Rainforest Conservation: a Moneymaking Enterprise?

After three days of hiking under a gently swaying jungle canopy, calling out to caiman in swampy waters, and tracking herds of snorting peccaries in the Tambopata region of Madre de Dios, we met the man whose vision made these experiences possible. Kurt Holle, president of Rainforest Expeditions, spoke to us today at the Institute of Peru on his experiences in creating and managing the Posada Amazonas eco-lodge.

Holle is a self-described lifelong nature lover. Since exploring the rainforests of Costa Rica and Colombia at a young age, Holle’s passion for the jungle is deeply rooted. Holle’s first experience in the Madre de Dios region made a strong impression on him—while working on a project collecting data on macaws, he spotted more monkeys than he’d seen in his life.  Holle’s fascination for the stunning biodiversity in Madre de Dios, together with the idealism of his young age inspired him to do something during the 1990s to protect the beauty he’d experienced in the Peruvian region of the Amazon rainforest. 

While he had a strong passion for nature, Holle also possessed a keen sense of enterprise. Holle compared the spectacle of macaws feeding and flying about at a forest clay lick to the attraction of a Disney park ride. He was impressed, not only by the beauty, but also by the opportunity of the clay lick. Using this ecologically important (and aesthetically pleasing) natural resource as an ecotourism attraction could save it from destruction by logging or mining interests.

Starting his company was a considerable risk, and its success was not instantaneous. The same week Holle founded Rainforest Expeditions in 1992, the Shining Path insurgent group detonated a bomb in Lima’s busy Miraflores neighborhood. The atmosphere in Peru was not conducive to tourism at the time. Yet, just a year later, the internal conflict between the government and the Shining Path had ended, and ecotourism was becoming an increasingly hot commodity in the global tourism market.

Capitalizing on the fortuitous timing of his company’s founding, Rainforest Expeditions undertook the challenge of constructing an eco-lodge in cooperation with the Infierno community of Madre de Dios. Holle viewed the dilemma of rainforest destruction in terms of the economic incentives at play. In the absence of other alternatives, the community of Infierno could choose to pursue mining or logging, activities highly damaging to forests, and make significantly more money than they would by farming. Rainforest Expeditions offered the community the option to generate money by conserving the land and showing it to others.

The change in land management practices necessary for operating the eco-lodge posed some difficulties for Rainforest Expeditions. Most notable was breaking the community’s “20,000 year-old habit of hunting.“ In Holle’s experience, hunted forest was easy to spot, and wholly incompatible with eco-tourism. When rainforest animals have learned to fear people, they become extremely cautious and adept at hiding. In time, the majority of the community decided that the opportunity for shared profit, employment, and capacity building were worthwhile incentives for the members of Infierno. Our guides at Posada Amazonas expressed to us the difficulties they had in communicating the importance of sustainable resource management to their non-Infierno neighbors. For example, Oscar expressed his frustration in trying to communicate the importance of cautious usage of Oxbow Lake in order to maintain safe habitat for the giant river otter. Perhaps the neighboring landowner understood that motorboats could drive the otters out, but simply did not have sufficient incentives to alter this practice. Either way, the fact that the discussion was happening between the two parties using the lake can be considered a positive thing.

Holle’s business model of eco-tourism as means of conservation introduces compelling questions to the discussion of rainforest protection. Holle sees the need to reframe the debate from focusing on business or conservation as mutually exclusive interests to “business and conservation,” two ideas that can be compatible. Thanks to the success of Posadas Amazonas, Holle believes that the intersection of the two historically divergent interests is possible. Yet Posada’s 17 years of profit does not necessarily prove its viability as a lasting form of rainforest conservation. It remains to be seen if the positive effects of protected forestland can endure the planned end of the contractual relationship between Rainforest Expeditions and Infierno in 2019. As we’ve highlighted in other posts here, the community is apprehensive at the prospect of taking over all details of the eco-lodge’s management. Once Infierno is “flying solo” without the guidance of Rainforest Expeditions, will it be able to continually convince the larger part of its members that ecotourism is more profitable than more harmful forest usage activities? Will the restrictions on hunting and fishing on the reserve have the same level of clout when they come from their fellow community members as they did from the expertise of Rainforest Expeditions. 

Furthermore, the intersection of business and conservation interests through ecotourism raises some concerns about the changing perspectives on the value of nature. Some may find it unfortunate that nature should be seen to exist solely for the benefit of humans. Don’t massive Ceiba trees and playful Titi monkeys have inherent value other than that which humans prescribe them? Can people no longer conserve these invaluable rainforest species for reasons other than our own purposes of utility or enjoyment? Holle seems to think we have moved beyond the point where it is possible to conserve nature for nature’s sake.

Either way, there has never been a better time to work on raising business practice standards in Peru. The country’s political and economic situations have stabilized such that simply doing business is no longer sufficient, Holle says. Companies should now set their sights on doing business and solving problems simultaneously. Such statements are nice to say, but difficult to implement. Holle himself seems a rare bird among business leaders; he was able to structure his business model such that his profits supported the continuation of something he loved. Holle stressed to us the importance of reframing the problems and solutions in the global approach to forest protection and conservation. Whether he is a savvy businessman or a pragmatic conservationist, Holle’s innovative Posada Amazonas project has saved a piece of the Amazon’s beauty by capitalizing on the undeniably seductive power of creatures like those brightly painted macaws, screeching and flitting about on the banks of the river.

– Katy Lafen

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