Who are you?

So I bought a piece of rainforest I couldn´t find nor did I know what to do with it.

The only logical next step was to get to know it. And I wanted to get to know it well.
In order to do that – I was already back in Munich/ Germany at that time – I decided to find a few adventurous co-explorers to accompany me. I put up a few ads in local adventure stores:

“Looking for team to explore rainforest in Costa Rica.
I have no idea what is expecting us.
I have no experience with the environment.
I do not know if we will come back.”

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Interestingly, three people actually replied and joined me:
Carol – mid-40s, programmer and motorcycle and car enthusiast
Chris – partner of Carol, similar age motorclycle enthusiast (after her husband had died in a motorcycle accident)
Rainer – late 30´s, very down-to-earth, working as a grave digger – no shit!
(if you are reading this, I would love to get back in touch and catch up!)
So I had my team and a destination. And to tell you the truth, I was a bit scared, too. But I warned Carol, Chris and Rainer… so I did not feel bad about dragging them with me.

When we arrived in Bribri, the capital of Talamanca near Puerto Viejo and Cahuita, Gio, my Costa Rican partner in the undertaking, had done his homework and guided us to the cabin we had built as a base on the land. It consisted of two bedrooms, a small kitchen and an open living room with an ample terrace for observation. About 10m away, we had an open rainforest shower with running water and a basic “toilet”. The cabin was situated near one of the numerous streams on Aiko with a natural pool and picturesque waterfall ideal for getting rid of the sweat from hiking around.
This all seemed much less adventurous than I had imagined. A nice cabin in the forest. No noise, no cars, no internet or phone… perfect place to disconnect, relax, read, talk, think and hike around. We prepared our first dinner on the gas stove with food we brought from town accompanied by a few still cool beers. I almost felt sorry for my guests who were prepared to go through hell.

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During dinner, things started to turn. Well, the sun set. It got dark. Really dark. And suddenly it wasn´t all that silent anymore. The light of millions of stars and the moon with a circular rainbow around it formed by the humidity added to a few candles we lit on our dinner table. Curious insects from out of space came to see us and we spotted a rather large spider whose eight eyes reflected our flashlight. We called it Karl, he came by every night and much later we learned he was of the most venomous species found in this area – not lethal though. Hours passed by in a blink as we were consumed by this flood of new impressions. And to be honest, despite all tiredness I did not really sleep much that night. Sometimes it´s more scary what you imagine around you based on unknown sounds than actually seeing what´s there.

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Just on time around six in the morning, the rising sun and howler monkeys heralded our first fulll day in the rainforest and we were ready to explore the area after a plentiful breakfast. Armed with boots and machetes, we took off in one direction. Any direction, as we didn´t really know anything yet. Apart from a suttle Indiana Jones feeling, however, there wasn´t much of a thrill about walking through the jungle at first. It wans´t until we learned some basics about the flora and fauna and how the forest works, that we started discovering amazing trees, flowers, amphibians, birds and all that lives and coexists within.

We spent the following two or three months exploring, reading, building things and learning – about the forest, ourselves and each other. This first potentially lethal visit to Aiko  turned out to be an overwhelming experience we would never forget. We learned a lot about the rainforest first hand. We also learned a lot about ourselves and us as a group. We had a lot of fun while being completely disconnected from our usual environment with all it´s amenities and discomforts. We adopted new perspectives and priorities during our visit, some of which would stay with us after returning to our “normal” lives.

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In the end, this trip was our first Aiko-logi-Tour! Little did we know how fulfilling, exciting, relaxing and inspiring a stay at Aiko would be.

Own Rainforest

Ownership got a new meaning with Aiko.

Since Costa Rican law was quite new to me, I joined up with a friend-of-a-friend local lawyer, half jokingly called Jorgito, to legalize the purchase in Talamanca. I had mentioned that I needed to get the signatures of all neighbors in order to prove the ownership of the terrain I bought. Now this may sound weird or funny, but to get the signatures of the neighbors, my lawyer and I first had to find the neighbors – not so easy in the rainforest where each neighbor lives on 15-30 hectares of mountaneous tropical forest intercepted by numerous ridges and streams, waterfalls and the occasional fallen giant. What made it even more difficult is that we coulnd´t find our own piece of land…

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Picture a young, German MBA student with his big-city San José lawyer sitting on two horses, Jorgito on his back then super high-tech and modern Motorola flip-mobile-phone, riding through the rainforest in torrential rainfall. We gave up after a two hour soaking wet expedition and returned to Bribri where all our neighbors were sitting calmly in dry and relaxed bars enjoying their saturday off. Needless to say, we got all the signatures we needed in a blink.

Now that we had the signatures, I had to learn that those signatures really were the basis of what I had paid for: the right to use the land. In the end, that´s what one really wants when one buys land, but central European as I am, I had expected to be welcomed into a huge natianal database where all the legal owners are listed by name with their respective ownership. Negative.
In Costa Rica, the person who lives on land, uses land or even cultivates and lives off of the land, owns the right to use the land. With my puchase, I actually had acquired 15 years of history of living on that land and the neighbors confirmed that fact with their signatures.

