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Learning Both Ways: Lessons from a Corporate and Community Ecotourism Collaboration

On a hot afternoon in late April 1998, a canoe-load of tourists departed from the frontier town of Puerto Maldonado and motored up the muddy brown and winding Tambopata River of southeastern Peru. Turning each bend, they carefully combed the tree-lined banks for signs of capybara, caiman, or perhaps a flycatcher. The tourists had journeyed to the Department of Madre de Dios, site of the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, and home to more species of plants and animals per square kilometer than has been recorded anywhere else on earth. Peruvians like to boast that this lush land of tropical forest is the biodiversity capital of the world.

After two hours of travel, the guests arrived at a large bend in the river, their final stopping point. High above, hidden by a wall of trees, was Posada Amazonas, a newly built 24-room ecotourism lodge crafted from thatch and bamboo, and furnished with a few comforts from home. Waiting to greet the visitors were Ese'eja and mestizo members of the local Native Community of Infierno (CNI) and their new business partners, Rainforest Expeditions (RFE), a Peruvian tour company. Just two years before, in May of 1996, the members of CNI and RFE had signed a legally binding contract to begin building and comanaging Posada Amazonas.

Calling their joint venture the "Keíeway Association in Participation," the partners agreed to split profits 60 percent to the community, and 40 percent to the company, and to divide the management fifty-fifty. A critical tenet of the agreement was that community members should be actively involved in the enterprise, not only as staff, but also as owners, planners, and administrators; further, they should join RFE in making decisions about the future of the company as well as providing services for tourists. The partners also agreed that after 20 years, the entire operation -- the lodge and everything in it -- will belong to CNI, and the community members will become sole proprietors and managers.

As long as they remain partners, the members of CNI are obligated to maintain an exclusive contract with RFE. No one from the community can strike a deal with a competitor company to build a second lodge, nor can any individual independently create an additional ecotourism project within communal territory. Also, outside visitors must seek permission from the Association before using ecotourism infrastructure in the community, including the lodge itself, trails through the forest, the catamaran in the oxbow lake, and the 40-meter canopy tower.

The Decision to Collaborate

Stories about which partner initiated the agreement are mixed. Each side credits the other, but the consensus from outsiders is that RFE was the first to propose collaboration. But it is also true that several community members had been working off and on as employees for RFE for several years before the agreement was signed, and by 1995, these people had begun lobbying for a lodge in their own community. As is the case with so many community projects, a few individuals spoke for the majority.

There were plenty of incentives for both partners. Rainforest Expeditions had been working in the ecotourism business since the early nineties. Their first lodge, five hours upriver from CNI, was the Tambopata Research Center (TRC). As the lodge located nearest to the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, and the only permanent facility situated near a now-famous macaw clay lick, featured in a cover article by National Geographic in 1994, TRC was already experiencing great success in the ecotourism market when they began negotiating with CNI.

In approaching the community, RFE sought an opportunity to create an overnight resting place for their tourists as they made the eight hour journey to TRC from the airport in Puerto Maldonado. Many communities fringe the banks of the Tambopata River, but RFE chose CNI specifically for two reasons: it is the only native titled community in an area dominated by colonist communities, and it is a prime site for wildlife viewing. Two spectacular and rare species often spotted in CNI are harpy eagles and giant fiver otters. Together with the jaguar and caiman, the harpy and giant otter represent the most important predators at the top of the food chain in Amazonian forests, and they are attractions for ecotourists.

From the perspective of the community, ecotourism represented a possible development alternative. Because CNI is in the buffer zone of Bahuaja-Sonene, people felt limited both in terms of what they could extract from the forest and how much they could expand agriculturally. Ecotourism seemed like a good opportunity. One community member explained, "We do not have many development options, but we do have flora and fauna. Ecotourism can sustain us for awhile."

