By Abigail Rome
In the midst of the Amazon a unique ecotourism exchange program is giving community-based ecotourism stakeholders the boost they need to better conserve local cultures and environments, improve local economies and potentially reach tourist markets around the world.
At a series of workshops held earlier this year, members of indigenous communities, private industry and conservation organizations gathered as representatives of three of the world's pioneering community-based ecotourism lodges. The purpose: to examine the benefits and challenges of the ecotourism partnerships they are engaged in.
The meetings took place in each of the three participating lodges, located deep in the rain forests of their respective countries: Posada Amazonas in Peru, Chalalan Ecolodge in Bolivia and Kapawi Ecolodge in Ecuador. Members of the Ese'eja, Quechua-Tacana and Achuar indigenous groups, representatives from Conservation International
and two tourism businesses—Rainforest Expeditions
from Peru and Canodros
from Ecuador—assembled to see for themselves how others are developing their lodges, discuss their experiences and share lessons learned for successful ecotourism partnerships.
"The workshops will help us improve our own lodge while allowing us to learn how people in other communities manage ecotourism," says Silverio Duri, a delegate from the Ese'eja indigenous community of Infierno and a guide at Posada Amazonas in Peru.
Amanda Stronza, an assistant professor at Texas A & M University, developed the exchange program with Eduardo Nycander, founder of Rainforest Expeditions and a pioneer in private sector-community partnerships. They came up with the idea because they noticed that while each of three lodges had generated an enormous amount of attention from conservationists, ecotourism specialists and researchers, the lodges had yet to be assessed in any systematic and comparable way, and certainly not by the local communities involved.
The exchange, called Learning Host to Host, was funded by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund as part of its strategic approach to encourage community-based conservation and natural resource management in the Vilcabamba-Amboró conservation corridor of the Tropical Andes biodiversity hotspot. The exchange stretched over three months for a total of 20 days. The same people, selected by their communities, participated in each of the three workshops.
"Having the same people participate in all three workshops was really important because as people came to know each other better, the level of trust grew and the conversations became so much more candid," says Stronza, who now directs the project on behalf of Rainforest Expeditions.
"Community members from each site came to realize that there are other people very similar to themselves, with similar cultural backgrounds and similar environmental backdrops facing similar challenges but in a whole different part of the Amazon," Stronza says. "It was incredible to see how quickly they formed bonds with each other."
Integrating Conservation and Development
While rural communities around the world have taken up ecotourism to support habitat conservation and community development, many of their initiatives are developed on a very small budget and with on-the-job "training." Their success—in terms of quality of service, economics and conservation effectiveness—is often questionable.
A new model is now being tested: one which brings together indigenous communities with tourism businesses and/or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to provide capital and technical support. The idea is that each has unique capabilities which, when combined, allow ecotourism to exemplify sustainable development.
In the three lodges represented at the exchange, private sector or NGO partners provide financing, training and marketing assistance while indigenous communities supply land, labor and an intimate knowledge of the forest. After working together for a pre-determined time period, there is a gradual and planned transfer of skills, rights and responsibilities from the private partner to the community.
The premise is that once the timeframe is realized, the partner will have regained its investment and the community will have sufficient capacity to take over the business. The end result is an ecotourism lodge where tourists can safely and comfortably experience life in the rainforest while their indigenous hosts maintain largely traditional lifestyles in a globalizing world.
"It seems that anytime ecotourism is mentioned, the words 'community participation' and 'local benefits' are emphasized," says Stronza, explaining the importance of bringing together the 35 participants, some of whom traveled for three days to reach the remote settings of the ecolodges. "We have some sense that increased local participation in ecotourism leads to better outcomes for conservation, but we don't really understand why or how that works. What are the most effective ways for generating local benefits from ecotourism? And how do those choices translate to conservation?"
The rain forest setting provided a comfortable atmosphere for all involved. Occasional sightings and cries of rare birds, monkeys or three-toed sloths allowed for entertaining and educational interruptions to the many topics discussed, which ranged from cultural impacts of running a tourism business to effective wastewater treatment to distribution of business profits within the communities.
While the participants were surprised at the differences between their cultures, the types of their business partners and the terms of their agreements, they found that they share many concerns and challenges. One of these is building local capacities. How much preparation and time are needed to train community members so that they can independently operate, manage and market their ecotourism business? And, how do you maintain ongoing training to allow new community members to rotate into the ecotourism operation?
Another subject eliciting much discussion was cultural change. What is the best way to facilitate the transition from a subsistence livelihood to one of running a business? How much cultural change is acceptable or desirable?
Sharing Challenges and Lessons
The role of ecotourism in natural resource management and biodiversity conservation was reserved for discussion at the third workshop, held at the Kapawi Ecolodge in the midst of the 7,000 km² Achuar reserve in southeastern Ecuador. Participants evaluated the natural assets of their communities and territories, threats to conservation and the variety of techniques used for protecting natural resources. They agreed that education and raising awareness are the first steps for successful resource management.
Developing land-use plans to designate distinct zones for ecotourism, farming, hunting and other activities is a second important step. The process of evaluating each area and determining acceptable activities raises environmental consciousnesses and helps clarify management objectives. In addition, it provides a framework for generating information on cultural and natural assets that can be shared with visitors. Among the remaining challenges is how to use traditional forms of local governance to establish and implement regulations and incentives that support resource conservation.
By generating as many questions as answers, the ecotourism exchange provided a much-needed opportunity for key players in community-based ecotourism partnerships to evaluate their programs and improve upon them accordingly. However, the benefits will not remain only with the three participating lodges.
"We hope this exchange of lessons learned
will help other communities, tour operators and environmental organizations - not by providing a recipe of what to do, but rather by giving an honest assessment of what's worked and what hasn't worked in different places," Stronza says.
Conclusions and recommendations from the exchange will be published later this year. There will be a book on the workshops' findings and recommended best practices for community-based ecotourism, a guide for tour operators and communities and a series of articles for the general public. All products are expected to be available in English and Spanish and on a Learning Host to Host Web site to be developed.
In the meantime, the diverse group of ecotourism exchange participants is already benefiting from the new alliances they have established. With a clearer understanding of the roles of ecotourism in their lives, the three communities will soon begin joint marketing their businesses.