The Osa Peninsula Chronological History
THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT!
In The Beginning...Osa Peninsula Chronological History
Within the veiled annals of time, the enigmatic history of the Osa Peninsula unfurls like a mesmerizing tapestry. Long before the modern world laid claim to its emerald bosom, this biologically intense land once lay hidden beneath the ocean’s depths, a realm of secrets shrouded in aquatic mystery. Yet, as nature’s elemental forces clashed with fervor, volcanoes erupted and tectonic plates collided, carving destiny’s design upon the earth’s canvas.
A prodigious land bridge emerged, defying the boundless expanse of the sea, bridging the great continents of North and South America. In awe-inspiring grandeur, the Osa Peninsula rose from its aquatic slumber, bursting forth into the world above the surface of the water. And so, the stage was set, and the land bridge became a vital conduit for the symphony of life, an instrumental harbinger of the prodigious biodiversity that would come to adorn this sacred sanctuary.
Through the mists of time, human footfalls graced these untamed shores, leaving the echoes of ancient wanderers who tread upon its hallowed ground since the bygone days of 6,000 BC. Among them, the Chiriquí and Borucas, indigenous custodians of the rainforest, found solace and sustenance amidst the lush foliage, attuned to the secrets whispered by the rustling leaves.
In the wake of maritime explorations that would etch their names upon history’s pages, one valiant voyager stands out amidst the ever-turning tides. Some two decades after Christopher Columbus’ fateful encounter with distant shores near Limon, explorer Gil Gonzalez Dávila ventured forth and found himself in the company of a local cacique named OSA. The very name itself bestowed upon the peninsula remains a testament to this serendipitous encounter.
And then, in 1569, the illustrious Sir Francis Drake, renowned scourge of the high seas, graced the Osa’s untouched shores. Legends speak of a buried treasure, hidden amongst the coastline’s secrets, tantalizing the imaginations of treasure seekers for generations. Yet, like a ghost that eludes capture, the elusive riches remained concealed, evading discovery to this very day.
As centuries cascaded through the hourglass of eternity, the Osa Peninsula slipped into the embrace of forgotten time, a realm untouched by the relentless march of progress. But as the 18th-century sun dawned upon the horizon, the verdant Eden caught the attention of a keen observer. Fernandez de Oveido, a Spanish naturalist, marveled at the profusion of life, the vibrant tapestry of flora and fauna that adorned this paradise. With heartfelt sincerity, he implored the locals to safeguard the precious forest, to nurture its sanctity. But alas, his words fell upon indifferent ears, as the allure of progress cast its shadow, and well into the 20th century, the clearing of the jungle was deemed the path to advancement.
Thus, the Osa Peninsula endured, a realm of intrigue and mystique, its secrets whispered to the wind. And in the shadows of its untamed heart, echoes of bygone eras and untold treasures lie dormant, awaiting the intrepid souls who dare to embark on its timeless journey.
THE HISTORY OF THE OSA PENINSULA
THROUGH THE LENS OF GOLD
In the year 1821, the dawn of Costa Rica’s independence from Spain marked a turning point in history. Yet, amidst the newfound freedom, a somber truth lingered in the shadows of the Zona Sur – the fate of the indigenous people was one of tragedy and vanishing echoes. Foreign diseases, coerced labor, and the desperate flight from their ancestral lands led to their extirpation. The once vibrant communities of the Osa Peninsula likely faded into oblivion, surrendering the land to the relentless embrace of the expanding forest cover.
As the wheels of time turned, 1848 heralded the birth of Costa Rica as a Republic. And it was during this transformative period that a pioneering colony of Panamanians took root, drawn to the untamed allure of the Golfo Dulce’s environs. The Costa Rican President at that time, aware of the potential and the need to cultivate the lands, dispatched a mission of colonists to vie for dominion over these fertile domains.
Thus, a bold new chapter unfurled, and cattle emerged as the crowned monarch of the Osa Peninsula. The resounding hooves of these bovine royalty echoed across the expanse, as pastures and ranches became the heartbeat of this untamed realm. The rhythms of life adapted to the ebb and flow of the land, ushering forth an era defined by the mighty reign of cattle.
