CRC Daily: The European legacy of Costa Rica’s national parks

Costa Rica has them to thank, in part, for its green global image.

Located on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, the Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve is a jewel among Costa Rica’s protected wildlife areas.

The reserve shelters a variety of mammals, marine species and birds, plus more than 1,200 hectares of primary and secondary forest. Created in 1963, Cabo Blanco is Costa Rica’s oldest protected area.

And it wouldn’t exist without the efforts of a European couple.

First, some history:

During the mid-1950s, as a means of diversifying its agricultural economy, the Government of Costa Rica encouraged its citizens to move to the Nicoya Peninsula, establish small farms, and grow crops other than bananas and coffee. In return for their efforts, the Government transferred ownership of the land to the individuals. This was remarkably effective in relocating Costarricenses, but not particularly effective in diversifying the economy as the fast denuding of the woodlands resulted in significant erosion and poor crop production.

At roughly the same time, Olof Wessberg and Karen Mogensen settled in Montezuma. While there, Olof — a Swede who also went by the name Nicholas — saw some of the last remaining swaths of primary forest in the region being razed.

The couple sprang into action, traveling to San José to plea for help from the government with some success. (Thanks in part to their efforts, Costa Rica scaled back its damaging land-distribution programs.) Then Olof and Karen launched a fundraising campaign to purchase and protect what little forest remained.

The efforts went international, and an article in an English conservation publication helped kickstart donations from across the world to protect “El Cabo.”

With the land purchased, the Costa Rican government took authoritative action. In 1963, a decree created “a forest reserve area in the Cabo Blanco Peninsula” to protect flora and fauna “which has been disappearing in Central America and Mexico.”

Costa Rica’s first protected wildlife area was born.

While the vast majority of Cabo Blanco is off-limits to visitors, the two public trails are named after Olof and Karen.

Fun fact: Cabo Blanco is the setting for a scene in “Jurassic Park” — the novel by Michael Crichton, not the movie that depicted a beachfront restaurant in San José. In the book, a young girl is attacked by a small dinosaur. She survives.

Unfortunately, Olof’s life ended in tragedy. The Swede was killed in 1975 while campaigning for the creation of a reserve on the Osa Peninsula. Later that year, Corcovado National Park became a reality; to this day, it’s considered one of the most biodiverse areas in the world.

Before Karen’s death in 1994, the original farm she shared with Olof in Montezuma was declared “Nicolas Wessberg Absolute Natural Reserve.”

Today, wildlife and protected areas are integral to Costa Rica’s global image. The country has Karen and Olof to thank.

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