Impacts of Tourism on the Native Community of Infierno

In Puerto Maldonado, the capital of the Madre de Dios region, we met with Javier F. Gordillo, who is an independent researcher and consultant. He was previously a representative of Rainforest Expeditions (RFE) for three and an half years. After that, he resigned and worked for a consulting business company. Four years ago, he opened a chili sauce company with his friend and has had a quite satisfactory sales record. At present, he is working as an independent consultant. Apart from that, he also enjoys his leisure time playing guitar in a local bar every weekend.

After having had such a wonderful experience at Posada Amazonas and getting to know some of the community members of Infierno, it was valuable for us to meet someone familiar with the entire project development cycle because he provided a different perspective from our personal observations about how this project has been established and developed.

According to Gordillo, RFE has developed the partnership with Inferno since 1996. They signed a 20-year contract to manage the eco-lodge. 60% of the profits goes to the community, while the remaining 40% goes to the company. Although they have different proportions of profit, they have the same 50-50 power of decision making.

The 18-year-old program has brought huge impacts to Infierno; not only economic changes but also changes in their thinking. Nobody had a salary before this program. But today, from the Lavado fish farm to Infierno’s control committee, the staff and guides and every family of Infierno receives money. The lifestyle of the local residents has changed and their quality of life improved. They understand and learn western cultures and knowledge through keeping in touch with tourists from all around the world. As the program has developed, people have realized that nature is the main resource and that economic returns are not immediate.

Gordillo mentioned that “community-based projects only survive on trust-building” in the concluding part of his presentation. This impressed me most. Trust-building was an integral part of every process of this program and has continued to develop along with the program. As Gordillo said in his slides, trust building is time costly and, thus, expensive. It was difficult for the community and company to cooperate with each other at the beginning, especially conceptually. Among Infierno members, the native Ese’eja and the more recent arrivals, ribereños, also had major conflicts over several years. But as time went by, they realized that only trust and cooperation would benefit them both. RFE has overcome the mental barrier of acknowledging the community as a real and meaningful partner. They recognized the importance of the community’s growth and helped them to develop. Infierno overcame its divisions and learned to use the legal system. These changes in turn brought huge benefits to them—more income, more stable jobs, happier lives and less conflict. As fire ants and acacia maintain a symbiotic relationship in the Amazon rainforest, Infierno and RFE rely on each other and help each other in this program.

The original end date of the 20-year collaboration has been postponed to 2019, which means the community will be independent after that. We all fell in love with this project and would love to see the continued success of the lodge, but we also know that tasks like marketing are difficult and complicated. Maybe that’s why the cooperative arrangement with RFE will continue for another three years. In the future, the community will need to take on all of the operations of the lodge – from management to marketing to accounts – both an opportunity and a challenge for the community.

– Jingran Xu

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