At SA Expeditions we are passionate about travel that truly gives back. This month we take a look at two of our Amazon lodge partners in Ecuador and Peru who are using tourism to advance local communities and scientific research.
Napo Wildlife Center: the gold standard of community-based tourism
As your expert local guide paddles you through the backwaters of the Napo River, he stops to point out a family of giant river otters lazing on a dead tree. Before you can even focus your camera, a flock of toucans flies overhead…
It’s easy to be wowed by the Napo Wildlife Center in the heart of Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park. With 610 bird species, 382 fish species, and over 200 different mammals, Yasuní is a natural wonder if ever there was one. But it’s not only Napo’s incredible biodiversity (the Smithsonian reckons might just be the most biologically diverse place on the planet) that sets it apart. Napo is the only luxury Amazon lodge we know of that is 100% community-owned and managed.
First, some history
The Kichwa Añangu community first started living in its current location in 1970 when three local families who had been badly affected by modernization got permission to live in the pristine rainforest as their ancestors had done before them. In 1990, these pioneers were joined by a further 30 families and not long after this the community made its first attempts to welcome tourists to its gloriously biodiverse backyard.
Lacking the economic means to get a lodge up and running, in 1998 they teamed up with external investors to build the Napo Wildlife Center. For almost a decade the lodge was run as a joint partnership between the community and their investors. In 2006, after a series of financial disagreements, the Kichwa Añangu community began the lengthy legal process of parting ways with their external investors. A year later, they took 100% ownership of the Napo Wildlife Center and instated a community member as GM.
Onwards and upwards
Since assuming control of their own destiny, both the community and the lodge have gone from strength to strength. The lodge is run as a commercial entity (albeit one which enjoys tax breaks afforded to indigenous communities) and profits are shared between the lodge (for upgrades, renovations, etc.) and the community which currently numbers 180 people. All decisions are made democratically and in accordance with the ancient customs of the community.
That first decade spent working with seasoned tourism professionals proved invaluable as it meant that the community members were already well-versed in the ins and outs of running a hotel when they took over. While most of the staff are local, they are not afraid to hire outsiders either – to this day some of the back-office staff (accounting, administration, marketing) do not come from the Amazon region.
Taking ecotourism to the next level
The lodge continues to set the standard for luxury ecotourism in Ecuador, playing host to more than 3 000 (mostly foreign) tourists every year. Roughly 80% of the staff come from the Kichwa Añangu community and other nearby communities, thus reducing the number of people who engage in exploitative industries such as mining and petroleum extraction.
In 2012 a second lodge, the Napo Cultural Center, was built to make it easier for local women to participate in ecotourism. As the lodge is located in the community itself, the women are able to stay close to their children throughout the day. In addition to wildlife excursions, this lodge gives visitors the chance to visit a handicrafts market, watch traditional dance performances, engage in a wayusa (a stimulating local tea) ceremony, and have their dreams interpreted.
Using the profits from the lodge, the community has built a school (junior, middle, and high) and a health center which offer free education and medical services respectively to people from throughout the region. While staff salaries are covered by the government, everything else – even the free boarding school for distant learners – is paid for with the proceeds of tourism. These initiatives have, quite literally, been the difference between life and death. In the past, residents of this far-flung region had to make the hours-long river commute to Coca to go to school or see a doctor – with the result that they seldom made the effort.
Members of the Kichwa Añangu community also have the opportunity to obtain loans (at very low interest rates) from the community’s Caja de Ahorros (Savings Bank). Typically loans are taken to make home improvements or to buy agricultural equipment and/or seed, as all excess produce can be sold to the lodge’s kitchens.
Since moving into the area in 1970, the members of the Kichwa Añangu community have lived in symbiosis with nature. In the early days this meant never killing more than was strictly necessary. Since embarking on their ecotourism journey, however, the community has placed a blanket ban on all hunting and fishing – with very strict penalties for anyone who transgresses.
What’s more, sustainability is a core concern in the daily running of both the lodge and the community. A large solar power plant provides both locations with electricity 24 hours a day, and a wastewater treatment plant ensures that no pollution enters the pristine river system. Tap water is also filtered before consumption – although tourists are advised to only drink the bottled water provided!
What’s not to love?
Community-based tourism is all the rage these days, but these guys have been doing it – with knobs on – since way before it was cool. The Napo Wildlife Center has to be experienced to be believed. Luckily, Napo is easily accessible from Quito, Ecuador’s capital. Check out this blog this blog to find out more about how, when, and why to visit the lodge.
INKATERRA: USING ECOTOURISM TO ADVANCE SCIENCE SINCE 1978
It’s easy to get swept up in the romance of the Madre de Dios rainforest as you laze in your hammock, sipping on a Pisco sours, while hummingbirds feed on a nearby bromeliad. Hacienda Concepción and Reserva Amazónica – Inkaterra’s gorgeous Amazon lodges – are glittering examples of eco-luxury. But the revenue they’ve generated has also sponsored bona fide scientific research that has discovered 29 (and counting) new species.
