Kimberly Blackwell, 53, loved animals so much she created an organic chocolate company to employ local workers so they wouldn’t have to poach animals on protected government land.
Friends describe her as a tough-as-nails farmer with a big heart, someone who never backed down from a fight, even if it meant standing up to violent men with hunting dogs and guns.
When Blackwell was in her 20s, she built a log cabin in the Yukon, the isolated and rugged territory in northwestern Canada where she worked as a chef in the logging camps. When she moved to Costa Rica’s remote Osa Peninsula, she defended her property near Corcovado National Park with a BB gun.
Police suspect that battle against poachers may have cost her life. On Feb. 2, Blackwell was found beaten and shot to death on the patio of her home in San Miguel de Cañaza, a remote area near the Southern Zone town of Puerto Jiménez. A memorial service was held last Sunday, in the Cabo Matapalo area where she lived for many years.
Despite reports that Blackwell died of strangulation, an autopsy revealed that the cause of death was a gunshot wound, a source close to the family said. She was also badly beaten. The Judicial Investigative Police (OIJ) and the coroner’s office have not yet clarified if she was also strangled or sexually assaulted.
While police have not ruled out other motives, their investigation is focusing on local poachers, a source close to the investigation said. A $10,000 reward is being offered for information that leads to an arrest and conviction in the case. Anyone with information should call 2280-5482.
An OIJ official in Ciudad Neily, the closest office to Puerto Jiménez, would not comment on the case. The OIJ press office in San José also did not comment.
A spokesman for the Canadian Embassy in Costa Rica also would not comment, citing Canada’s Privacy Act. However, a source close to the family acknowledged that embassy officials are “very interested” in the case, and have met with Costa Rican investigators.
Meanwhile, friends and neighbors, some of whom say they are scared to speak out because of fear of retribution, try to cope with what they describe as a “devastating loss.”
“She was confrontational when she needed to be, but she also had such a sweet side,” said Tao Watts, a Puerto Jiménez resident. “Ticas love her, and a lot of people are outraged.”
Blackwell moved to Costa Rica from Whitehorse, Canada, 18 years ago. She founded the Samaritan Xocolata organic chocolate company using cacao that she grew on four hectares of her own land. Her chocolate business employed local women to harvest the cacao and turn it into what customers describe as some of the “best chocolate in Costa Rica.”
“She created this whole micro-industry in the area so that she could employ her neighbors and get them to end the practice of hunting,” Watts said.
Nine years ago, Blackwell bought 52 hectares of mountaintop land next to the Gulfo Dulce Reserve and Corcovado National Park. She reforested former logging territory to create a corridor of primary forest that adjoined the government-protected reserve and national park. She also grew her own food and exotic tropical ornamental plants.
“She fell in love with that farm because she loved the forest and wildlife,” Watts said.
Hunting is illegal in both the reserve and national park, but poaching is common. Blackwell often worked with Environment Ministry park rangers to target poachers, who frequently use Blackwell’s driveway – a private access road – to access surrounding forest, Watts said.
Poachers also hunt on Blackwell’s property, and confrontations between Blackwell and hunters were becoming increasingly common. A couple of years ago, someone killed her dogs. According to Watts, Blackwell recently shot at a poacher on her property with a BB gun.
“It’s really unnerving to hear dogs and guns all the time,” Watts said. “This is something that we’ve been dealing with for years. Hopefully, this will bring about some kind of change.”
“A lot of people love her and everybody loves her chocolate,” Watts said. “We hope to continue [pursuing] her vision.”
Blackwell is survived by two sisters, a brother, stepbrother and stepmother, who live in Canada.