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The Battle for Paradise: Surfing, Tuna, and One Town's Quest to Save a Wave

The Battle for Paradise: Surfing, Tuna, and One Town's Quest to Save a Wave

by Jeremy Evans
The Battle for Paradise: Surfing, Tuna, and One Town's Quest to Save a Wave

The Battle for Paradise: Surfing, Tuna, and One Town's Quest to Save a Wave

by Jeremy Evans


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Regarding the book, The Battle for Paradise by Jeremy Evans, the following correction has been made on page 163 in paragraph three (3) to wit:

“Weston once worked in concert with government officials in a pre-planned sting operation, complete with marked bills: Weston, whose role in the operation involved paying a bribe to the Golfito mayor for a concession and then documenting the bribe as a way to expose the mayor as a corrupt government official, was a former cocaine dealer, according to Dan, and someone who illegally acquired possession of his sawmill property.”

Pavones, a town located on the southern tip of Costa Rica, is a haven for surfers, expatriates, and fishermen seeking a place to start over. Located on the Golfo Dulce (Sweet Gulf), a marine sanctuary and one of the few tropical fjords in the world, Pavones is home to a legendary surf break and a cottage fishing industry. In 2004 a multinational company received approval to install the world’s first yellowfin tuna farm near the mouth of the Golfo Dulce. The tuna farm as planned would pollute the area, endanger sea turtles, affect the existing fish population, and threaten the world-class wave. A lawsuit was filed just in time, and the project was successfully stalled. Thus began an unlikely alliance of local surfers, fishermen, and global environmental groups to save a wave and one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. In The Battle for Paradise, Jeremy Evans travels to Pavones to uncover the story of how this ragtag group stood up to a multinational company and how a shadowy figure from the town’s violent past became an unlikely hero. In this harrowing but ultimately inspiring story, Evans focuses in turn on a colorful cast of characters with an unyielding love for the ocean and surfing, a company’s unscrupulous efforts to expand profits, and a government that nearly sold out the perfect wave.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803284708
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 10/01/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 240
File size: 600 KB

About the Author

Jeremy Evans is a former daily newspaper reporter whose eight-year journalism career garnered numerous awards for his outdoor and sports writing. He is the author of In Search of Powder: A Story of America’s Disappearing Ski Bum (Nebraska, 2010) and currently teaches English at Lake Tahoe Community College and South Tahoe High School in California.

Read an Excerpt

The Battle for Paradise

Surfing, Tuna, and One Town's Quest to Save a Wave

By Jeremy Evans


Copyright © 2015 Jeremy Evans
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-8470-8


A Fish Story

He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them.

— Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

The morning started off like most for William Mata, which is to say an alarm clock wasn't required. The macaws squawked, the monkeys howled, the insects buzzed, and very few could sleep through such a jungle cacophony. The noise nudged him forward with the day's proceedings. His bulging forearms lifted his body upward from a mattress spread on the tile floor. He put on a faded blue T-shirt, slipped on a pair of black shorts, tiptoed around others who were sleeping, stepped out onto his porch, and sighed. The sun hadn't fully risen behind the hills to the east. What sunlight there was flitted between clouds and trees and cast columns of shade and gold across the verdant landscape. He walked along the village's gravel roads to the fish house, a white building with a tin roof and a mural on one wall. Across the way, on the other side of the main road, was a bus stop with a surfboard nailed to wooden beams.

When he arrived that morning, William sifted through an assortment of fishing gear: rusted anchors, metal hooks, poles, extra line. He poured gasoline into plastic buckets and tossed ice into a cooler. He would be away three days on this trip. It can be lonely at sea on a twenty-foot fiberglass boat. During storms, sleep is impossible. If the weather cooperates, the gentle rocking of the boat makes his eyelids heavy, and William sleeps like a baby cradled in a mother's arms. Sometimes he returns with so many fish that they spill from storage containers. He must gather them, hose them clean, squeeze them into the containers, and sit on the lids until they snap shut. Then he waits. Soon, a truck belching exhaust rumbles toward the edge of town. When it stops at the fish house, a man steps out of the truck, and William sells most of his catch to this man, who reenters the truck before it rumbles back down the road, headed for markets in San José. Other times, the containers are empty and the lids fly away in fierce wind gusts, and then his family eats rice and beans.

