lost before the government stepped in to begin reversing the process in the latter years of the 20th century. As we will see, private groups were working toward the same end.

What is now known as the Montverde cloud forest exists on a high spine of mountains that run generally northwest to southeast in Costa Rica. Here you encounter the Continental Divide, with streams tumbling off one side of the mountains toward the Pacific and off of the other toward the Atlantic or Caribbean coast. The predominant winds at Monteverde are from the Caribbean side and the mountains are often draped in a mist and fog that occur when the breeze touches the canopy of trees. The forest is home to an abundance of plant, animal and bird species.

In the 1930s, Costa Rican (Tico) families headed from the lowlands farther and farther up into the mountains, cutting down the forests in an attempt create subsistence farms and sell logs. It was a difficult and harsh existence.

Quakers

Oddly, these farmers were joined in 1951 by a group of about 10 Quaker families who had decided to leave the United States. The American government had in 1948 reinstated its practice of drafting all eligible young men for service in the army. Four young Quakers who lived in farm country in Alabama were among those who decided that they would not serve and they were put into prison for several months. They, and others, decided that the U.S. was becoming too militaristic for their liking and they chose to leave. They decided to move to Costa Rica, a country with open spaces, a good climate, and one that had abolished its military in 1949.

The Quaker group trekked up the deeply rutted mountain trails in 1951 and they began, like the Tico families around them to cut down the forests to develop their farms. In fact, it was the Quakers who introduced the chain saw to the area. A person with a saw could fell trees much more quickly than someone with an axe. The Quakers were soon focused on creating small dairy farms and in order to use all of their milk, they built the Monteverde Cheese Factory in 1953. It still exists. They also built a school and a Friends Meeting House, which continues to host gatherings on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Although they were farmers who cut down trees, the Quakers feared that if the steep mountain slopes lost too much forest cover the community water supplies would be threatened by erosion and pollution. They decided to set aside a 550-hectare portion of their forested land in a preserve.

Monteverde Reserve

By 1970, there was growing pressure upon the forest from other farmers, mostly poor peasants attempting to create homesteads. American scientists Harriett and George Powell came to the region in that year to do graduate work. They were alarmed at the loss of habitat and began to buy land to protect the forest. They worked with Quaker pioneer Wilford (Wolf) Guindon to promote the establishment of a natural reserve. It was called  the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve. The project was administered by the Tropical Science Center, an organization that had arrived in the area to do biological research.

The Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve was created in 1972 and was expanded several times through the purchase of land from locals, mostly peasant farmers. The project coincided with a growing interest among international environmental groups who were also concerned about deforestation and the loss of habitat in species-rich Costa Rica. In 1988, a venture called the Children’s Eternal Rainforest Project purchased an even larger amount of forest. There are now more than 60,000 hectares of protected forest in the Monteverde and neighbouring Arenal volcano regions.

Wolf Guindon

Wolf Guindon provided a particular leadership in the Monteverde preservation project. He is elderly now but his enthusiasm for the project and his stamina for hiking are legendary in the region. Ricardo Guindon, our guide on one of our day hikes in Monteverde, is Wolf’s son. He said that his father, now in his 80s, rarely hikes any more but that he had been on the trails once in this season.

Ricardo Guindon

Ricardo is an amazing guide. Using a scope resembling a long telephoto camera lens, he was able to provide our small group with sightings of a variety of animals and birds, including the legendary Quetzal. He also pointed out the names and characteristics of all manner of plants, everything from towering trees to creeping vines and tiny orchids.

As a youth Richard had gone to study in the U.S. but decided to return. He married a Costa Rican woman and although proud of his Quaker heritage he is now a member of a more evangelical church. When a couple of days later we visited the cheese factory, the blonde young woman who was our guide said that she, too, had grown up in a home where her Quaker father had married a local Costa Rican woman. Our guide said that she attended a Catholic church with her mother while growing up. The young guide, too, had married a Costa Rican and lived in the nearby village of Santa Elena.

Friends meeting

We visited the Monteverde Friends School and attended a Friends meeting on a Wednesday at 9:00 a.m. The room was of the simplest wood frame construction and almost completely unadorned, saved for rows of benches arranged in more semicircular fashion. Between two bare studs on one wall was a blue sign that had written on it, War is not the Answer.

The room was soon filled to near capacity of about 100 people, with perhaps a third being adults and the others students from the Kindergarten to Grade 12 school that is located next door. The meeting began with a long period of silence and we were impressed at how the school children, even the youngest ones, were able to participate in that silence without talking or even fidgeting.

Occasionally, someone would stand and make a simple comment, which, depending on its origin, would be translated either into English or Spanish. Those few statements, either delivered extemporaneously or read aloud, were of a type describing how one should respect and listen to others, being slow to judge and quick to forgive.

The meeting continued for about 45 minutes and guests, about six or eight of us, were asked at the end to introduce themselves. This was followed by a brief period of chatting and visiting, and then all went their separate ways. It was a plain and sober service but also a moving experience.

