Saturday, May 2, 2009

The nightingale sang. The quetzals did not stay.

Monteverde, Costa Rica.

It has been eight years since I stepped into the shroud of fog that literally encapsulates the upper slopes of Costa Rica's Arenal watershed. Eight years was too long. Monteverde is a magical place - having grown up in a temperate rainforest, the sight of water dripping from every frond, the shades of green that characterize the lush landscape, and the ever-present fog that is blown across the tree canopy seems at least slightly familiar. As is the sight of tourists expecting warm weather, huddled under hastily-bought ponchos, clutching their bird guides and looking longingly at the locals' sensible fleece and unflattering rubber boots.

Tourists come here for the quetzals: charismatic, bright green birds with red bellies (reminiscent of gaudy Christmas decorations, now that I think about it) that eat avocados and other members of the abundant Lauraceae family. I did not see any this trip. I won't start in on that - the lengthy hikes, the obnoxiously early morning birds hikes, the interrogation of (seemingly) EVERY OTHER PARTICIPANT on the course who saw them.

Aside from the quetzals, the Monteverde cloud forest was made famous by Allan Pounds' studies of frog extinctions - the tragic story of the golden toads, the population of which enigmatically (that is to say, without simple explanation) crashed. After a particularly disheartening lecture, we found out that it wasn't only the golden toads - so many other 'harlequin frogs' have likely gone extinct that they stop being numbers of adorable frogs and start turning into more global change statistics. The frog crashes are interesting, though - while they initially seem a simple story of an invasive Chytrid fungus that infects the frogs, rapidly disperses between individuals and species, and kills entire populations in a matter of years, climate change clearly adds a degree of complexity and vulnerability, as does habitat loss, changes in plant dynamics (and thus leaf litter on the forest floor). Putting these components together is non-trivial, and seems to have spawned some interesting and ...animated... scientific discussion among herpetologists.

But enough of the depressing climate science, and on to the hotbed of political scandal into which Monteverde has apparently devolved. Yes - political scandal, corruption, and drama worthy of a soap opera in the hippy / new-agey towns of Monteverde and Santa Elena. To cut a long and convoluted story short, there are several conservation groups that are vying for prime real estate - such competition that two of the major conservation groups (including the main cloud forest reserve group) was locked in a legal battle over a broken promise of land donation. A near decade of legal fees and a pending case in the supreme court was - rumour has it - resolved when the director of one organizaiton sarcastically suggested in an open meeting that instead of asking for the land that was promised to them by the other group, they should instead 'donate all of their land to the allegedly back-peddling organization. This motion was rapidly seconded by a visiting member of the competing organization, voted upon, and actually resulted in the donation (?) of land in the opposite direction than had been originally planned and was under legal dispute. The cases have apparently all been dropped. I have no verification over this story, but it is so bizarre that I actually believe it.

Then add in a fight over stream water rights involving enterprising restaurant owners, some ecologists and a community of activists that was side-lined by political corruption - several respected scientists were accused of 'inciting a riot' during a municipal meeting and locked in YEARS of legal defense, federal Ministers of the Environment made (ahem) suspicious decisions, and all the forms regarding environmental impact assessments involved blatant lies that were conveniently ignored (Does the stream provide habitat to threatened species? Does it provide water to communities downstream?). This place is fascinating.

But perhaps what surprises me the most about this place - other than the splendid beauty of the cloud forest, of course - is the rampant rise in tourism. Supposedly 'eco-tourism'. Which in and of itself is not a bad thing - people who want to conserve the environment and are willing to pay for it must be some of the most positive forces in this country. But when development is unregulated and precious water supplies are being diverted from habitat for the very creatures (the quetzal and the bell-bird) that all the tourists come to see, you have to wonder how much money changed hands in this supposedly so environmentally-oriented country to allow this to happen?

But while I saw an over-abundance of tour groups and an under-abundance of quetzals, I did become enamoured with the wind chime call of the nightingale. An eery sound that echoes through the cloud forest during the day and almost made up for the lack of charismatic wildlife...

I never saw them.

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