After selling his fish, William could restock his boat and return to the water, determined to spend however many days necessary to catch fish, but three days is generally the limit. As president of the fishermen's association, he feels responsible for determining a proper balance between what man needs and what nature can provide. Under his governance, the rules prohibit anybody from fishing more than three consecutive days and discourage fishermen from overfishing a certain location. If an area produces a larger than normal yield, William suggests that people fish somewhere else to allow that area to reproduce and repopulate. Of the two dozen men who are association members, no more than half are permitted to fish at one time. William keeps track of everyone's schedule in a flimsy spiral notebook. Such a quota, he believes, ensures a livelihood for future generations.

"We are lucky to be here and live in such a beautiful place. We are also lucky that nature gives back to us," says William. "It's not important to catch as many fish as we can sell. It's more important to catch enough fish for us to live in such a wonderful place and to allow our children and grandchildren to live in such a beautiful place. If they wish to fish when they are older, fish will be there for them. This is our responsibility to the environment, to our kids."

Today, it is his turn, and he continues gathering gear at the fish house, which is tucked into the northern corner of the bay where Pavones's famous wave ends. The air was still that morning, perfectly still. The sky was significantly bluer when dappled with puffed white cumulus clouds. A breeze later that afternoon would be welcomed when William's skin sizzled, but at that moment it was neither available nor was it desired. As so often is the case during the rainy season, the dull, stagnant morning air would become pungent and choked with humidity by afternoon when the wind arrived and leaves rustled. By evening, leaves would be slapping against the trees, and a metallic sky would erupt, spraying sheets of rain across the soccer field. There would be no gentle rocking and soft lullaby for William on this night. The temperamental rain would turn sideways and douse him, rendering his boat's plastic cover as useless as a wool jacket in the Sahara Desert.

The weather often mirrors the behavioral pattern of the town, for Pavones is rarely in a rush and only gradually acclimatizes to the day. The sun must slide completely over the hills before shop doors are unlocked, property gates are swung open, and porches are swept clean. Activity increases as the day continues: kids ride bikes; the indigenous Guaymí people prepare tables to sell handicrafts; trucks barrel over pitiful roads and test even more pitiful bridges; families gather for picnics on the banks of the Rio Claro, which flows into the Golfo Dulce and deposits cobble into the gulf. But this doesn't apply to those who ride the wave. If there is a nice swell, and there was on this day, surfers are early risers, their heads bobbing above the water, necks snapped southward to scan the horizon for sets of incoming waves.

With the wind absent, the water was glassy and shiny and smooth like a freshly washed dinner plate. As William organized his gear, fish poked above the palette of buttery royal. A school of them poked through the surface and paraded above the water with their heads erect and bodies twisted before disappearing into the abyss. Surfers straddled their glory sticks and waited near the river-mouth break and the cantina break, named for where the wave breaks next to the Esquina del Mar cantina. Most of them don't live in Pavones and have been waiting in their offices and their homes, dreaming of being right there, waiting for the ocean to uplift them and provide the tug they've been chasing since catching their first wave.

If this was a big swell, the river-mouth and cantina breaks would connect and form one of the world's longest waves. If there was the combination of a big swell, no wind, and glassy water, Pavones would turn into "one of the best waves in the world," as Robert August, costar of The Endless Summer with Dan's friend Mike Hynson, once told me. On big-swell days there are more spectators — photographers, shop owners, girls in bikinis, kids pointing at their fathers — gaping from the beach or standing on the sea wall than surfers in the water, which is saying something because there can be one hundred surfers in the water on big-swell days. But on this day, the waves weren't epic. They were sizable and consistent, and there was little to complain about. Surfers were content to straddle their boards and study the horizon. Such contentment had begun earlier when some in the lineup had surfed under a full moon, its glow flashing a faint reflection of hollow white that blinked over inky water.

