NEW WAYS OF MAKING A LIVING -- by Jack Ewing
As countries and regions within develop, the way people use the land sometimes changes, and many must learn new ways to make a living. Over the last 30 years, in the south-central Pacific region of Costa Rica, the land usage and the economy have undergone a transformation from farming and ranching to tourism and real estate development. People whose families, for generations, have cut down the rainforest, grown crops and raised cattle, were forced to learn how to deal with changing conditions. In most cases, this meant learning a new trade. Children who were born in rural environments and grew up assuming that they would either farm or marry farmers, today find themselves working as construction workers, taxi drivers, waiters, bartenders, receptionists and bookkeepers. Most have also learned the importance of protecting tropical nature, because that is why the tourists come here. This is the story of one rural Costa Rican family and how they have adapted in a changing world.
Three Generations of Seguras
As young man of 17 years Ramón Segura Barrantes came to San Isidro de El General. The year was 1948, and he came with the troops José “Don Pepe” Figueres to battle the forces of ex-president Dr. Rafael Calderón. The Figueres troops were victorious in Costa Rica’s short but bloody civil war. Young Ramón decided not to return to his native region of Dota but to settle near Pacuarito where his grandfather had homesteaded and cleared about 100 hectares of jungle. Later he inherited his grandfather’s farm.
In the late 1950’s Ramón married Irma Lidia Picado Méndez from Bijaguales, near Pacuarito. On February 28, 1959 their first child, Juan Ramón was born in the hospital in San Isidro de El General. The couple would later have 4 more sons and 2 daughters.
Ramón was one of the first settlers to move into the area around what is today known as Lagunas, near Dominical. In 1949 he began clearing land to plant corn, beans, rice and pasture. The Lagunas farm was about 100 hectares, the maximum area to which one person could acquire title under the same homestead program utilized by his grandfather to acquire the land in Pacuarito. It was on these two farms that his first born son, Juan Ramón, was destined to spend his childhood.
Juan Ramón’s early memories are primarily of his life on the two farms. He attended the local school at Pacuarito for six years where, under very restricted classroom conditions, he more or less learned to read, write and do basic arithmatic. That’s where his formal schooling was to end. After graduating from the sixth grade he went to work with his father and uncle.
The Pacuarito farm had coffee and pasture and the Lagunas farm grew corn, rice, beans, cattle pasture and lots of forest. Each year Juan Ramón helped his father and uncle fell and burn jungle until there was virtually none left. The homestead law requires that the land be worked and developed as a prerequisite for issuing the title. This was considered progress. Conservation was a concept that was totally foreign to the pioneers of that era. The procedure followed by the Segura family was to clear the rainforest, plant two or three crops and then plant pasture. Juan Ramón says that the part he loved most about clearing land was the burning; it fascinated him.
His uncle, Wilson Segura, who lived on the Lagunas farm, taught ten-year-old Juan to hunt paca, agouti and iguana. To his credit he instilled in his nephew a respect for the rest of the animals. They never hunted white-collared peccary, coati mundi, or fowl of any kind. They ate what they hunted and when the hunt was very successful they salted and smoked the meat over the open hearth where they cooked. In this manner it could be kept for several months without spoiling.
When in his early 20’s Juan Ramón often went to Play Barú, the beach in front of what was later to become Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge, to hunt for turtle eggs. It was on one of these expeditions that he met Didilia Cascante Hernandez whose family owned a farm adjoining the hacienda. Didilia, worked in the household of Jack and Diane Ewing, partners and managers of Hacienda Barú. Several of her brothers worked there as farm laborers. The young couple were married in 1982 when Juan Ramón was 23 years old and Didilia 21.
The newly weds moved to Lagunas to live and work the farm. Scratching out a living raising cattle and growing corn and beans wasn’t easy, but neither of the pair was a stranger to hard work, and they were able to make a reasonable living. Their first two children Shirley and Jason were born during the seven years they lived there. When Shirley reached six years of age Didilia moved to Pacuarito where she lived with her in-laws and her two children so that Shirley could enter primary school. There was no school in Lagunas at that time. Not long after the move she gave birth to their third child, Mauren.
