How an eco-lodge in Peru proves that protecting the Amazon and making money can co-exist sustainably.
BY LUCY CONGER
Ecological tourism that respects and benefits indigenous communities and their habitat can sound like an impossible dream. A 30-bedroom rustic lodge deep in Peru’s Amazon forest made this dream a reality 15 years ago and is today a success story for hoteliers, native peoples and conservationists alike.
Tour operator Rainforest Expeditions and the Ese-Eja community of indigenous families and settlers in Infierno, two hours upriver from Puerto Maldonado, in Southeastern Peru, created Posada Amazonas as a joint venture. The lodge receives 6,000 visitors a year, and its staff, from lodge manager to bilingual and ethno botanical guides, waiters, cooks and barmen, and purchasing and sales managers are all members of the community. Infierno residents sell handcrafts there and supply food and fruit to the restaurant.
The Posada offers visits to parrot and parakeet clay licks, a lake excursion to watch for otters and other wildlife and forest hikes by day and at night. The lodge is built of locally available materials that blend in with the setting. The lodge design gives the visitor the experience of being in the forest by leaving one side of each room open, protected only by a veranda, which provides a view directly into the trees.
A LETTER FROM THE AMAZON
In 1995, Rainforest Expedition founder Kurt Holle and his business partner Eduardo Nycander, wanted to build a lodge closer to Puerto Maldonado to attract tourists with only a few days to visit the Amazonas. Holle already had five years under his belt as manager of the Tambopata Research Center, a more remote 18-room lodge in an uninhabited area adjacent to the Tambopata National Reserve, a haven for macaws and a variety of wildlife.
That was when they received a letter from the chief of Ese-Eja community, who was interested in building a lodge in Infierno to create jobs for his people. In 1996 the community signed a contract granting a 20-year concession to their land for the lodge. At this stage, the 120-family Infierno community agreed to leave the management to Holle and created an oversight committee to supervise and audit the business. Profit sharing was built into the contract, with the community receiving 60 percent of the profits and Rainforest Expedition taking home 40 percent. In 2016, the entire business will be fully operated and owned by the Ese-Ejas.
The joint venture was hammered out at a time when nobody talked of “inclusive businesses” that involve communities and low-income people in profitable businesses. Holle and the Esa-Eja were pioneers, and developed a business that incorporates economic opportunities for local residents into the core business of running a hotel with the added benefit of protecting the forest environment and wildlife.
“Of all the inclusive businesses we work with, it is the only one that involves native peoples as partners and as service providers,” José Segovia, advisor to Andean countries with SNV, an international development organization that promotes similar enterprises by offering technical advising and training.
HIGHLY INVOLVED COMMUNITY
The Posada is a successful business. “The lodge became a boom because it offers very good service, is relatively close to Puerto Maldonado, just over two hours from the airport, and the quality of the region, the forest and the activities positioned it well,” says Renzo Piana, deputy director of programs with the Instituto del Bien Común in Lima, a non-profit group focused on sustainable development in Peru’s Amazon region. Piana worked with the lodge in its earlier days.
The lodge has done well by the Ese-Eja indigenous and Infierno settlers. Residents receive from the Posada profits and dividends that are twice the income they earn in other activities such as agriculture. In addition, they benefit from a community-run health insurance facility created with 20 percent of dividends channeled to a reinvestment fund. The monies are earmarked for lending to families with health problems, and the dividends of the borrower serve as collateral, assuring the fund doesn’t become depleted.
Over time, community members have taken on more management functions. In 2000, five years after the lodge opened, community members were frustrated with their somewhat passive role in the contract and demanded greater participation in decision-making, Holle recalls.
A new arrangement was forged that brought the community into management and intensified residents’ supervision by establishing monthly meetings. In 2003, the community began participating in the budget decisions that are taken every quarter. Financial results are presented to the entire community at year’s end.
CHALLENGES FOR THE FUTURE
Infierno residents now number 170 families, and are broadening their capacity to manage the Posada’s affairs by exploring the area of marketing. The community has hired an advisor and an international auditing firm to clarify issues where they have doubts.
Through its Multi-lateral Investment Fund (MIF), the Inter-American Development Bank supports the community with skills training to better manage the lodge and diversify services, says Estrella Peinado-Vara, an expert with MIF in Washington, DC. MIF finances SNV to train guides, builders and staff providing other services. The training will allow Posada Amazonas to create a spa, expand activities for visitors to include experiential tourism and grow the business.
Posada Amazonas “has opened up many opportunities for the people” says Piana. Some of the Infierno residents, backed with the resources they get from the lodge, have left and moved to Puerto Maldonado seeking better education for their children. The next challenge? Piana says that the only doubt he has about this profitable eco-lodge and its positive social and environmental impact is what happens when Rainforest or other operators open a hotel nearby, creating competition.
Republihsed with permission from MicAmericas, a platform of knowledge on microfinance, microenterprise, entrepreneurial capital and remittances sponsored by the Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF), a member of the IDB Group.