Juan Carlos, our guide through the Monteverde Cloud forest reserve in Costa Rica, seems incapable of not smiling.
Even when the rain falls steadily thoroughly drenching his hat and his hood. Even when he talks to a group of seven young distracted undergraduates from the University of Georgia. Even when he discusses the destruction of plant and animal species in his beloved forest (more on that in a bit).
Carlos has walked this forest as a guide for twenty years (that’s probably the age of most of the students he is leading !). The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, located in the mountains of central Costa Rica, preserves one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, attracting tourists from across the globe.
There are 75,000 visitors to the Monteverde reserve in a given year. To me, as perhaps for many other visitors, this forest is something foreign, something alien. It is the dark, wet jungle I have read about in “Heart of
Darkness” and seen in “Indiana Jones.” But it is obvious this place means something different to Juan Carlos.
To him, this is home.
Stopping in a spot on the trail that is shielded from the rain (there are multiple dry spots along the trails and he appears to know where they all are!), he explains to the group the destructive changes the forest has seen as a result of global Climate Change. A fungus brought to Monteverde in the late 1980s has proliferated as the temperature has slowly increased, and the fungus is deadly to the amphibians that inhabit the forest.
But it is not just the amphibians.
As frogs and salamanders die off, he says, so will the birds, snakes and mammals which rely on them as a food source. Slowly, an area which houses 2.5 percent of the world’s biodiversity will become less and less and less diverse—and eventually dwindle to a point of irrelevance.
Walking these trails with Juan Carolos, I realize as if for the first time that the Earth, just like the Monteverde cloud forest, doesn’t just need our help, it needs saving. But how to make that happen? Looking at Juan Carlos, I come to a realization: By caring about a Place. People rarely commit to saving things they don’t care about. Juan Carlos has dedicated his life to walking the trails of the forest, and sharing his knowledge with the hundreds of tourists he has guided.
But more than that he has shared his love for this place.
And perhaps that is the answer—to connect with enough people – so that eventually all of us care. Juan Carlos understands this connection. As he pleads with my group to help protect the cloud forest, he tries to make a personal connection. He tries to make us think of the forest as if it is our home too. Maybe we might want to return one day. Maybe our children will come to this forest one day.
He points to a 200-year old strangler fig, a tree which wraps itself around other trees and kills them before replacing them. In this tree perhaps there
is a story we can all recognize—the story of life on Earth that continues unabated.
Much like Juan Carlos’ smile.