The Relationships (and Gaps) between Environmental Sustainability, Sociocultural Identity, and Sustainable Development

            After hopping on a very early flight from Lima to Puerto Maldonado, we finally made it to the Amazon. We got lucky with the clear weather because it’s rainy season and we had anticipated some nasty rain. On the ride to the lodge, Rodolfo, one of our guides, explained the limited infrastructure to the group. Infrastructure has come a long way, the transnational highway with Brazil as the example Rodolfo gave, but access is still a huge issue for better or for worse. The flipside of environmental conservation is that it can hinder access to opportunities for livelihood improvement; there are only a few roads to get into Tambopata, so if it rains for a week, then whole roads and bridges flood, making bypassing them difficult or sometimes impossible. With the already lacking access to economic opportunities and social services mentioned by the guides, disruption of daily activities probably exacerbates these challenges.

            Fortunately we didn’t get flooded out and were able to drive to the Tambopata River and ride in by boat to Posada Amazonas (after seeing a ridiculous number of macaws at their clay lick, of course). Other than a little mud it was an easy hike up. This has been a heavy rainy season and some of the stairs and our original lodging were severely damaged by mudslides, so we saw a lot of the staff on break playing soccer on our way in through the back. Eric, the guest services manager, explained that most of the staff is from Infierno, the indigenous community that owns the land on which Rainforest Expeditions built the lodge.  The goal is to employ only Infierno community members at the lodge, but about 5% come from the local city Puerto Maldonado because the posada is unable to fully reach its goal. The staff has been trained in hospitality management by Rainforest Expeditions and they split the profits with the community 40-60 (the community receiving the majority). This business arrangement of training, decision-making, and revenue division will continue through the end of the contract in 2019, when the community will assume full ownership.

            Rainforest Expeditions is a Peruvian company (despite their English name), and they seem to have a sound idea of what an ecotourism entity with a conservation ethic should do and look like. The trash is taken out of the lodge by boat, the electricity is only on during certain hours, guests are strongly encouraged to reuse their towels, the walls open out into the rainforest, and the list goes on. Meals are also served at the same for all guests to reduce food waste and preserve freshness. After spending the day learning about how the lodge operates, we wrapped up the night with a discussion with Rodolfo about the plans for the lodge and its role for the community.

            There seems to be some dissonance about the popularity and sustainability of the lodge in terms of community development. Rodolfo emphasized the importance of the lodge for improving livelihoods for Infierno by providing reliable economic opportunities for long-term growth outside of the community’s traditional small-scale agricultural occupations (or more lucrative but dangerous occupations like mining). However, it’s unclear whether parts of the community even want to own or have any part in Posada Amazonas. The idea of the lodge generating revenue for the community seems to be a more popular notion, but staffing the lodge with 100 percent community members has proven difficult. According to Rodolfo, some do not value Western work structure like waking up early for work, saving and investing, etc. The Infierno people, as Rodolfo clarified, work to live, not live to work.

            Another idea that stood out for me, which in all fairness might have resulted from an unclear translation, was that it was implied that Infierno does not view a traditional work schedule and steady job as compatible with their culture. Learning about other cultures when you come from outside is always challenging because you have to be very careful in distinguishing what is a cultural tradition and what is an attitude that could be adjusted. Culture is not a monolith; it can adjust and adapt to meet contemporary needs, so the tension between staff and the rest of the community about “not wanting to work,” as Rodolfo put it, is understandable. However, the community’s apprehension about taking full ownership of the project is also understandable because from everything we’ve heard, it seems like this project began with limited local context, which will probably impact its sustainability. This is a beautiful property with phenomenal staff, but it begs the question of whether this will become another doomed community development project in 2019 because the benefactors cannot get on board with the process.

            There also seems to be some ambivalence about being indigenous permeating the community, though this is a split issue in other parts of South America. There is no overt resentment in this community from what we have heard, but younger Infierno community members, according to Rodolfo, dodge the question of where they come from. Instead of saying, “I am from Infierno,” they say, “I’m from Puerto Maldonado,” or something similar. Most younger community members do not know their native language or traditional cultural practices. 

            Someone in the group raised the question of teaching their history in schools, to which the guides responded that education policy is handed down from the Peruvian government, so they do not implement cultural heritage education. An initiative in the community was implemented a few years ago to reintroduce Ese’eja language and practices through education but has since fallen through. Rodolfo stressed the importance of preservation of indigenous tradition, but this raises another question of according to whom? Is this a sentiment that came from grassroots movements to promote indigenous identity, or is this a concept that people are told they should value by someone—say, the government or outside groups—but lack the inherent normative justification?

            If individual communities value their indigenous traditions and wish to pass them on to future generations, it might not be such an outlandish idea for them to develop and implement their own education program that teaches customs, traditions, and language to children. Some children in the United States participate in extracurricular religious or cultural education outside of their national and state-mandated education requirements (e.g. Hebrew school, Greek school, Sunday School, etc.). This education is not required by law, but families that recognize the importance of preserving cultural and religious traditions send their children to these schools to solidify the value in knowing your heritage and being able to practice that culture to which you belong.

            I can personally relate to this situation similarly. I grew up in a Jewish community that, although not very strong, still stressed the importance of our people’s history, traditions, culture, and language. My parents strictly encouraged me to attend Hebrew school to learn about where I come from, and when I was recognized as an adult in that community, I made the decision for myself whether or not to continue my Jewish education. As a young girl, I may not have appreciated the importance of my education, but as an adult, I am happier that I have that knowledge than if I hadn’t had access to this opportunity. Even though younger members of Infierno may not fully understand or care about the importance of preserving Ese’eja culture, efforts to do so ought to be encouraged by the older community members that make collective community decisions.

            In a case like Infierno, there seems to be enough motivation from the elders for an option like this to be feasible. Not every community member may be supportive, but they do not have to send their children to learn about their culture.  Indigenous cultural education is something that the Peruvian government, and even regional governments, can encourage and support, but it’s understandable that they do not feel like they have that burden of responsibility to provide that curriculum, especially since there are more than 200 ethnic groups in Peru and the majority of their constituency (around 70%) identifies as mestizo. Hopefully our class will follow up on these issues when we return to Lima; there are still several unanswered questions about these relationships.

– Nicole Zion

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