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

Evans, Jeremy.  The Battle for Paradise: Surfing, Tuna, and One Town’s Quest to Save a Wave. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015. Pp. 240. 2 Maps. $24.95. Hardback

Reviewed by Tolga Ozyurtcu

Cada loco con su tema.

(Each Madman to his own peculiar madness.)

“Cría cuervos para que te saquen los ojos.”

(Raise ravens that they may put out your eyes.)

-Costa Rican Proverbs[1]


Consider the national motto of Costa Rica: Pura Vida. Literally “Pure Life”—but perhaps better translated as “The Good Life”— Pura Vida ostensibly encapsulates the Tico way of life but has also emerged as shorthand for Western perceptions of the Central American nation. (The Costa Ricense are colloquially known as Ticos.)  From the outsider’s view, Costa Rica as Pura Vida is driven by two factors: what the country itself offers, as well as the often dismal sociopolitical situations of its Central American neighbors. The internal/external contrast is not a product of pure imagination.  Costa Rica has incredible natural beauty, opportunities for inexpensive leisure and adventure travel, and the most stable civil climate in the region; Ticos have not endured the oppression, brutality, and civil wars that have plagued countries like El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras.

Battle for Paradise Cover

University of Nebraska Press, 2015

Jeremy Evans’ The Battle for Paradise: Surfing, Tuna, and One Town’s Quest to Save a Wave offers a more nuanced take on Costa Rica.  In Paradise, journalist and English teacher Evans adeptly weaves together the intersecting narratives that have defined life over the past half-century in Pavones, an impoverished coastal village near the Panama border that is home to one of the world’s most famous surfing breaks. The story of Pavones is inextricably linked to global surf tourism, drug trafficking, big business, and environmental activism; the range of factors has produced equal parts fortune, poverty, pain, and pleasure for those who call Pavones home. Tracing his story lines from Pavones to the politico-cultural capital at San Jose and points in between, Evans reveals a nation that most resembles its unstable neighbors when the sanctity of its internal resources and ethos are threatened.  As the various story lines in Pavones unfold, readers encounter a Costa Rica of contrast, Pura Vida with an occasional fever dream: a populace divided by stark economic disparities but bound by deep commitments to nature and local communities; fierce national pride despite a government and its agencies susceptible to corruption, greed, and corporate influence.

Evans focuses on two major stories to tell the tale of Pavones.  The first is that of Dan Fowlie, one of the more complex and mythical figures in surfing lore.  Born into a wealthy Midwestern family that relocated to Southern California in the 1940s, Fowlie emerged as one of the Golden State’s marquee surfers in the early 1950s, part of a post-war surf scene that reached a manic crescendo at Malibue in the late 1950s before kicking off the global “surf boom” of the 1960s (think Gidget, The Beach Boys, and so on).  A born entrepreneur, Fowlie parlayed a successful abalone diving operation into a multimillion-dollar leather goods franchise; his Gypsy Leather brand purses and clothing were sold at Sears and JC Penney in the early 1970s.  In 1974, for reasons that remain debated to this day (Fowlie’s argument: seeking a paradise home for his family; opposing argument: seeking a base of operations for a gargantuan marijuana smuggling operation), Fowlie arrived in Pavones and acquired his first parcel of beachfront property, overlooking the legendary surf break that wasn’t yet legendary. Fowlie wasn’t the first to surf Pavones (his friend Kenny Easton, may have been the first), but he was the trailblazer of the wave, and generations of surfers have since followed his lead. But it was about more than fun in the sun for Fowlie. In the coming years, Fowlie would amass over 3,700 acres of coastal property, invest heavily in the area’s development and conversation efforts, and earn the moniker, “The King of Pavones.”  More on Fowlie in a moment.