Community members also described the agreement as a way to gain a foothold in the ecotourism industry. Ecotourism has existed in Tambopata for decades, but really began to prosper in the 1990s. Now an average of 40 to 50 tourists arrive in Puerto Maldonado every day, and boatloads of them pass before people's thatched homes along the Tambopata River morning and afternoon. In fact, the movement of tourists is such a reliable, audible, and visible fact of life in CNI that people can tell the time of day just by checking which boat is heading up or down river. The opportunity to participate actively in this daily ritual, and to benefit directly from it, is what many community members hoped to gain by signing the contract with RFE. Not everyone in CNI, however, is obligated to participate in tourism. The community is composed of approximately 80 families whose homes are spread over 10,000 hectares of forest straddling the Tambopata Riven The lodge itself is located a half-day's paddle by dug-out canoe from the center of the community, and because of this distance, tourism does not necessarily represent a direct intrusion on people's lives.

Despite its name, the Native Community of Infierno is not comprised solely of native peoples. Historically, CNI and its surroundings were territory of the Ese'eja, an indigenous group of Tacana-speaking peoples traditionally dispersed throughout the Amazonian lowlands of Bolivia and Peru. When the government of Peru titled the community in 1976, several migrant families from the Andes and other parts of the Amazon -- settlers from the rubber boom era -- had been living in the area for many decades. These migrants, or mestizos as they are called locally, became official members of CNI and were granted rights to extract and produce from communal lands. Since the titling, ethnic relations between the Ese'eja and mestizos have often been tenuous. In some ways, recent debates over who will gain and who will lose from the ecotourism project have exacerbated tensions. In other ways, the project has led to new levels of cooperation. Officially, all members of the community, Ese'eja and mestizo, have equal opportunity to participate in the project.

The Response from Outsiders

Since its inception, Posada Amazonas has drawn positive attention from scholars, journalists, practitioners, and activists in conservation and development. A vice president of Conservation International hailed the lodge as a potential model both for collaborating with local people in protected areas and for making ecotourism truly participatory. Other support has come from a Peru-Canada bilateral agreement and the MacArthur Foundation, both of which helped finance construction of the lodge and community training.

Despite its early economic success, Posada Amazonas has not received the applause of everyone. In fact, for some critics, the lodge represents yet another chapter in a long history of capitalist exploitation of and among native peoples. For these skeptics, a private company like RFE seems the worst potential partner for CNI, even with the promise of full and equal participation. Anthropologists and indigenous rights activists, in particular, were loathe to embrace any kind of capitalist investment in CNI. This was with good reason, for in other places in the Amazon, and over many decades, private capitalists have benefited the most from the Amazon, either through rubber, timber, quinine, animal pelts, gold, cattle, oil, or some other resource. Local peoples, meanwhile, have struggled against disease, forced enslavement, dwindling resources, and marginalization from homelands. History tells us that the coupling of private companies with local communities does not necessarily lead to win-win outcomes.

Wariness against private companies is wise in the face of overwhelming evidence, but it also presents a dilemma: if ecotourism is a viable option for relatively low impact development in tropical forests, how can local peoples create their own ecotourism projects without help in gaining links to external markets? Non-profit organizations and government agencies come to mind when thinking of appropriate partners, but private companies are typically more efficient and savvier in a market sense. As one tourist remarked, "Generally someone from the outside with education and experience is needed to make a project like this successful. Adding a profit incentive can help."

It was precisely RFE's quest for profit that sparked so much opposition. A representative from a local conservation NGO argued, "There are inherent contradictions between the principles of Ese'eja culture and Rainforest Expeditions. The Ese'eja have an ethos of sharing, not of ripping off." Though incendiary, this comment captures well the sentiment of many scholars and activists who maintain that traditional societies are irrevocably changed when they become newly (or more intensively) integrated with the market economy.

Critics also forecasted negative impacts on the economy of CNI. Many argued that ecotourism would compel people to give up their traditional livelihoods in farming and extraction, and to become increasingly dependent on wage labor. Though they would begin to earn wages, they would also forfeit their subsistence base and thus expose themselves to economic shock should the tourism industry slow. One person commented, "Wage labor is a step down from where they are."