Down the mountain

After four days at Monteverde, we traveled in a shuttle bus down the mountain – it takes about 45 minutes to travel the first 18 kilometers of unpaved road. The views back to the mountaintops, frequently and fleetingly enveloped in cloud and mist, were quite stunning.

Our shuttle took us on a four-hour ride to the Pacific beaches at a location called Manuel Antonio. It is a beautiful area but touristy. The government, however, has created Costa Rica’s smallest national park at Manuel Antonio. Amazingly, given the tourist traffic, the park was teeming with birds, amphibians and animals, including various species of monkeys.

Smoking up

Our local guide was both knowledgeable about the park and exuberant. At one point when he was talking about protected areas, we mentioned that we had been at Monteverde. Ah, Monteverde, he said, where the Quakers came in to cut down the forests and then got credit for protecting them. Did we know, he said to everyone in our small group, that the Quakers at Monteverde smoked marijuana at the beginning of their religious services?

I said that we had just attended the Quaker service on a Wednesday, two days earlier,  and that we had not noticed anybody smoking up. Ah Wednesday, he said, without missing a beat. They don’t smoke on Wednesday. They smoke before the Sunday service.

Whatever. I don’t mind who gets the credit – but the effort to save habitat and living things in Costa Rica is impressive.

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Dennis

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, blogger and a former member of Parliament

12 thoughts on “Quakers save cloud forest in Monteverde”

  1. A good article. WE visited the same area last year and met the Tico blonde at the cheese factory. We were also introduced to a sustainable coffee growing initiative and bought our coffee from there for a while.

  2. Very interesting story. I have been there when my son tought at the Creative Learning Centre in Santa Helena. We have visited the Cloud Forest and attended the Christmas service at the Quaker church in Monteverde. I greatly admired them. We were luckier than you, after the service there was big dinner and we were welcome. I interviewed several of the Quakers. It was 1995. we were taken on a tour of the Cloud Forest and I did see a Quetzal.

  3. A fine article. I have also visited Monteverde. Very imprsssive. One small point, I don’t think Costa Rica is the smallest Latin American country – Belize is.

    1. Dennis replies: Thanks Eric, and you are right about Costa Rica’s not being LA’s smallest country. I have made the correction.

  4. Thank you Dennis for posting this inspirational article! I recall the statement those who are crazy enough to try changing the world are those that do. I wonder if there are those of us within our own great nation that have the a kinship with our own majestic boreal forests and whether they/we all as an organism have the vision to tackle the devastation that the oil sands mining operations in Alberta have created. I recall, as the daughter of a father who was so proud to be a Canadian that we, my sisters and I were taken across this magnificent land to experience it in every season. I remember traveling into the boreal forests. It’s an experience I’ve never forgotten because the experience was ‘intoxicating’ on every level of my being. Is there anyone who would care to join me in a commitment to reforest the boreal and to create a Bio-Sphere reserve on what is today a scarred landscape visible from outer space? Let me know, there is no better a time than now. Thank you, Sharon Szmolyan

    1. Dennis replies: Thanks for your comment Sharon. It certainly did occur to me while in Costa Rica that we in Canada are in need of a consciouness and efforts that would preserve our own forests and restore some of the damage that has been done. Our own landscape has been altered incredibly. You mention the oil sands, which will despoil an area twice the size of the province of New Brunswick. In other areas, most notably British Columbia, the forests have been mined as well. And I have read that there is no more altered landscape in Canada than that of the prairie and parklands. I hope that others will join you in your project.

    2. Dear Sharon,

      I too treasure the Boreal forest, the other half of Gaia’s lungs (along with the tropical rain forests). Years ago, George Smith leader of the Metis of northern Saskatchewan, took us on a tour of the devastating impacts of clear cutting forests, road building, and Uranium mining on both the people and the environment. I’d love to work with you to protect them.

  5. As a Prairie dweller, I find this landscape rarely reveals large areas of native grassland. However, one can find the strength shining through, in spots, with amazing potential for rejuvenation once conditions are suitable. This perception gives me hope for all of Canada’s disturbed lands.

  6. Dennis, Blessings on you for this eloquent, powerful description. I love your blog. Diana Ralph

  7. Dear Dennis,

    Thank you so much for the beautiful depiction of my family’s journey. Wolf and Lucky are my Great Uncle and Aunt and living in the states, so far away, I have been keeping in touch mostly through publications such as this, and through my mother who occasionally gets to correspond through the cousins or through their school updates. It is very inspiring and just re-enforced our desire to travel there for a visit as soon as we are able and while there is still time. I am so glad to see their journey reaching, moving and inspiring others thanks to people such as your self taking the interest in them and the time to write and share about them. If you should see them again before we get the chance, please tell them that they are missed in the states and loved very much.

    Always in Peace.

    1. Thanks Nicole. I did not have the pleausure of meeting Wolf and Lukcy but we did have the good fortune of having thier son Ricardo as our guide in the Monteverde Reserve for part of a day. Best wishes to you.

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