Juan Ramón remained behind in Lagunas where he would continue to work the farm and earn a living for the growing family which he visited from time to time. This type of double life, separated from his wife and children, didn’t go well. The worry of being apart from his family combined with cooking for himself and too much “guaro”, the local hard liquor distilled from sugar cane, led to major health problems. The once strong, healthy, hardworking father developed a bleeding ulcer. In 1991 the whole family moved to Didilia’s parents home near Hacienda Barú. Juan Ramón had deteriorated to such a delicate state of health that the doctors wouldn’t perform surgery on his stomach ulcer until he had rested and built up some strength. They even warned the family of the possibility that he might not live.
When he first came to see me about a job he was thin and frail. His eyes were sunken back into his head and his skin had an ashy, palid tint that hinted of anemia. I remember thinking that he should be home in bed not out looking for work. We talked for a while and I began to see some of the man behind the physical appearance. I had known him casually when he was courting Didilia, and when they came to visit her parents, but this was the first time I had a chance to really sit down and converse with him. I liked what I saw.
We agreed that he would begin working three half days per week as a forest guard. His job was to walk through the rainforest of Hacienda Barú and look for signs of poachers. As he got stronger we gradually began increasing his hours. At that time the wildlife refuge was already doing some hiking tours, but that concept was totally foreign to Juan Ramón. He couldn’t fathom that anyone would pay hard cash to be guided through the jungle. Why would anyone pay for something so commonplace? That belief was about to change.
During those weeks that he wandered through the rainforest alone, a change came over Juan Ramón. Cast in the role of protector of the jungle rather than destroyer he had the opportunity to rethink many of his earlier beliefs from a new point of view. He saw a beauty and power in the inter-workings of ecosystems that he hadn’t seen before. He began an ongoing experience with nature which he describes as spiritual. Rather than looking at the forest as something to be exploited and destroyed he came to see it as a giver of life, a force that produces a multitude of life forms and promotes well being. His health improved rapidly, so much so that the planned surgery, that he had previously been too weak to endure, was never necessary.
Within a month he was working three full days per week, and then five, and later a full six day week. He began doing some guiding. At first he accompanied groups that Diane or I were guiding, but he learned quickly, and soon he was taking groups on his own. His extroverted personality and reverence for the rainforest made him popular with the visitors. It was the only work he knew where he enjoyed himself as much as the tourists who were paying him for the service. He soon learned about that great custom of tipping and doubled his efforts to please his clients.
Juan Ramón and I noticed that the animal which the Hacienda Barú guests most wanted to see was the sloth, so we set about looking for ways to spot more sloths. The combination of Juan’s eagle-eye and natural instinct about the jungle soon had him finding more of both the two-toed and three-toed varieties than anyone had previously believed possible. This talent earned him the nickname of Hacienda Barú’s resident “slothologist”. His record to date is fourteen of these charismatic mammals on a five hour hike.
The more he guided, the more hungry he became for knowledge about nature. Hacienda Barú sponsored several seminars for nature guides, inviting employees from other nature tour providers in the area as well as our own. We usually brought in a nationally known guide to conduct the seminar. Juan Ramón was always an outstanding student at these short courses. In 1994 Hacienda Barú paid his expenses making it possible for him to attend a guiding seminar sponsored by Costa Rica Expeditions. It was held at Monteverde Lodge near the Monteverde cloud forest. The speakers were internationally known experts on ecological tourism, and he counts the experience as one of the highlights of his guiding education.
About the same time as the Monteverde seminar Juan became interested in birds. He decided to learn everything he could about them and quickly became proficient in the spotting and identification of all kinds of avian life, both visually and audibly. He soon learned to identify most of the 350 species found at Hacienda Barú by their songs as well as their markings. He is profoundly thankful to ornithologist Jim Zook who first sparked his interest in birding and then taught him much of what he knows today. Like all bird watchers, it is difficult to find Juan Ramón without a pair of binoculars dangling from his neck.
