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Kapawi: A Model of Sustainable Development in Ecuadorean Amazonia

The tremendous lack of communication and trust between indigenous groups and the private sector has been the foremost hurdle for development in Latin American countries. Indigenous organizations have seen private enterprises as abusive institutions eager to exploit indigenous culture and resources. The private sector, on the other hand, tends to consider indigenous people untruthful and indolent. If these misunderstandings are resolved, a new niche for socially responsible development will evolve which can provide important economic and social benefits, and create a space for tolerance and learning.

Kapawi, an ecotourism project with community-based participation, provides a model of how private capital investments can be integrated with local community goals, with minimal cultural and environmental impacts, even in areas where local cultures still function with primarily non-monetized economies. Kapawi offers a model which avoids the integration/destruction paradox that faces most indigenous Amazonian groups.

Living in the remotest area of southeastern Ecuador and northeastern Peru, the Achuar, or people of the achu palm, had practically no contact with westerners before the arrival of missionaries in the late 1960s. Even today Western influence is minimal and the Achuar remain nearly self-sufficient in their territory, still able to obtain most of what they need from the forest. However, the Achuar find themselves at a crossroads. Proud warriors of the past, the Achuar face the dilemmas of integration: the establishment of semi-villages along an airstrip versus traditional nuclear settlements; access to formal education versus loss of their own culture; and the function and efficiency of manufactured products versus a dependence on monetary transactions.

The Achuar themselves want their children to have access to the possibilities that the outside world can often Yet the Achuar don't want to lose the social cohesiveness and relation to the world that their traditional culture provides. Culture is dynamic, and flexibility can mean the capacity to avoid extinction. As the Achuar search for their place in the future, integration will occur. The question remains how.

Present-day economics are characterized by a fragmentary and reductionistic approach which fails to recognize that the monetary economy is merely one aspect of a whole ecological and social web. The basic error is dividing this web into fragments. The only values appearing in current economic models are those that can be quantified by currency exchange. This leaves out qualitative values that are crucial to understanding the ecological, social, and psychological dimensions of economic activity. Traditional Achuar economics are not based on currency exchange. Rather, the Achuar use the so-called "girl economy," a type of economy based on the exchange of girls. There is a direct relationship between girl exchanges and community building. Actually, the word "community" itself contains the root cumm (together, among each other); and munere (to give); Hence community means "to give among each other."

Defined as sustainable nature-based tourism, ecotourism also includes social and cultural dimensions, where visitors interact with local residents. To be beneficial, ecotourism must foster environmental and cultural understanding, appreciation, and conservation. When ecotourism projects are developed in consultation with host communities there are several mutual benefits. Tour operators gain access to local villages or remote areas. Local people derive income from hosting visitors while elders pass on cultural knowledge to ecotourists. The benefits of ecotourism for rural or indigenous communities include preservation of cultural traditions, conservation of the natural environment, and maintenance of social, cultural, and spiritual values. In remote areas with limited development, ecotourism ventures can improve the quality of life, self esteem, and well-being of local and indigenous communities.

Although the concept is full of good intentions, in practice the impact has not always been positive. The arrival and presence of tourists in small villages and remote areas can affect local residents at the individual, family, and community level. Worse, people have been marketed like objects, community contributions have been trivialized, and locals have received limited access to decision making. In fact, a number of ecotourism projects in the Amazon have been based on the same model oil companies and rubber merchants used in the past: give Indians the least possible, obtain the most, and do not teach them too much, lest they become hard to control.

Additionally, few examples of exclusively community-owned projects have succeeded. The lack of know-how and experience, plus limited funding and no understanding of international marketing strategies, has left most of the small community-based projects out of business.

Kapawi represents a new model in the implementation of sustainable ecotourism, built on a respectful relationship between a private enterprise and the Achuar. The objectives of Kapawi (and CANODROS S.A., its tour operator) are twofold:

1) To implement a $2 million project in an indigenous territory, by leasing their land, sharing benefits, and passing the know-how and installations to the Achuar. At the end of a 15 year period, the project will be owned and managed by the Achuar. Meanwhile Kapawi seeks to recover the investment and to obtain a profit

2) To facilitate the Achuar's request for partnership with the outside world by contributing to the creation of a not-for-profit organization that provides access to technical expertise and funding for a variety of Achuar projects. These projects are all intended to enhance the Achuar's ability to manage integration with the modern world on their own terms and to defend their lands against encroachment.

