Interview with Georges Duriaux, owner of the El Jaguar Private Wildlife Reserve and Organic Farm in Nicaragua

Interviewed by Yessenia Soto, Rainforest Alliance

“The idea is to know what we have because only then can we conserve it.”

Golden Winged Warbler - Photo by El JaguarEighteen years ago, husband and wife Georges Duriaux and Lily Chavarría were enchanted by 247 acres (100 hectares) of tropical forest in northern Jinotega, Nicaragua. They purchased the land to protect its rich biodiversity and, not long after, their dream was transformed into a conservation and sustainable resource management project. The El Jaguar Private Wildlife Reserve and Organic Farm combines coffee production, wildlife research, and ecotourism activities.

El Jaguar’s forests and coffee plantations are so rich in bird species that El Jaguar was named by The Institute for Bird Populations as one of its seven bird monitoring stations in Nicaragua. In 2006 it was designated as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife International. The reserve is a key area for research for other international organizations such as the United States Forest Service, la Alianza para las Áreas Silvestres (ALAS), ProAves Colombia, the American Bird Conservancy, and Partners in Flight.

The Reserve’s coffee has earned both organic and Rainforest Alliance certification, which ensures that it is both sustainably grown and also usually receives a higher market premium. Continuing his commitment to sustainability into the reserve’s ecotourism program, Duriaux has enrolled in the Rainforest Alliance’s sustainable tourism best management practices program.

For Duriaux, knowing what you have is the key to successful conservation. He talked with us about the environmental, social, and economic benefits of growing Rainforest Alliance certified coffee, the bird research carried out on his reserve, and how he’s expanding into sustainable tourism to help the reserve become self-sufficient.

Question: How did your dream to preserve a farm become a broad-based conservation project?

Cloud Forest - Photo by El JaguarDuriaux: We realized that in order to conserve our land, we needed to earn income from it. I had experience with organic coffee production in Jinotega, and so we decided to start an organic farm at El Jaguar. On the other hand, my wife is fascinated by ornithology and has always been a nature-lover. So everything fell into place — we grew coffee and were lucky to have a lot of birds on the reserve. We began work to research and conserve birds, which led to people coming to the reserve to conduct more research. Eventually, we needed to build a biological station and lodging to support research activities, and then we began to launch new ecotourism activities.

Q: When and why did you decide to certify your coffee?

Duriaux: We began by growing certified organic coffee but this only verified that no harmful agrochemicals had been used. Our mission was sustainable production, so we decided to look for a way to support and strengthen the work we had already done. We were awarded with the Rainforest Alliance Certified™ seal in 2006.

Q: What did you expect to gain with Rainforest Alliance certification?

Duriaux: We were attracted to the program because it requires an integrated approach that balances environmental protection, waste and pesticide management, and social and administrative components. Becoming Rainforest Alliance Certified helped to verify and provide guidance on how we could improve everything that we were doing to achieve sustainability. We also hoped to improve the quality of our coffee and transform it into a niche market product.

Q: And did the certification live up to your expectations?

Duriaux: Absolutely. The exclusive buyer for our product is a US subsidiary of Whole Foods Market, which was interested in working with the Rainforest Alliance. By being Rainforest Alliance Certified, we are preferred among buyers, earn better prices, have strong contracts that give us peace of mind, and have a level of prestige because we can demonstrate that our coffee is a truly sustainable product.

In terms of social aspects, certification motivated us to make it easier for our workers to obtain social security benefits, and we have made improvements to their facilities. We also created an administrative office and have made considerable progress in management, procedures, and long-term planning.

Q: Do the farm workers understand and share your commitment to certification?

Duriaux: It has taken time but they now realize that they work on a different kind of farm, one that protects the environment, and they have become more involved. We are proud to say that four of our workers’ children are involved in bird research activities, and some are now certified nature guides. These children have a broader view of the world because they are in contact with other cultures and understand the concepts of sustainability and ecotourism.

Q: Has certification benefited the bird monitoring project?

Research - Photo by El JaguarDuriaux: Our certification stipulates that we should conserve at least 30 percent of our land, but we were already conserving 80 percent because we had previously been working in conservation and research. Rainforest Alliance experts would like us to continue working with researchers and create an inventory of birds and other flora and fauna present on the reserve. The idea is to know what we have because only then can we conserve it.

Q: What species have you found on the reserve?

Duriaux: Before, we only knew that we had “pretty birds” but now we have an inventory of 270 bird species. A BirdLife International list shows that we have seven endangered species, three endemic species, and 17 species with reduced populations. To study and protect these species, we have built two biological stations, one in the cloud forest and the other in the coffee plantations. We have also launched insect and mammal research projects that are sponsored by the United States Forest Service, and the Universidad Centroamericana is studying herpetofauna. Now we know that our reserve is unlike any other forest in the area. A few years ago, we received an award for our conservation work from coffee buyers.

Q: What are the biggest challenges in your work?

Duriaux: Involving the local community and economic aspects. You need to be very patient and firm in order to motivate your neighbors to protect the environment. For example, we have provided training and taught them about biological connectivity and how forest patches are also essential for the movement of animals. I always tell other local producers that they could have the same biological resources that we have, but maybe they don’t realize it or give it enough importance and therefore they can’t take advantage of it. Nevertheless, we are moving ahead. Schools are a big help because they bring the students here and teach them about conservation. Not long ago, four kids brought a sloth that they had found in the forest here. They told us that they wanted us to take care of it because if it was found in the community, it would be eaten and they didn’t want this to happen.

Lodge - Photo by El JaguarOur main challenge is related to economics — we still aren’t self-sufficient. It helps to have an exclusive coffee contract, but we need to improve the efficiency of our production while also increasing our output with the infrastructure that we have. It’s not easy. This is why we are launching ecotourism activities and creating a cycle where both programs support each other.

Q: As you are already participating in the Rainforest Alliance’s Best Practices in Sustainable Tourism program, do you plan to certify your tourism business?

Duriaux: We are moving slowly but we’d like to become certified. We need to find an internationally-recognized program and also be able to cover the associated costs. We consider certification to be an investment in improving our business and our position in the market. I think that nature tourism is less susceptible to the economic crises and political tensions that occur in a country like Nicaragua. Certification can provide a differentiated product in the face of tough competition. For example, we would be able to work with a chain of international tour operators.

By being part of the Best Practices Program, we’re already a step ahead. We have high hopes for our participation in the Eco-Index of Sustainable Tourism because it will increase our visibility and help to attract tourists, generate revenue, encourage us to keep improving our program, and help to ensure the conservation of our reserve.

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