In rural Costa Rica, people tend to jealously guard any knowledge or special talent that they have acquired and never teach it to anyone outside of the immediate family. This attitude is commonly explained as necessary to protect yourself from unscrupulous coworkers who might have ideas of stealing your job. Juan Ramón was never partisan to this erroneous idea. He always shared his knowledge freely. This earned him the respect and friendship of his colleagues and secured his position as leader amongst the Hacienda Barú employees. In his early years of guiding he was extremely influential in training and instilling in Pedro Porras and Deiner Cascante a profound respect for the rainforest as well as a joy in showing tropical nature to visitors. Since that time he has unselfishly shared his knowledge with all of the guides who work her now and have worked here in the past.
Another of his character traits that has helped make him the outstanding nature guide that he has become, is his ability to communicate with non Spanish speaking people, regardless of which language they speak. He always carries an English language copy of Birds of Costa Rica and Mammals of Costa Rica. Upon spotting some interesting wildlife he first points it out to the visitors and then quickly finds its picture in the book. The visitor then has the option of reading more about the bird or animal if they wish. But this ability to communicate goes far beyond merely pointing to a picture in a book. He seems to communicate with his whole being. It is hard to describe. I have had people who were dubious about going out with a non-English speaking guide return from the tour and correctly describe complicated interrelationships between living things in the rainforest that Juan had explained to them. When I ask how he communicated such a complicated idea they can't explain exactly how. I have always said that he could become the world’s champion at the classic game of charades. Juan may be a little old fashioned to learn a new language, but all of his colleagues at Hacienda Barú have learned English.
After moving to Hacienda Barú Juan and Didilia had one more child, Deiber. Like her mother, their oldest daughter Shirley started working in the home of Jack and Diane Ewing at fifteen. She invested a good portion of her earnings on home study courses, in this way putting herself through high school while working. At eighteen she began working in the reception office, and is, today, the general administrator of Hacienda Baru Ecolodge and Hacienda Baru Ecotours. Juan and Didilia sent Jason to the local high school in nearby Matapalo, giving him an opportunity which had not previously been available to anyone in the family. He later worked in construction and finally ended up at Hacienda Barú managing the restaurant. Deiber studies at the high school at Matapalo and works vacations and weekends as an apprentice guide at Hacienda Barú. Mauren helps her mother who works for Cabinas Alma de Hatillo, where she does a little of everything from cleaning chores to cooking to management. Juan's dream is to have all of his children working right alongside of himself as employees of Hacienda Barú.
His interest in young people isn’t restricted to his own children. He founded a pre-teens soccer team in Hatillo and sometimes organized the team to go out and clean up trash along the roads of the community. As part of his work with ASANA, a local conservationist group, in their environmental education program he gives talks to school children about different aspects of ecology, the environment and the need to protect it. Juan has organized a field trips for local school children to visit Hacienda Barú’s marine turtle project. I once heard him remark. “We may not be able to get their parents to change, but we can educate the future community leaders while they are still young and open to new ideas.”
In addition to his guiding duties he always seems to find time for community affairs. As of this writing he is president of the Hacienda Barú Solidarity Association, vice president of Amigos de la Naturaleza (ASANA,) President of the Association for the Administration of the Hatillo Community Aqueduct, and a councilman on the Quepos municipal council. I don’t know where he finds time for all of these activities, but he manages to do a good job at all of them and never lets his job suffer as a result. Juan Ramón still does some guiding, but spends most of his time managing the Hacienda Baru operation. He is the man in the field making things happen when and how they should.
The preservation of the rainforest is Juan Ramón Segura’s top priority in life. He explained to me that he feels a close affinity with the jungle because it gave him back his health at a time when he wasn’t sure that he would ever return to the vigorous, robust state he had known previously. Although he isn’t religious he considers his relationship with nature to be spiritual. He told me that after his health returned he made the decision to dedicate his life to the forest, conserving it and teaching others to do the same. Guiding is his primary means to this end.