As the pink dawn unfolded into morning, surfers couldn't hear the macaws squawk and monkeys howl and insects buzz because sets of incoming waves disrupted a calm ocean. If they could have, the sounds would have been their cue that William was walking along a rutted road to the fish house. They couldn't have known such information, and so they couldn't have known that a conversation on the fish house's concrete platform several years earlier precipitated the beginning of an environmental battle that threatened the very wave they were surfing.

There are some mornings, though they are rare indeed, when nothing squawks or howls or buzzes, and there are no waves; there is only silence. All William hears is the crunch of earth beneath his sandals, a child coughing from an unlit bedroom, a woman singing in her open-air kitchen. These singular acts never last long — that's what makes them special — and he waits in anticipation for the next time his commute offers such melodies. Every morning, he exits his lime-green house and carefully descends concrete steps and walks onto an uneven dirt road. The road is too narrow for vehicles wider than pickup trucks, although that is rarely an issue because motorcycles, dirt bikes, four wheelers, bicycles and one's legs are the most popular methods of transportation. He sometimes rides his bike to the fish house; it's a shiny purple contraption with minimal gears and unreliable brakes.

William's existence in the lime-green house is cramped. Between the front door and the concrete steps is a porch with plastic chairs and flower pots hanging from an eave. The porch is bisected by columns that match the home's exterior. Far removed from the town's commercial center, the rowdy house is surrounded by a tangle of jungle. Though there are only three bedrooms, as many as eight people live there. This number accounts for all but four of William's family members, who live in Pavones. There sometimes aren't enough proper beds for everyone, so mattresses are strewn on the floor to provide additional resting spots. Male and female, young and old, cousin and uncle — they sleep there, their voices over morning coffee carrying over the property's untrimmed flora. The bushes lining the street are several feet thick, perhaps twice that in height, and partially mask gray metal electricity towers. Yellow and red flowers poke out of the bushes and lean over the street. As impenetrable as the vegetation seems, it cannot mute the voices.

William never complains of the noise or limited space. He also doesn't consider fishing an escape from reality or an opportunity to exhale. He adores his family and loves that they live with him there, for he knows no other way. His living situation is markedly better compared to the one he had growing up in Guanacaste, a region in northern Costa Rica, which is the country's tourism gem. The coastal section of Guanacaste is rife with all the benefits and consequences of a tourist-driven economy. Although increased employment has raised the standard of living for locals, it can't cloak the ills of a changing landscape: gated vacation homes, towering hotels and condominium complexes, overpriced cafes, and drunken gringos accosting prostitutes. This cultural shift forced many Ticos, including some of William's extended family, to live far outside of town, where there are no gringos, even though they wanted to live near the center.

His father abandoned his family at a young age and left his mother to raise William and his siblings. There wasn't electricity or running water in their house. Candles were burned at night, and water was collected in buckets during the day. Life was challenging for his mother, who was uneducated and struggled to provide life's necessities. William remembers the sweet taste of sugar on his lips after drinking his first Coca-Cola. It is easy to remember such a thing because soda was a luxury. A luxury should be an occasional, decadent moment, for if it becomes common and easy to forget, it is no longer a luxury but an expectation. He didn't blame his family's poverty on a lack of education because, well, he didn't think he was living in poverty. Major differences in socioeconomic classes usually aren't apparent until one is introduced to other classes and the comparisons begin. Moreover, working on a farm doesn't require an advanced education, and William considered high school an advanced education.

More than he understood arithmetic and grammar, he understood that time spent inside of the classroom meant less time spent outside the classroom to earn money for his family. His mother didn't encourage him to remain in school, so he dropped out after the third grade. He is an example of how, just because Costa Rica offers free, universal education to every child in the country — a noble act indeed — it doesn't necessarily mean every child utilizes its good-hearted investment. In 1869 Costa Rica's president, Jesús Jiménez, supported legislation to increase the number of schools and create schools for girls, which were nonexistent at the time. By 1927 illiteracy in the population fell from nearly 70 percent to less than 25 percent. By 2000 Costa Rica enjoyed a literacy rate of 95 percent, the highest in Latin America. William, though, falls into the 5 percent of the population who can't read or write.