In the majestic tapestry of history, the Osa Peninsula witnessed the convergence of destiny and determination, as new chapters intertwined with the legacy of a vanished people, shaping the narrative of this verdant paradise. The echoes of the past continued to resonate, the forest cover expanding, holding within its embrace the untold tales of those who once called this land home. And thus, the Osa Peninsula ventured forth into the uncharted territories of time, a land of unfolding sagas and unyielding spirit.
By the end of the 19th century, a few naturalists had visited the Osa Peninsula. They faintly acknowledged that the Osa could someday become a territory of fundamental research. In the 1890s, a government-funded expedition focused on accurately mapping the southern regions, intended to help legislators learn ‘just what was theirs and how best to exploit it’. This was also about the time that the original village of the Osa Peninsula, Santo Domingo, was taking root.
In 1910, the town changed its name in honour of the first president to ever visit the Osa Peninsula, Ricardo Jimenez. At the time, the settlers of the Osa processed and sold coconut derivatives and other local produce to passing steamships. Also about this time, the Osa was gaining a reputation as a place to drop off criminals in the most remote locations of the peninsula. The natural barriers of the area basically isolated these lawless individuals to a life of fending for themselves in the wilds of the last frontier.
In the 1930s, things started to change on the Osa. The History of the Osa Peninsula took a turn. The United Fruit Company (UFC) decided to desert the Atlantic region and to move to the Pacific side because of a deterioration of the land near the Caribbean coast. In 1937, the UFC moved to the Pacific on a land swap with the government and ended up owning much of the territory outside the Osa’s previously settled areas.
To the locals, UFC was known as el pulpo, the ‘octopus’. Also, Puerto Jimenez was an agriculture town of a few hundred that became home to the Costa Rican Banana Company (a subsidiary of United Fruit Company) which was exploiting hardwoods and exploring the Pacific lowlands of Central America for precious woods and to increase their plantings of banana and oil palm.
Also at this time in the Osa Peninsula chronological history, gold was discovered and the history of the Osa Peninsula took another turn. This is where myth and storytelling shade the truth. Some say it was the criminals who discovered the valuable metal when they were left to live or die on this natural penal colony. Others say it was a settler who found gold dust in a shell on the beach. Whatever the truth might be, the Osa was now gaining notoriety as the last frontier, which was lawless yet full of opportunity. Gold mining began in earnest in 1937 on the Rio Tigre (Golfo Dulce side). The gold miners reached the Madrigal River, limit to present-day CNP, in 1939. After discovering gold in the sand on the beach there, a “gold rush” began, complete with a movie theatre, general store, brothel and bar. This was short-lived.
Big mining companies descend on Rio Carate in the 1940s. And in 1943, the United Fruit Company company determined the Osa’s soils, topography, and accessibility were not apt for banana production. Shortly after, the company deeded all 13 of its Osa fincas (farms, or lots) comprising 47,513 hectares (117,357 acres), about one-third of the peninsula, to a retiring company engineer.
In 1938, Puerto Jiménez had grown into a slightly larger and less demure frontier town gaining an airstrip with passenger flights to San José.
In the 1950s, Puerto Jimenez town center was moved to its present location. “In those days the streets were grass,” says Anita Polanco, who initially arrived on the Osa in the late 1930s in search of gold… “It was a very small place, and all the families knew each other. There were the Quintero, the Cevallo, the Aguirres, the Chavarria, the Pinzon family, the Lescano, the Francesqui, some 25 families … “.
Professional crocodilian hunters had hunted caiman and crocodiles around the Corcovado between 1944-69, harpooning, skinning and selling their hides in Puntarenas for exportation to Japan. Their business disappeared in the late 1960s when plastics imitating animal skins destroyed the hide market.
Pressure comes to the Osa...
In 1957, a U.S. owned company Osa Forest Products (OFP) bought the 47,513 hectares of forest on the peninsula for $450,000 from the engineer’s widow. OFP was legally registered in Costa Rica in 1959 and given permission for forestry and mining concession of the Osa, which totalled 61,660 ha. Some squatters on OFP land had settled the territory over 40 years before OFP had arrived.
