Interview with Amanda Stronza, Director of the Amazonian Exchange

Interview by Katiana Murillo, Rainforest Alliance

“There are many tourism lodges that talk about involving the communities but they only hire local people to wash dishes. These are three cases in the Amazon with true community participation.”

Known as the “Trueque Amazónico” (Amazonian Exchange), tour operators and indigenous communities involved in ecotourism in the Amazon of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia met with researchers in 2003 to share experiences and form alliances.

These experiences are from one lodge in each nation. Kapawi Ecolodge in Ecuador is administrated by the Canodros company with the participation of the Achuar Indigenous FedAmazon Exchange logoeration, which unites 50 indigenous communities. The company provides a fixed monthly quota (US $58,000 per year) to the federation and most of the hotel jobs are filled by members of the community. The business will pass completely into community hands in 2011. The second experience, Posada Amazonas, in Peru, is a similar management model between a private company, Rainforest Expeditions, and the local community. This case involves the native community of Infierno, where the indigenous Ese’eja share their work with Ladinos and residents of settlements along the river. Sixty percent of the hotel profits are provided to the community, which will receive the business in its entirety in 2016. The third case is the Chalalan Ecolodge in Bolivia, a lodge that is already in community hands. The Quechua-Tacana people of Uchupiamonas community have a partnership with Conservation International, which orchestrated the transfer of the hotel to the community.

Besides the participation of the local indigenous communities, the experiences have in common their location in difficult-to-reach sites in relatively pristine rainforest. They are also aimed at a segment of environmentally sensitive ecotourists willing to pay from $70 to $120 per night and interested in learning about and contributing to local communities.

The experience exchanges were based on previously completed ethnographic research in the three sites, which was aimed at helping local local leaders define what topics they wanted to discuss during the workshops. They selected: product strengths and weaknesses; partnership terms established for the hotels’ administration; distribution of economic resources; the process of transferring the hotels into community hands; significant changes in the communities stemming from ecotourism, management of tourism resources (cultural and natural) and monitoring of the changes. The workshops were carried out thanks to support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF).

We spoke with Amanda Stronza, anthropologist and director of the Amazonian Exchange, about the workshop results. Currently Stronza is an assistant professor at Texas A&M University.

Workshop Participants from Peru

Workshop Participants from Peru

Question: What was the main lesson learned from the workshops?

Stronza: We learned that the transfer of the lodge is not necessarily the goal. The company is always going to have strengths, characteristics, and knowledge that the community does not have; and the community can have some strengths that the company will never have. So why not simply have a plan to work together? This way, instead of talking about a transfer, the best thing is to talk about how to capitalize on the talents and knowledge of each side.

A new model that came out of the workshops is that of NGO, company, and community as a new partnership model. An NGO can attract resources that the community and the business cannot: for example, capacity for monitoring and training about project impacts and the ability to raise funds for satellite projects. This means not putting all the eggs into one basket but also focusing on health and planning projects in the community, using the resources generated by ecotourism and thinking holistically about the development of the entire community.

Q: How do the indigenous people view their participation in the ecotourism activity?

Stronza: It’s difficult to generalize because in each case, and as with conservation projects anywhere in the world, there are only a few who truly participate, are involved in decision-making, and think strategically about the future. This is what’s happening in these three cases. Ecotourism can cause conflicts, from the viewpoint of who is participating, who is not, and who should be. One conflict almost all of them emphasize is that working in tourism means leaving the community, their small farms, and their families. Therefore, having to choose is somewhat difficult and many of them feel that this is a decision they must now make with ecotourism. On the other hand, those who are very involved said they now feel they are working for their community and helping their families. Since these are community businesses, one difficulty has been the redefinition of relationships among the people and the situations that can crop up as a result. For example, an uncle becomes a boss and the mixture of work and family is a little bit difficult to manage. Sometimes you wonder why some people are hired: Because they are someone’s brother or because they are the most able person to fill a post?

Something in common that was discovered during the workshops is that in each place, ecotourism is changing the community dwellers’ vision toward conservation. Now we can speak about management in concrete terms, whereas before we could not. An NGO would come and talk with the local people about the need to protect natural resources, but the people either did not understand or they did not care. The participants told us that it now makes sense to talk about how they are going to protect these resources because they are resources that very concretely benefit them. Ecotourism is definitely fulfilling the promise and the ideal in these three cases.

There are also many problems. This includes questions about who should be a partner — should everyone receive part of the earnings even if some people have never lifted a finger to help build the lodge? Are they entitled to earn something like everyone else just because they live in the community?

