The Restoration Legacy

Words offered by Jack Ewing on March 19, 2005
at the formal act of transfer of the property known as
“Isla del Cielo”
donated by Diane Firestone to Pitzer College

We are gathered here today because of a piece of land -- this tiny portion of Planet Earth where we are seated -- this land we call “Isla del Cielo.” And as we sit here this afternoon, can anyone doubt why Diane gave it that name. You feel like you really are on an “Island in the Sky.” And knowing that over the last several thousand years many different people have lived on this land and used it, each in their own way, to make a living; I am certain that they all must have experienced the same feeling while standing on this spot, the feeling of being on an “Island in the Sky.”

If we go back 5000 years we will find that the rainforest here was supreme, with towering trees, jaguars, tapirs, scarlet macaws and harpy eagles. We know that at that time this land was used occasionally by a robust people for whom we have no name. They had no concept of land ownership other than an inborn sense of territoriality. They lived a nomadic life, took shelter in rocky outcrops and managed to survive by hunting wild animals and gathering the products of the forest. They lived and traveled in small bands or family units. As far as we can determine, they did nothing to degrade this land.

If we go back 2000 years, we will find that this land was occupied by early agriculturists who archeologists call the “Aguas Buenas People.” We know from their artifacts, some of which have been found on this land, that they cultivated plants for food, and this they supplemented with wild meat and fruits from the forest. They lived in small villages and practiced art and religion. Scanty evidence suggests that their population was not excessive, their agriculture did not develop to the degree that it required extensive deforestation, and their impact on the land was minimal.

1400 to 1300 years ago there was a mysterious change of occupants. Nobody knows what precipitated the change, but the archeological record shows that the Aguas Buenas People were abruptly replaced by the “Chiriqui People.” This may have been the result of conquest, migration and cultural absorption, famine, or some catastrophic natural event. But regardless of the circumstances of their arrival, the Chiriqui prospered and multiplied.

From their art, craftsmanship and tools we know that they were more advanced than their predecessors. This being the case, we can assume that they were more efficient at exploiting the land, at deforesting to facilitate agriculture, at hunting and fishing to provide food for their growing population. We don’t know how many they were, but we do know that within ten kilometers of this land there are hundreds of burial sites with thousands of individual graves. It is probable that their population exceeded that of the present day, and that their impact on the land was considerable. Then, about 500 years ago, they disappeared.

Why did they leave? Again the question is open to speculation. Some people believe that war between the Brunka Tribe to the southeast and the Quepo Tribe to the northwest may have been the reason. It is also possible that during the 700 to 800 years that they occupied this land they degraded it to the point that it would no longer sustain them.

To get a better perspective on this, try to imagine what this land might be like 700 years from now; or the place you live in the United States for that matter -- assuming that nothing intervenes to deter the world from its present course.

But regarding the fate of the Chiriqui, the only thing that we know with any certainty is that the first Spaniards who came through this region in the early 1500s, found no inhabitants between the Barú and Savegre Rivers. What they may have found were some large stones, located on a place that resembled an Island in the Sky, and etched with puzzling designs that to this day tantalize people’s imaginations and invite speculation.

The Europeans didn’t want this steep land with little fertile plain. Other places had more to offer. So they left it alone. Their diseases decimated indigenous peoples throughout the region, lowering populations to a fraction of their former numbers. This land remained unoccupied by humans for 400 years. During that time it was cared for by the best steward the earth has ever known, Mother Nature. The ecosystems had fully recovered, by the time the first modern settlers arrived in the early 1900s. And the first to set foot on this land found it to be possessed by giant rainforest trees and replete with fauna of all kinds.

The new occupants were more “advanced” than the Chiriqui. Their tools were made of iron rather than stone and were more efficient at felling what they considered to be “useless” forest. Their mission was to conquer nature and make the land produce, and this they did with great energy. As nature was tamed hundreds of species and thousands of individual organisms were destroyed and the land planted to a few species of crop plants and pasture for human food.

