By David Dudenhoefer
Like the rainforest they inhabit, the indigenous peoples of the Ecuadorian Amazon face an array of threats including illegal logging, large-scale agriculture, and oil exploitation. But over the past decade, nearly a dozen indigenous communities in the country’s Amazon provinces have turned to tourism as a way to earn money and conserve their territories, making that South American nation a leader in community-based ecotourism.
The growing number of indigenous communities that have opened lodges are inspired by the likes of the Napo Wildlife Center, which belongs to the Amazon Kichwa community of Añangu, on Ecuador’s Napo River. That lodge, perched at the edge of a jungle lake in the wilderness of Yasuní National Park, has become one of the country’s premier eco-lodges since it opened in 2003. But according to Jiovanny Rivadeneira, the Kichwa visionary behind the Center, it is much more than a nature lodge.
“This isn’t a business, it’s a community enterprise. We reinvest everything we earn in the community,” says Rivadeneira, explaining that in addition to the employment the lodge provides for local people, they’ve used tourism profits to build several classrooms, pay teacher salaries, and provide school supplies and free lunch for 96 students, many of who are from neighboring villages. The lodge also pays pensions to Añangu’s oldest residents, and provides boat transportation to the nearest city and medicine for the village clinic.
Tourism earnings also pay the salaries of several community rangers who patrol the more than 50,000 acres (20,000 hectares) of wilderness that Añangu owns or manages as a concession. In order to insure that there is plenty of wildlife in the forest around the lodge, the village council banned hunting in their forest years ago – poachers now risk a $500 fine – which makes the Napo Wildlife Center one of the best places in the Amazon Basin to see wildlife. The lake that the lodge sits on is home to rare giant river otters, while camera traps in the forest that surrounds it have recorded brocket deer, jaguars, and bush dogs.
The Sani Lodge, owned by the Kichwa village of Sani Isla, downriver from Añangu, provides a comparable mix of jobs and support for that community while conserving 37,000 acres (15,000 hectares) of rainforest. Fredy Gualinga, the lodge’s general manager, says that tourism has changed the way his neighbors view that wilderness.
“Before, most people in the community were hunters, but now they understand that if you show a monkey to tourists instead of killing it, the money keeps coming into your pocket,” Gualinga says.
David Peñaherrera, manager of the nonprofit tour operator Maquita Turismo says that community-based tourism not only provides an important economic alternative for local people and motivates them to protect the environment, it also helps them maintain cultural traditions such as dances and handicrafts.
Maquita Turismo works with three community lodges in different regions of Ecuador that were built with help from the Catholic organization Maquita Cushunchic. Hugo Alvarado, the manager of one of those lodges, the Shandia Ecoalbergue, says the lodge helps support the town’s folk dancing group, which performs for guests, as well as providing jobs for local people and a market for local handicrafts. “All of Shandia’s families receive some kind of benefit from this project,” he says.
Nevertheless, both Alvarado and Peñaherrera lament the marketing challenges that community-based lodges face. Most of them have gotten started thanks to support from international donors or the government, but it can take years for them to grow into profitable businesses. Organizations such as the Rainforest Alliance and Wildlife Conservation Society consequently provide varied support to indigenous communities with tourism enterprises.
Andrew Noss, who works with indigenous communities in Ecuador for the Wildlife Conservation Society explains that it can take years for community-based tourism operations to become profitable, and that they consequently need long-term support from donors and the private sector to reach that point.
“I think that a partnership with a private company that is committed to working with the community is key. It is very hard for a community to achieve the expertise with sales and make the international contacts necessary for success,” observes Noss.
In order to help community enterprises bridge that gap, improve the quality of their services, and strengthen their sustainability, the Rainforest Alliance has helped five community lodges connect with international tourism companies. With support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Rainforest Alliance, organized three familiarization trips for representatives of four American tour companies and six Ecuadorian tour operators to five community-owned lodges in the Amazon region – the Huaorani Ecolodge, Kapawi Ecolodge, Sani Lodge, Secoya Lodge, and Napo Wildlife Center. The tourism professionals on those trips were asked to provide suggestions for how the lodges could improve, and the lodge managers committed to acting on those recommendations. The Rainforest Alliance also arranged for community members to do short apprenticeships at the hotels Patio Andaluz and JW Marriott in Quito, Ecuador.
Eric Segalstad, director of digital marketing at Country Walkers, one of the tourism professionals who participated in the trips, says that everyone on his trip appreciated the opportunity to provide feedback for the lodges, whereas the lodges’ management was eager to make the changes they recommended. As an initial contribution to those lodges, Segalstad and his colleagues created a website to help promote them.
“I think all theses lodges are doing incredible work; they have a really cool model for sustainable tourism and they have a really unique place in the world,” Segalstad says.