Further opposition to the Keíeway Association arose from fear that ecotourism would erode cultural identity and overpower traditional institutions in CNI. One anthropologist questioned, "Why change the Ese'eja to be capitalists? It will change their identity. It's horrible to destroy a culture." This particular comment relayed a common assumption that tourism would cause people in CNI to become more like their partners at RFE. Critics predicted acculturation or loss of identity in CNI because they believed that the exchange of information, ideas, and practices between the two partners would flow in a single direction, from RFE to CNI, and not the other way around.

As outsiders concerned about the project engaged in discussions with RFE, the members of CNI did not remain silent. Many tried to defend their decision, and to claim their own agency in making the deal with RFE. A vocal few wanted outsiders to know that they had not been coerced or duped into signing the agreement. One man explained, "We agreed to build the lodge to ensure a future for our children." Another commented with some frustration, "How are we going to progress if they tell us we can't do it? We're natives, but we can think like other people."

Even people in favor of the project were concerned that RFE was moving too fast. Long before the first floorboard of Posada Amazonas had been laid, tourists began visiting a harpy eagle nest in the community, and RFE's marketing team in Lima began reaching out to tour operators in Europe and the U.S. The message from NGOs was to slow down, give the community more time. At a local restaurant in Puerto Maldonado, on a poster that read, "Put the brakes on rainforest destruction!" someone scratched out destruction and wrote "Expeditions."

Getting Started

It is true that in the first year, the community was ill-prepared for Posada Amazonas. In interviews done two months after the agreement, fully half the community, mostly the women, knew very little about the contract that their husbands, sons, and brothers had signed with RFE. Many people, both men and women, were confused about the exact terms of the agreement and how it might affect their lives. Fortunately, outside support was forthcoming. Representatives from several NGOs in the region as well as legal consultants affiliated with the local indigenous federation, Federación Nativa de Madre de Dios, stepped in to help community members interpret the details and legal implications of the contract.

Within the community, people who were involved with RFE from the beginning acted as promoters, keeping others informed and involved. In one activity, project leaders walked from home to home in CNI, carrying large, laminated posters with photographs and drawings to explain plans for the lodge and the different ways in which people could participate. Also within the community, a 10 person coordination committee called the Comite de Control was elected to coordinate with RFE in making decisions for the project, and to report to the council of leaders and other members of the community during general assembly meetings.

A key task for the Comite de Control in the beginning was to encourage involvement in the construction of Posada Amazonas. The Comite organized communal work parties of people who volunteered their labor for a week at a time in rotation. The ensuing months of work were intensive. Community members cleared 1.5 hectares of forest, and then began weaving and laying 18,000 panels of palm thatch, hauling 400-pound posts up from the river, laying at least 8,000 floorboards, cutting several kilometers of trails through primary forest, and engaging in countless other strenuous tasks.

Though the agreement had been signed by a majority vote, many community members were hesitant to get involved. "We do not have time to participate," one man pointed out, "If we have no farm, we have no life." Some people were willing to participate, but only after their fields had been prepared and planted. Still others planned to wait and watch what happened to the first few before committing themselves. Since planning and building the lodge, participation has come in many forms. Some community members work as wage laborers in the lodge, others participate by selling foods, materials, or handicrafts, and a handful play a backstage role of coordinating lodge operations and handling management decisions in partnership with RFE.

The Challenge of Fifty-Fifty

The Keíeway Association is an innovative concept, particularly because it entails joint decision making between a private company and a local community. So far, however, the community's participation in management has been relatively passive compared to RFE's take-charge approach. This lopsided participation has prevailed not necessarily because RFE is stingy with its power or disrespectful of community rights.

One of the obstacles to equal participation has been sheer lack of experience. Community members are still uncertain what full participation entails, or how it differs from simply working at the lodge. They hear the words, "you are owners" but they grapple with the meaning. So often in their history, the responsibilities of conceptualizing, planning, and decision making have been left to outsiders. Without first hand experience, people have felt limited in their own ability to contribute.

Compounding the lack of experience is a general complacence about social roles. Conditioned to believe in the class and race hierarchies that place the educated elite from Lima at the top and subsistence producers from the Amazon near the bottom, many community members find it difficult to interact with their partners as equals. This should not be surprising since RFE is, in fact, more powerful than the community both economically and politically. These deeply entrenched power differences cannot be dissolved in one day simply because a legal agreement has been signed.