Beginning in the 1960s, there was increasing pressure on the forested regions of the Corcovado Basin (CB) to convert them to pasture as the Osa Peninsula chronological history moved forward.. The same pattern occurred on the east side of the Osa Peninsula, which had two-thirds of its landscape deforested with over 10,668 head of cattle by 1973.
In a little twist of irony, the history of the Osa Peninsula takes a small step towards conservation as the manager at OFP Alvin Wright invites Leslie Holdridge (co-founder of the new San José-based Tropical Science Center TSC) and Joseph Tosi (TSC co-founder) to open a field station on OFP property at Rincon. They erect the Rincón de Osa field station building just south of the OFP airfield. The Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) was founded in 1963 as a consortium of six United States universities and the University of Costa Rica.
In 1963, a survey found 83 existing homesteads on land titled to OFP. According to one veteran who had settled there in the mid-1960s, the entire population of the ‘gold rivers’ of the peninsula in 1967 comprised just eleven gold mining families.
Between 1962 and 1973, over a thousand scientist visit the Rincón tropical research outpost. Their environmental land use studies, along with conservation-oriented activity, soon provoke a revolutionary shift on the Osa. Curiously, this movement was promoted right under the nose of OFP, who would be directly affected by the actions of the scientists.
By the early 1970s, things started to heat up on the Osa Peninsula. Control of its natural resources was at the center of the battle. The settlers and goldmines were coming up against the OFP in a fight for land rights. The foreign scientists were making inroads in defining the Osa as a jewel of fundamental research. And the Costa Rican government started taking notice as the Communist Party was getting a foothold in the southern zone and stirring discontent.
The Lines Are Drawn...
Between 1971 and 1973 the Osa Peninsula chronological history takes a turn as charges of tax evasion, land-hoarding, repressive actions against settlers, corruption and other activities were levelled against OFP by congressmen from Costa Rica’s national legislature. OFP’s manager began massive road construction to force evictions in its holdings. Armed squatters captured OFP staff and a tractor in the Corcovado Basin, and warned that if OFP persisted in its attempts to evict settlers on their land, “blood would flow”. OFP asked the Rural Guard to come to its rescue, but they were weary.
In 1972, Christopher Vaughn, a Peace Corp volunteer, working under Alvaro Ugalde (Costa Rica National Parks), drew on the legacy of the Rincon Field Station and started looking at the OSA as a new national park. The scientists were wolves in sheep’s clothing concerning their use of OFP property while supporting the creation of a national park on the OSA.
Finally, in 1973, OFP shut down the TSC station due to the campaign that TSC and OTS scientists were carrying out to create a national park on OFP land in the Corcovado Basin (Cuenca del Corcovado).
Between 1972 and 1974, the Osa Peninsula’s population doubled. Construction of the Inter-American Highway South promoted the migration. OFP turned the focus of its energy towards resort development. They used strong-arm tactics to frighten settlers off OFP land. Hostility between OFP and locals continued, and in late 1973, an OFP guard was killed. There were 1,160 farmers occupying about 10,162 ha or 21% of OFP lands at the time.
In 1974, a dirt road connected the eastern coast from Rincon to Puerto Jimenez, the capital town with 600 inhabitants. There was no agricultural mechanization on the Osa Peninsula. Corn, rice and beans were planted in primitive ways, using a stick or hand-casting. Slash and burn agriculture was still prevalent. OFP started a new phase in their attack on the land… make money out of the OSA whether through gold dredging in the laguna, forestry, cattle ranching, or creating their own private park. Moreover, with the dry season coming, squatters started filing land claims to begin clearing the rainforest. There was also a Japanese company, Mitsui, planning to contract the Osa forests from OFP and grind it into chips.
Corcovado National Park Defines the Osa...and the History of the Osa Peninsula
By 1975, OFP had lost all control over the squatters situation. Chris Vaughn wrote at the time… ‘not one square meter it the Corcovado plain or in the nearby hills was not marked with boundary lines and claimed by an owner’. These were mostly speculators looking to clear land to resell at inflated prices. In the Corcovado Basin (CB), gold miners spent most of their time panning for gold in the Claro river watershed. Most had no property, but travelled between claims, building temporary shacks along the rivers and streams. Their earnings averaged about US$15 a month. Few struck it rich, but many got caught with gold fever.