Jumping to the 21st century, the second story begins in 2005 and chronicles the efforts of Granjas Atuneras (Tuna Farms) to build a yellowfin tuna farming operation in the Golfo Dulce and the Pavones Bay.  Backed by a Spanish seafood conglomerate, led by Peruvian expat Manuel Velarde, Granjas Atuneras sought and received hasty governmental approval for their farming project in 2005.  Local fisherman had caught the fish for generations and it was a staple in the area’s economy and diet, but the tuna farm project was fishing on a completely different scale and would invariably impact the surrounding ecosystem and community, although no one was quite sure what those effects would be.  Challenged by activists on environmental and conservationist grounds, the project would be ensnared in legal and political battles for several years to come.  Covering the drawn out process, Evans displays his journalistic chops as he retraces both sides’ arguments, sifts through the alphabet soup of government agency acronyms, and does an admirable job of bringing the reader up to speed on the fundamentals of the global tuna economy, aquaculture, and Costa Rican politics and policy.  Like the best long form journalists, Evans often gets out his subjects’ way, providing long, uninterrupted quotes from almost every major player in the tuna battle of Pavones.  The approach breathes life into his subjects and forces the reader to engage with the person rather than their position: Manuel Velardo is much more than a guy trying to make a quick buck with no regard for the environment, he consistently attempts to align his desires with a greater good; local conservationist Peter Aspinall and activist lawyer Álvaro Sagot are as hampered by their strained resources as they are empowered by their ideology.  In the voices of  these central characters, the years-long environmental battle comes to life and reads quickly—even suspensefully at times.  I won’t spoil the ending or any of the highlights here, but I will confirm that, yes, the surfers do come to play a significant part in the tale.

Speaking of surfers: Paradise isn’t actually much of surfing book, per se. A ski-bum himself, Evans laments early on that he felt like a poser as he approached surfing.  I can’t speak for him on the water, but he should get a pass in any surfer’s book for the contributions of The Battle For Paradise.  Surfing is surely central: readers will enjoy Evans teasing out the links between Fowlie’s early Pavones empire and the events of the 2000s (some are better teased out than others).  Surfers come and go from the narrative (as they do year round in Pavones) and non-surfer Evans admirably waxes poetic on some surf related topics (even if he gets a couple facts wrong: Dale Velzy opened the first shop, not Hobie Alter; he underestimates the number of surfers in 1950s Southern California by a couple thousand), but the book is ultimately a tale of ocean activism, a domain that often happens to include surfers.

That said, Paradise is a valuable addition to surf historiography because it is the most significant and rigorous work ever done on the life of Dan Fowlie.  While the more historically inclined may be dismayed by the lack of archival sources, his embedded, journalistic take on Fowlie and Pavones is itself essentially an archive of oral history, that is as fun to read as it is scholarly useful.  Fowlie is a cult figure in surfing, yet has received very little attention in print.  His name doesn’t come up in The Surfer’s Journal archives, nor in the Encyclopedia of Surfing, or Matt Warshaw’s History of Surfing.  Thus, with significant interviews with the now septuagenarian Fowlie and many of his friends and confidantes (most of whom are now estranged and question everything he says), Paradise is the essential volume on Fowlie.  Again, I see no need to spoil Evans’ enjoyable and well-told narrative, especially because the Fowlie story is often stranger than fiction: a major drug trafficking operation, hundred dollar bills raining on impoverished villages from chartered planes, violent battles for land rights, encounters with high ranking politicians, a penchant for painting, various exiles, prison in Mexico (prison as summer camp), prison in the United States (not prison as summer camp), and a perpetually developing, visionary-paranoiac plan to reclaim the throne of Pavones.  Seriously, it’s all there.

[1] Chavarria-Aguilar, Oscar L.. 1949. “Proverbs from Costa Rica”. Western Folklore 8 (3). Western States Folklore Society: 248–51.

Tolga Ozyurtcu, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor with the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education at the University of Texas at Austin. He teaches in the programs in Sport Management and Physical Culture and Sport Studies and can be reached at tolgao@gmail.com.

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