The owners of RFE are as cognizant as their most scathing critics that participation in the project has been far from equal. Just weeks after the lodge opened to the arrival of the first group, the project director from RFE declared himself nearly burned out. While acknowledging people's tremendous investment of labor, he felt he had been carrying the management load himself, and vowed that he would quit unless more community members began participating. In an uncharacteristically tired voice, he explained, "I realized I had invested everything in the community and in the project -- my whole life. But I felt abandoned, like my partners wanted me to pull it all together."

Only one year later, the load has lessened for RFE, and their partners have become more active, not only as laborers, but also as decision makers. In general, community members are more aware of their status and privilege as partners. Unlike in the first year, everyday discourse in CNI now reveals a sense of ownership. In interviews, community members preface many of their opinions and comments about Posada Amazonas with the phrase, "Because it is ours..." One participant described Posada Amazonas as unusual "because in other places, the people are employees; here, we are the owners."

For a few, this sense of ownership came the very afternoon the agreement was signed, but for most, it came only once the project was up and running, and after they had invested their own energy, time, and hope in creating it. For some families, participation may never come. Those who have become actively involved have begun to interact with RFE differently. Though initially hesitant to treat their partners as equals rather than as employers, doubting their own abilities and strengths, now community members are more confident. One guide from RFE, after joining a Comite de Control meeting remarked, "I felt like I was sitting in a meeting with the Board of Directors." In addition to becoming more confident, many community members have begun to recognize that they are knowledgeable in ways their well-educated partners could never be. "They have theories," one member noted, "but we have the experience."

These changes in perception have occurred on both sides. Despite fears that RFE would irrevocably change the community, so far the learning has gone both ways. From the first year to the third, particularly in how they interact with community members in decision making, the owners of RFE have changed considerably. In the first year, the project director had the habit of treating community members as employees rather than as partners. Accustomed to working at an urban pace, he often struggled to pause and listen. Now, he asks questions, consciously treating community members as colleagues. "We used to tell them," he conceded "but now we listen, leave more of the decisions to them."

The company has also learned that participation is more than just a marketable phrase for brochures, but also a necessity for the success of the lodge. Quite literally, RFE could not have created Posada Amazonas without the community's participation. During the initial collaboration, the owners of RFE often advised their partners to think like businesspeople, to take risks, invest, be efficient with their time. Now, after building the lodge, they acknowledge that their efforts have relied substantially on non-capitalist forms of production and organization in CNI. The communal work parties, for example, were based on the traditional faena in which everyone worked at the same task for equal time with no pay for a communal project.

Learning Both Ways

Two years ago, Rainforest Expeditions and the Native Community of Infierno agreed to work together in creating the Posada Amazonas ecotourism project. Though they signed a multi-page, legal document stipulating how they would split the profits and the decisions, the everyday practice of collaborating as equals could only be imagined. Onlookers anticipated the worst: that RFE would dominate the project, the community would participate little beyond providing services for tourists, and local people would be irrevocably changed: culturally, economically, and spiritually, as they became more dependent on the market economy. Few expected that Rainforest Expeditions would change as well.

So far, however, the experience of Posada Amazonas has proven the predictions only partly true. Community members have indeed changed. As they become more involved in running a business, they have become more cognizant of their resources and how to capitalize on them, and they have begun to look farther into the future, weighing the advantages and disadvantages of various development options. In sum, they are thinking more like businesspeople. But the learning has gone both ways. The owners of Rainforest Expeditions have become more appreciative of local skills and traditional forms of organization, more respectful of indigenous knowledge, and more attentive to voices that before remained unheard.

Though learning has gone both ways, we should hesitate before wiping the slate clean for capitalist investment in native lands everywhere. In fact, much more analysis is needed to understand the particular conditions under which collaboration between private companies and local communities can be mutually beneficial. In the meantime, we might do well to turn our attention to places like Posada Amazonas for more clues.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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