He grew up in Guanacaste in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was mostly a rural farming region, before the tourism boom. This was a time when three-quarters of the country's poor lived in rural areas and two-thirds of them were landless. The landless part of this equation changed once families from Guanacaste migrated in the late 1970s to Rio Claro de Pavones, where landless Ticos had an opportunity to attain land under Costa Rican homesteading laws. These laws allow citizens to settle on any unused land and eventually gain ownership as long as they improve the land and make it usable, which usually means cultivating crops or managing livestock. Designed to encourage poor farmers to gain ownership of unused land, the homesteading laws also seek to prevent the country from suffering the same wealth gap as its neighbors, such as Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala, where the vast majority of land is owned by a few families who are absentee landowners.

Unlike other countries that allow homesteading, where property possession can take years if not decades to achieve, Costa Rica's Agriculture Development Institute (IDA) allows citizens to start gaining possession rights in as little as three months and to file for appropriation after a year. Although there was specifically designated IDA land available for homesteading, any piece of land in Costa Rica that is unoccupied may be homesteaded or "squatted on." If landowners don't remove squatters within the first three months, evicting them can be an expensive, exhaustive process. If the IDA declares the land in conflict, it's often sold or handed over to the squatters anyway. And if it's a dispute between a Tico and a gringo, the IDA almost always sides with the Tico — a situation that precipitated widespread violence in Pavones when Dan Fowlie, who owned nearly four thousand acres, was in prison. After he left, squatters and others engaged in a large land-grab of his land while he was unable to defend it. In Pavones, this good- hearted attempt to provide impoverished farmers land became the culprit for murderous land disputes in the 1980s and 1990s, when the IDA ignored the bloodshed spreading in paradise. Yet development had begun rather peacefully before William arrived.

The first Tico families settled in the early 1960s in the canton of Pavones, which is flanked on the east by the border with Panama, on the west by the Golfo Dulce, and ends at the land sliver of Punta Burica, Costa Rica's southernmost point, which pokes into the Pacific. Before the Ticos arrived, only the indigenous Guaymí populated the area; they generally lived on a reservation in the mountains stretching toward Punta Burica. The Tico families immediately began chopping down the rain forest to grow crops and graze cattle. Once his family and friends left Guanacaste, William wasn't far behind. The prospect of obtaining land by working hard was an appetizing prospect because, as a child, William prioritized work over school. Manual labor was more valuable in his mind than learning to read and write. The way he saw it, he never earned money by doing a math problem or writing a sentence. Despite his third-grade education, he amassed a mental vault of figures and conservationist theories that marine biology students in America's colleges are often unable to grasp, let alone formulate.

"It's actually amazing that he can teach me things and is repeating things that I had to spend thousands of dollars to learn," said a Stanford graduate student who hired William for boat trips as part of her marine research for her master's degree.

This library of information did not betray William when it mattered most.

Several years earlier, in 2004, a man named Eduardo Velarde arranged a meeting to speak with the town's fishermen on the concrete platform of the fish house. William wasn't president of the association at the time; that title belonged to Walter Mendoza, whose family was one of the original non-Guaymí families to settle in Pavones. Everyone congregated on the platform and fanned out from Velarde in roughly a pie formation. Velarde introduced himself as the owner of a fish-farm company and began proposing a project that would be a win-win for everyone. With light skin and a deep voice that blended well with his advanced rhetoric, Velarde was a smooth talker. He was charming, perhaps too charming.


Excerpted from The Battle for Paradise by Jeremy Evans. Copyright © 2015 Jeremy Evans. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. A Fish Story,
2. Killer Dana,
3. Paper Chase,
4. Geckos and Iguanas,
5. The Pavones Bus,
6. Red Road,
7. Danny Land,
8. Tuna Coast,
9. Law and Order,
10. The King's Exit,
11. Jungle Invasion,
12. Pura Vida,
13. Judgment Day,
14. Saving Waves,
15. End of the Road,

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