Hakai Magazine

Cover image courtesy of University of Nebraska Press

Book Review: The Battle for Paradise

A remote Costa Rican village must choose: surfing or tuna?

Authored by

by Enrique Gili

Article body copy

Southern Californian surfers of a certain age can recall a time when the waves that unfurled along the endless coastline were empty save a few surfers here and there. But after the Second World War, a housing boom replaced much of that shoreline with freeways and expensive beachfront homes.

This irked a generation of surfers, and, starting in the late 1960s, those with the means went in search of lesser-known surf breaks around the world, in locales such as Indonesia and Central America.

One such place was Pavones, a remote Costa Rican fishing village. The town, and the conflicts that shaped it, are the subject of Jeremy Evans’s recent book, The Battle for Paradise: Surfing, Tuna, and One Town’s Quest to Save a Wave.

The complicated recent history of Pavones started in the 1970s with Dan Fowlie, a surfer turned drug trafficker who was drawn to Pavones’ world-class wave. He converted the town into his own personal fiefdom and, at least in the early days, swore friends and associates to secrecy about its location. Dubbed “Danny Land,” Pavones became an invitation-only haven for elite surfers. Fowlie’s drug-fueled empire ended a decade later with his extradition to the United States and subsequent 20-year prison sentence, but his behavior cast a long shadow over Pavones and on the types of expats it attracted.

In the 2000s, as surfers, squatters, and estranged business partners fought over Fowlie’s extensive land holdings, a tuna company called Granjas Atuneras arrived. They wanted to pursue their own agenda in Pavones—building massive tuna pens in Golfo Dulce to meet a growing international demand for tuna steaks and sushi.

A former newspaper journalist turned outdoor writer, Evans ventured to Pavones to report on Fowlie’s tumultuous legacy. What unfolds is a complicated tale of competing visions for Pavones. Residents faced two seemingly incompatible paths: remain a bucolic—albeit troubled—surf destination, or morph into a tuna town, with whatever that might bring. (One fear was that water polluted by fish feces, and its high bacterial loads, would put surfers at risk of infection.)

In a story as tangled as a game trail through the jungle, Evans recounts how a loose-knit coalition of activists, surfers, and locals set aside their differences to turn the tables on the tuna industry. Evans describes how the political infighting, deception, and bitter land disputes led to an improbable environmental victory for a renowned surf town on the edge of nowhere. Of interest to activists and surfers faced with a similar dilemma, the book asks why a place is worth protecting—and for whose benefit.

The Battle for Paradise: Surfing, Tuna, and One Town’s Quest to Save a Wave
By Jeremy Evans
240 pp. University of Nebraska Press