Nature’s balance sheet
Inkaterra was founded in 1975, as a way to bring wealth to rural Peruvians without destroying the environment through mining or logging. Ever since sponsoring a team of researchers to produce the company’s first flora and fauna inventories three years later, the company has sponsored the scientific research and conservation efforts of the Inkaterra Asociación, its non-profit arm. To date, a total of 903 bird species, 365 ants (a world record), 313 butterflies, and over 100 mammals have been inventoried within hotel grounds and surroundings.
“It’s not about being green,” said Inkaterra’s founder José Koechlin in an interview with OZY.com. “It’s about keeping our main asset intact. Nature is our main asset, and to quantify our assets, to be able to measure our impact, we do inventories … just like any business.”
Pushing the envelope
Over the years, the Inkaterra Asociación has carried out numerous innovative scientific projects in the Madre de Dios region, many of which combine nature conservation with dignified human development. Here are some highlights from more than four decades of Amazon conservation:
GreenLab is the first molecular biology and genetics field research laboratory that’s actually located in the rural Amazon. Inkaterra believes that instead of having to fly samples thousands of miles to ‘first world labs’, meaningful scientific research can take place in biodiversity hotspots themselves. The equipment in this lab is designed to withstand everything the Amazon can throw at it, while simultaneously being portable and efficient for research and conservation. GreenLab doesn’t just make DNA analysis far easier. Together with the adjoining Inkaterra Canopy Center – a grass-roofed conference hall with solar powered Wi-Fi – it provides a state-of-the-art classroom that can be used for training in molecular biology and genetics.
Through a strategic partnership with the Innóvate Perú program and the Universidad Nacional Amazónica de Madre de Dios, the Asociación is developing a sustainable business model based on Amazonian snail farming and meat processing. Known locally as “churo”, these enormous freshwater snails are one of the healthiest protein food sources in Madre de Dios as the fish in the river system are exposed to high levels of mercury because of alluvial mining. The snail’s meat is high in protein and extremely low in fat – Inkaterra’s executive chef has recently published a cookbook which includes 15 different snail recipes. ¡Buen provecho!
By using four different bird monitoring techniques, the Asociación has gained insights into the growth, reproduction and movement patterns of many of the 540 bird species that call the Madre de Dios region home. All of this data is shared with the Center of Ornithology and Biodiversity (CORBIDI). Inkaterra is also working with local communities to conserve endemic species and maintain safe migratory routes for birds flying from North America to Patagonia and vice versa.
The Palmetum is a forestry project that preserves 19 native palm species. Species include Geonoma deversa, whose large impermeable leaves are used to make roofs; the ivory palm whose seeds are prized for handicrafts; and the walking palm tree, which moves its roots in search of sunlight. In addition to studying their scientific properties, the project encourages sustainable business opportunities that will keep locals away from extractive industries.
A motion-sensitive camera trap system allows researchers to study the behavior of wildlife native to the Inkaterra areas of influence. Yielding over 1 000 snaps every month, a total of 61 animal species have been identified thus far. These include jaguars, ocelots, neotropical river otters, giant armadillos, tapirs, collared peccaries, white-lipped peccaries, tayras (an awesome carnivorous weasel!), and tamanduas (striking black and white anteaters).
The Bio-Orchard conserves a diverse collection of native foods, all cultivated by traditional means. The project rescues ancestral knowledge on Amazonian goods and carbon-free farming while also teaching local communities how to cook with these unique, delicious, and healthy ingredients that have the potential to enhance their gastronomic identity.
Never a company to shy away from the really big challenges, Inkaterra – in association with the Smithsonian Institute and the Development Bank of Latin America (CAF) – is working hard to create a sustainable landscape corridor that extends all the way from the lower Madre de Dios River to the Peru-Bolivia border – a swath of pristine wilderness encompassing some 200 000 acres. The initiative aims to restore genetic connectivity, stabilize fluctuations in wildlife populations, and assist in repairing habitat fragmentation while also mitigating the effects of illegal mining and developing sustainable sources of income for local communities. You know what they say? If it’s easy, it ain’t worth striving for. More info here.
See it for yourself
Inkaterra’s science-based approach to ecotourism and conservation is front and center in the company’s flagship Amazon lodges, the Reserva Amazónica and Hacienda Concepción. For a real deep dive, and the chance to get involved in some of the projects described above, we’d advise spending at least a couple of nights at the Inkaterra Guides Field Station which further blurs the lines between tourism and scientific research. Check out this blog for the nuts and bolts of visiting the Peruvian Amazon.
Keen to get your Amazon fix? For the ultimate nature adventure, combine your trip to Napo Wildlife Center with a Galapagos cruise. Meanwhile, in Peru, Inkaterra’s Amazon lodges play very nicely with a visit to Machu Picchu. Speak to one of our South America Destination Experts about crafting a bespoke adventure that ticks all your boxes.