These two objectives are based on a unique philosophy: Any project with the Achuar must build structures that allow long-term autonomous management. Thus, much attention is placed on training, education, and efforts that support the Achuar's governing federation and leadership.

The economic model of Kapawi is grounded in a recognition that a sustainable sense of success is based on taking pride in the value of our contributions to others rather than taking pride in the value of our possessions. By extension, this means striving for quality in the use of the power and capital at our disposal rather than working to accumulate more money and power over others as primary goals. In this view, profit and wealth may help us to contribute, but they do not themselves constitute business success. Kapawi can be seen as a low-profit activity. Perhaps its investors could have made a better profit by buying a pesticide factory or building a luxurious hotel on the Caribbean. But, despite its apparent low productivity, Kapawi fits within a sustainable framework, while the other options seek to maximize profits.

Defining success by what one gives rather than what one has is neither a new practice nor an overly idealistic view. It is rooted deep in history and human nature, and is more basic than wealth or money. Having learned from other projects that paternalistic or charity attitudes lead to serious disruptions of the social structure, Kapawi conceives the exchange of goods (monetary or not) only as a reciprocal transaction.

Kapawi, the most expensive ecotourism project in the Ecuadorean Amazon Basin will be given entirely to the Achuar in the year 2011. The land where Kapawi is situated is rented, not purchased, and a rent has been set at $2000 a month, increasing at a yearly increment of seven percent. At the end of the period, the amount paid as rent will total over $600,000. In addition, a $10 fee is charged to every visitor for the exclusive benefit of the community. With an estimated average of 1000 passengers per year, this will contribute an additional $150,000 through the year 2011.

The economic influence within the local communities has also been significant. Before the Kapawi Project most of the people based their external economy on cattle ranching. Today, 16 out of 52 Achuar communities members of the Federation, base a significant percentage of their economy on ecotourism and are discussing how to limit cattle ranching and then eliminate it. In these communities, up to 45 percent of their total income comes from direct employment (22 Achuar employees work in Kapawi and women in neighboring communities work doing the laundry), and supplying products to the ecotourism project. In addition, sales of handicrafts represent 21 percent of an average family's income in these communities.

CANODROS S.A. is also a receiver in the exchange. The Achuar provide wood, palm thatch, and other building materials, access to their existing airstrips, an agreement to restrict hunting to the areas outside the ecotourism zone, and knowledge about their culture and environment. Although not measurable, this last contribution has probably been their most valuable contribution. In order to maintain high standards of service, CANODROS S.A. has created a structure in order to train the Achuar personnel, ranging from biology to carpentry.

Flying over Kapawi in a small aircraft, it is difficult to differentiate the lodge from local communities. Twenty thatch roofed houses, aligned along a small lagoon, look, from the air, like a rather unimpressive project. By combining the vernacular architecture with exogenous, low-impact technologies, it was possible to create a suitable structure for ecotourism.

The Achuar house is considered a magnificent example of an appropriate design for the conditions of the region. But an Achuar house is more than that; it is a reproduction of a cosmos on a small scale. The house, elliptic and harmonious, is to an Achuar what a womb is to a fetus. Actually, in Achuar, womb (uchi jee) shares the same root with house (jea). Built along an east-west axis, this structure follows the path of the sun, offering cooler temperatures. This type of architecture is the most suitable for tropical climates; the heat of the sun on the thatched roof produces connective currents of fresh air that force the warm air to pass through the thatch of the roofing. Also, this structure does not isolate the visitor from the environment. Between the shelter and the forest there is a continuum, not an obstacle.

Kapawi incorporates low-impact technologies, such as solar energy, trash management, black water treatment, and electric and four-stroke outboard motors, in its overall design. Kapawi accommodates 70 people at the most, including guests and employees, and is not much larger than a medium-size Achuar village. Actively participating at different organizational levels of the Achuar Federation, Kapawi respects and encourages the political system adopted by the Achuar, integrating individuals, communities, associations, and the federation itself in the decision-making process.

Although ecotourism and the Kapawi project sometimes produce community conflicts, most of the social problems have been solved via open discussions with community members. The tool used to measure the social impact is generally sensibility and a continuous feed-back from the surrounding communities. In order to minimize social and cultural impacts, the visitors are advised not to take photographs of people, not to give away presents or money, to respect their traditions, and to preserve the local environment, among other things.

Ecotourism means quite simply "ecologically sound tourism" or "ecologically sensitive tourism." This implies that we must care for the place visited as much as we care for and appreciate home. Community-based ecotourism includes a new component, where the visitor must care for the culture visited, as much as that culture would like to be respected.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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