Let me take a step back in history: About 3000ha of Talamanca territory had been given to the United Fruit Company, now commonly known as Chiquita Bananas, in an act of political friendlyness towards the USA in the 1960´s. I´ll leave politics at that for now, but the fruit giant imported lots of workers from Jamaica, Barbados and Haiti to work huge banana and cocoa plantations in the region just to leave all these families to their own fate when plagues made the cultivation unprofitable. The now unemplyed workers started living off of the land and thereby acquiered the right to these territories which I bought in the 1990´s.

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So far so good. I actually find this practice quite fair and innovative to the people living in a certain place. It doesn´t prohibit rich foreigners to join a local community but it does hold back land speculators and big investors. In fact, “our” land was inscribed in the Costa Rican National registry under names of numerous banks and land holding companies. Apart from that the land inscribed in that registry amounts to an extension that would make Costa Rica reach all the way to Guatemala, this has absolutely no practical influence on everyday life.

Then there are the indigenous tribes of Talamanca, the Bribri and Keköldi. The government, righfully or not, assigned some of the territory Aiko has purchased to them in exchange for territories they have “lost” to the more interesting tourism industry by the coast. This territory keeps changing and the legal status changes with political interests in San José as well as the indigenous groups dedication to fight for their rights.

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In the end, the situation is simply unresolved. No one has even properly mapped this part of Costa Rica to know how much land there is let alone whose land it is and how it can be used. As a result, the land was and is especially vulnerable to exploitation. Although the rainforest does a quite good job of defending itself from intruders, modern civilization keeps nibbling off the edges more and more.

Having learned all the above, I accepted that I had not bough any property or rights but rather an obligation. An ethical obligation to take care of a piece of land until its situation is resolved and secured.

The Great Feat

So we bought 29ha of rainforest in Talamanca, Costa Rica. Well, technically and legally, I did.

First goal reached: The logger is gone. The spray-painted red numbers on the trees only a remnant of the past.

Sit back: What happened? Why?

I didn´t need any land. And I didn´t really want any land. So why did I buy it? Or better: Why did Doña Mercedes sell it – or HAVE to sell it?
Answer: She needed money.
Next question: How can it be that you own 19 hectares of one of the world´s most diverse bio-systems and not have a better option than to destroy that biosystem by logging or selling the land altogether?

The problem, I deduced, was that we don´t know how to integrate the rainforest, as important as it may be for life on our planet, into the economic world we have created and live by.

Model for sustainable rainforest

Hence, the plan was born. Or call it vision, dream, goal, objective or ignorance, naivety… call it what you want, but I proposed to biuld a model for economically and ecologically sustainable rainforest projects that would be transferable to other rainforest regions of the world.

It seemed quite obvious to me that it should be possible to do something economically viable in the rainforest using the vast resources available rather than destroying them. The obvious first ideas are research, tourism and marketing campaigns for saving the rainforest.

Attempt Nr.1: ecological bananas

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Don Mario watering seedlings                         Seedlings waiting to be planted

On a second round of brainstorming and traveling around Talamanca, we – Gio now officially joined in the effort – decided to join a local agricultural cooperative in farming and marketing ecological banana and cocoa called APPTA. APPTA consisted of approximately 1500 small farmers all over Talamanca selling mainly the families´ surplus of 50 or 60kg of bananas each.
We set out to plant 4 hectares of banana in the middle of the forest giving the plants the shadow they naturally require and leaving the flora and fauna in place. Young MBA students that we were, we calculated a sustainable area for one farmer to work and live off of to be 8 hectares. Taking into account an 8-hour, 5-days-per-week workload, the country´s minimum wage and social security, we were sure to be on the right path. (The missing 4 hectares of plantation were substituted by other projects we had in mind).

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Caramelo hauling first harvests                       Gio inspecting newly planted bananas

A time of hard work and experiencing the difference between theory and real life followed. We did manage to plant 4 hectares of banana, did certify our plantation in the joint effort of APPTA, helped to market our products in Europe among others at the Biofach trade fair back then still dominated by small and medium sized ventures. I even managed to pay with two herniated disks from harvesting and carrying the 40kg fruits through the forest…

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Gio with… log bridge                      Levi Sucre´s first snow experience

However, after a few years of real numbers, we realized that at market prices for fresh fruit and the conditions set by industrial clients converting our produce into baby-foods and the like, banana farming only paid for about 50% of the real costs (minimum wage, minimum social security).
Just as a rough idea: 1kg of ecologically certified banana cost around €2,50-€3,50 in the supermarket in Europe; APPTA got paid around €0,10 per kg.

Needless to say, we did not give up – we are still here 15 years later.

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