By the end of 1975, OFP knew their lands on the OSA where being considered for expropriation so went to the president of Costa Rica to talk about a land swap. In October, President Oduber signed a degree exchanging lands of the OSA Corcovado Basin for the territories of the surrounding Baldios Nacionales. On the same day, he signed a decree establishing ‘Parque Nacional Corcovado’ in the Corcovado Basin… and a paper park was created. Costa Rican law requires that squatters be compensated in full for any “improvements” they make to land occupied for three months or longer before they can be removed.
The original estimate by the National Parks Service of $176,000 for setting up the park (mostly to buy out squatters) later rose to at least $1.2 million.
Corcovado National Park (CNP) was the first Costa Rican park justified only based on its ecological and scientific merits, without reference to cultural attributes (like Santa Rosa) or recreational benefits (like Manuel Antonio).
In 1978, the Costa Rican government acquired the remaining OFP 16,000 hectares and the history of the Osa Peninsula evolves with the establishment of Corcovado National Park. The government was also successful at relocating the approximately 300 farmers, along with their livestock, to the eastern side of the peninsula. However, the gold miners remained entrenched.
Corcovado National Park included extensions in 1978, 1980, and 1985.
The Challenge Continues...
In the early 1980s, the Osa Peninsula chronological history sees dirt roads that come to the Osa when president Oscar Arias signed the ‘Roads for Peace’ project with Ronald Reagan. The Osa exploded with a perfect storm of calamities that included: the collapse of the banana business in the gulf with widespread unemployment; the spillover from the wars of Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the contagious narco-militarism of Panama; gold peaked at atmospheric levels, and another gold rush began.
By 1983, an OSA gold rush was well underway due to the rising gold prices, economic crisis, local agriculture problems, and phoney investment schemes. The Rural Guard evicted 1,500 miners from the park. A new Corcovado management plan was launched to deal with the invasion. Park headquarters moved from Sirena to Cerro de Oro to combat the miners. Alvaro Ugalde asked President Monge to declare the OSA in a state of emergency in 1985, and University of Pennsylvania biologist Dan Janzen was asked to conduct a study on the impact of gold mining in and around the park. It was his recommendation that led to the complete eviction of miners in 1986.
At this point in the history of the Osa Peninsula, it was estimated that 2,000 miners were working in the rivers and on the beach in 1984. A government study in 1985 confirmed that 1,500 oreros were working illegally in the park and an additional 3,500 were working in nearby areas. According to an estimate, the community above Madrigal Beach had approximately five hundred inhabitants living in two hundred makeshift houses.
In the 1990s, the U.S. Army Corps of engineers got busy building roads, bridges and schools on the Osa Peninsula while at the same time keeping a close eye on all of Ollie North and Noriega activity in the mountains high above the city of David, Panama.
In 1993, there was a campaign against the construction of U.S. corporate subsidiary Ston Forestal’s wood-chipping plant in an ecologically vulnerable location adjacent to the Golfo Dulce. This successful campaign, inspired and in part led by AECO (Costa Rican Ecologists’ Association), became a mostly Osa grassroots enterprise. This effort raised the ecological and conservation consciousness of many longtime Osa Peninsula inhabitants and served as a basis for interest in later local conservation agendas.
Looking to the Future
As the sun of time cast its radiant glow upon the Osa Peninsula, the Republic of Costa Rica embraced a visionary path towards its economic future. With resolute determination, Costa Rica wholeheartedly embraced the burgeoning concept of ecotourism, paving the way for an extraordinary example of sustainable development on the global stage. The winds of change swept away the remnants of mining companies that once marked the land, leaving the Osa Peninsula to breathe freely in the embrace of nature’s embrace.
Amidst the fertile soil of the 1990s, a new era unfolded as the first full-service eco-lodges emerged on the untamed shores of the peninsula. These sanctuaries, carefully designed to harmonize with the surrounding wilderness, became the vanguard of a noble endeavor – ecotourism. As if summoned by destiny, ecotourism found its rightful place, taking firm hold of the land and the hearts of those who dared to venture forth. Thus, the Osa Peninsula bloomed with promise, inviting seekers of sustainable adventure to partake in a journey like no other.