Q: Do the indigenous communities feel that the business is theirs?

Kapawai Lodge in Ecuador

Kapawai Lodge in Ecuador

Stronza: One problem that exists more in Kapawi than in the other lodges is that most of the Achuar do not feel that Kapawi is really theirs, but they receive the monthly quota just the same. This creates a few problems for their partner, Canodros. The company feels that it is managing everything and although they talk a lot about participation, the Achuar do not feel like owners nor do they concern themselves with working. Creating a feeling of ownership is a challenge.

Q: Since there are certain standards for international quality that must be maintained, but there are also cultural aspects that interest the tourists who visit, how is the cultural part managed?

Stronza: Kapawi is the model for the other two. The delegates from the other sites were surprised when they visited the Achuar lands because they noted that in Ecuador the culture is still intact. They speak their own language, wear traditional clothing, and truly maintain their culture. This was quite shocking for the people of Chalalan and also those from Peru. The rules in the Achuar communities are also very strict. The tourists may not walk wherever they want nor can they talk with the Achuar people. They must all go with one guide from Quito or Guayaquil and one Achuar guide. Everything is controlled and mediated.

This is also controlled in the other lodges, but in the other two cases the indigenous people were already more integrated with the market and the western world, and all were speaking Spanish even before the ecotourism development. In the case of the Achuar there are many who do not speak Spanish. The Achuar have simply been more isolated from the market and from the Western world for many years.

In the case of Chalalan and Posada Amazonas the tourists do not visit the community and so the people say that they have not sensed any changes in their culture. The tourists are in the lodge and that’s it. In the Achuar area, tourists do visit the communities, but the people said this has not had any impacts on their culture because they have consciously maintained a difference between what they show to the tourists and what they keep private.

Q: From an environmental point of view, which best tourism management practices stood out in the exchanges?

Stronza: The importance of zoning and locating the lodge and tourism activities far from where the community is farming, fishing, and hunting was emphasized. It was determined that it is very important to create rules and sanctions in common agreement with the community, so that everyone understands what the rules are and respects them.

Q: How do you envision measuring the impacts of tourism over the longterm?

Stronza: One thing we discovered is that not one of the three places has a monitoring system. We agree that it is important to have one. The only records made are when the guides conduct a tour and record the animals they have seen, where, and at what time. But it is also important to measure social, cultural, and economic impacts. The only thing we could do in the workshop was to identify the aspects that they will need to measure in the future.

Q: Is there a positive balance between the benefits and impacts of ecotourism?

Stronza: It is positive because the communities are in control, participating in the projects. If negative changes occur they can be fixed because the indigenous people are making decisions and the lodge is theirs. Their participation is really key for success because they are not just washing dishes, driving vehicles, and earning a little money. They are also learning how to manage a lodge and how to plan their future strategically through their partnership with the companies. The balance is that ecotourism is not the answer to all their needs but it is one more option that can help them. Everyone agrees that ecotourism is not the solution but it is helping.

Q: One of the objectives of the workshops was to set standards for community ecotourism. What guidelines came to light?

Stronza: What we did was a little bit funny, because we talked about standards in the first workshop, and they really did not understand what was involved, so we tried to build an ideal lodge using the best elements from each lodge in various aspects. We created a lodge called Pokachá, and everyone is very happy with it.

Q: How important is it to carry out exchanges like these? Can the experiences be replicated in other sites in Latin America?

Stronza: The importance of carrying out a lessons learned exchange was very obvious. They have a lot to talk about among themselves. They also learned that many of them are teaching others about what they are doing. The main advantage was giving the people opportunities they usually do not have, to travel to international conferences; to realize that there are communities in other sites that are confronting the same problems and seeking solutions; and to see that among themselves they have many answers and don’t have to depend on outside experts to resolve their problems. They could also see that what they are doing, which is a daily routine for them, has a lot of value. Everyone is very excited because they have made new friendships and feel that they have formed a new alliance. They say that now they are not alone and they realize that they are not the only ones with conflicts in their community.

Q: How will the lessons learned exchanges be continued?

Stronza: They communicate by radio in each community for tourism logistics and they have discovered that the communication reaches from Ecuador to Bolivia, so they can communicate among themselves. We also want to continue our involvement, and we are talking about holding a fourth meeting in Ecuador about what they want to collaborate on in the future, such as attending international tourism fairs, exchanges among guides, and joint handicraft marketing. We have a plan to continue with Pokachá II.

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