From holding an “anti-tourism” attitude 20 years ago to a community-run lodge that has thousands of tourists per year, the indigenous community of Infierno and Posada Amazonas have witnessed the changes brought by Kurt Holle and Rainforest Expeditions. Young and initially “ignorant” about the business, but passionate, Holle took the initiative to bring tourists from all over the world to communities that live deep in Amazon.
Deep in the jungle, people in the community of Infierno had their own way of life and their traditional ways of utilizing the local resources. They slashed and burned, harvested and hunted, but remained in poverty. What Holle did was highlight the ecotourism value of the local resources for the indigenous people and help them develop a new way of living without having to abandon their traditions.
RFE bonded with the 200 families in Infierno, and eventually attracted a massive return investment back into the community. Infierno receives 60 percent of the money generated from the profit of the lodge to support community education, health services, life insurance and other community services. The key part of the partnership was mutual trust between the company and community. Trust building was a long and time-consuming process, and there was no fixed method for doing it. According to Holle, his experience was to “focus on the moment, not the results,” and seize every opportunity and never quit trying. The RFE team realized that it is crucial to think of itself as a long-term partner of the local community and not simply a business seeking to generate short-term profits. Recognized by international organizations such as the Inter-American Development Bank, RFE’s irreplaceable strength has been in the marketing and booking aspects of the project. The community side of the project is weaker at these skills and as such has further work to do before achieving the planned independence from RFE.
To see a full picture of the partnership and the progress obtained, we need to learn from the ones who have participated in and benefited from the partnership. We met our guide, Oscar, in the jungle. Our experience with him provided us a direct sense of the progress made by RFE and Posada Amazonas. Oscar went through a very intensive training provided by RFE. From the program, he strengthened his understanding of the jungle and tourism, and he learned to speak English fluently within six months. Oscar was born in Infierno and has lived here for decades, where he makes friends with animals, and knows every single tree and flower. With his guidance, we explored the jungle and had an unforgettable learning experience. There are many Oscars in the community. For them, guiding is not only a way to pay their bills, but also a channel for worshipping this piece of land on which they were born and nurtured.
RFE is aware of the situation that many young people in the community are unwilling to participate in training. These young people have different options for earning a living: they may hunt, farm, or seek opportunities outside of the jungle. To recruit them, RFE tries to give them a reason to commit, and the reason was also given to the community as a whole — better economic performance and improved living standards. After 20 years of misunderstandings, opposition, and hard work, RFE has gradually developed the lodge and established its network within the community.
The process of optimizing the business and living conditions in the community will never end. Slowly but steadily, changes have been made. Javier Gordillo, who we also met, was a representative for RFE and worked directly with families in Infierno. Years of experimenting deep in the jungle made Gordillo realize the importance of a comprehensive management structure with full support from communities, and the significance of communities shifting their obsession from tourism revenues to forest conservation. As Gordillo summed up, the community will only value that which benefits it. No matter in the past or in the near future, it was never easy for RFE to sustain or expand its business with limited financial support and the extreme conditions in the jungle, but with patience and trust building, the community will be able to see a brighter future.
The community of Infierno extended its contract with RFE to 2019 (2022, according to the quality service manager) to keep receiving assistance on technology and marketing aspects of the business. We don’t know which community will be next on Holle’s business map, but we hope for more cooperative projects helping communities develop in a sustainable way, and for more indigenous people finding ways to balance modern life and respect for the sacred jungle.
– Jingyi Chen