The first pioneer to occupy this land was a man named Miguel Gomez who did little more than use his machete to chop a swath around it, thus establishing his claim of possession.

Next came José Barboza who began the process of taming nature by using his ax to fell the trees, his oxen to move the logs he needed for building his house and corral, and fire to burn the rest of the trunks that were in the way. Then he planted pasture for cattle.

He was followed by Eduardo Moreno and Eladio Gamboa, who used chain saws rather than axes, and bulldozers rather than oxen to accomplish their share of deforestation faster and more efficiently.

In the mid 1960s when a man named Gonzalo Quiros purchased this land and brought his family here to live, there were few trees left to fell. The farm was nearly all pasture and producing beef cattle. A few small remnants of forest remained on steep stream banks and near a fresh water spring. For 25 years Don Chalo raised cattle on this land, and when he died his heirs sold it to a lady from a place called California.

As we all know that lady was Diane Firestone, and her arrival marked a new phase of stewardship. Diane had no interest in producing boneless beef for McDonalds and Burger King. Instead she came with fresh ideas about ways to use the land to make a living while at the same time improving it. Sustainable use it was called, and Diane went after it with determination. She traveled as far as southeast Asia to learn about bamboo, a renewable resource. She brought in experts who were knowledgeable in a benevolent type of agriculture called permaculture. She replaced much of the pasture with other types of vegetation. Biodiversity increased, the soil came alive and long displaced organisms returned to the land. People watched these projects with growing interest, and some saw the logic of producing sustainably and nurturing the land rather than simply exploiting it. Her example planted a seed in people’s minds and precipitated a change in local thinking.

But the events of Diane’s life took her to far away places from where it was difficult to monitor the care of the land she loved. So she set out to find the perfect steward. We all know how that search ended, and that is why we are gathered here today.

If you have been listening carefully you may have noticed that throughout the history of this land each advance in knowledge brought a greater impact. Instead of bringing sustainability, enhanced learning brought more effective exploitation. But, Diane Firestone reversed the cycle and began an ethic of responsible land stewardship. And that is the legacy she has bequeathed to Pitzer College.

I believe it fitting that Diane chose a learning institution to care for the Island in the Sky. By setting an outstanding example she initiated an educational process which will continue and expand with the new stewards. And I believe that Pitzer is worthy of the responsibility and the challenge.

If you were to ask me: What is the most serious problem with education today? I would have to say that most formal learning institutions have for many years been teaching the wrong things to the young people who will form the next generation.

Rather than learning how to live sustainably and in harmony with their natural environment, students are taught how to exploit the earth more efficiently, how to extract more resources with less investment, how to degrade our planet more rapidly, how to be more effective plunderers of its riches. We teach them to produce, produce, produce and that all production is good with never a mention of the environmental costs that must be paid by future generations.

With this in mind, I would like to make a challenge to the new stewards of the Island in the Sky, and at the same time offer an opportunity.

I challenge you from Pitzer College to teach our youth not how to exploit this land, but how to care for it; not how to increase profits at the expense of nature, but how to make a living while restoring ecosystems and making amends for past mistakes; not how to take more in the short term, but how to leave more over the long haul.

And in your pursuit of this goal I offer you the opportunity to work together with others who share the same values, others such as: Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge, ASANA, and the Foundation for the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor. In the classroom, in the field and by example we will help others to learn not only how to live by the land, but also how to live with the land, to revere it, to restore it and to care for it. We may not be able to deter the entire world from its present course, but we can nurture the sprout that came from the seed that Diane planted and make sure that it develops into a solid tradition of responsible land stewardship.

And if we do our job well, 50 or 100 or even 700 years from now the descendants of those present here today will look upon The Island in the Sky, once entrusted to Pitzer College by Diane Firestone, and they will say proudly that their ancestors started in motion the process that converted this entire region into a paradise for all living organisms.

This Is The Legacy. Please Use It Wisely.

I would like to thank everyone from Pitzer for allowing me the opportunity to address all of you on this special occasion in this special place.

And -- Thank You -- Diane Firestone for making all of this happen.

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