Site Visits from Latin America

Last month, Overbrook Foundation President and CEO Stephen Foster travelled in Ecuador and Costa Rica where he visited five ecotourism hotels and lodges that work closely with Rainforest Alliance staff in developing and implementing site-based sustainability programs. While there, he also met with Rainforest Alliance staff in Quito, Ecuador and San Jose, Costa Rica in order to review Rainforest Alliance’s plans to expand its ecotourism efforts beyond working with individual hotel and lodge sites to working with entire communities and regions to developing higher impact sustainability programs focused on tourist “destinations” rather than individual enterprises.

The lodges and hotels visited were located in geographically diverse locations ranging from the Amazon Rainforest (Kapawi Ecolodge Ecuador) to the cloud forests in the central mountain range of Costa Rica (Villa Blanca, San Ramon, Costa Rica). Also visited were a working coffee plantation and lodge (Finca Rosa Blanca) outside San Jose, an ecolodge and wildlife refuge on the edge of a heavily touristed national park (Si Como No, Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica), a high end resort set in a private nature reserve on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica (Lapa Ruis Rainforest Ecolodge) and the Marriott Hotel in Quito, Ecuador.

Each of these sites shares the following practices in their sustainability work, despite their very different geographic settings:

• They work to diminish the impact of their operations by reducing their carbon footprint

• They alert their guests to their commitment to sustainability by providing information on their own practices and offering steps guests can take to support their efforts

• They hire and train staff locally, providing them with jobs that provide living wages for members of the local community

• They work with local communities to advance sustainability within the communities where they are located while promoting the local culture of those communities to their guests

The development of these hotels and lodges as models of sustainability were a testament to the hard work and success of the Rainforest Alliance ecotourism program. RA has been working with individual micro, small and medium size entrepreneurs in Latin America since 2003. More than 180 sites in Ecuador alone have been incorporated into the sustainability program. In Costa Rica, over 150 hotels now participate in the Certification for Sustainable Tourism conservation program created by the Costa Rican Tourism Board. In Mexico, RA interacts with the highest levels of government in advocating for policies supportive of building an ever larger number of businesses committed to meeting the highest ecotourism standards.

However, all these efforts combined reach only a small fraction of the tourist industry. In talks with Rainforest Alliance staff in Ecuador and Costa Rica, the need to develop a broad strategy was made abundantly apparent. Until “destinations”; i.e., communities or local regions develop sustainability efforts that touch all local enterprises, ecotourism will be insufficient to counter the forces of development and unable to satisfactorily protect the local environment and the people and culture that depends upon local resources for economic and cultural sustenance.

The following are some of Stephen’s final thoughts on ecotourism:

This trip was exciting and quite provocative. By visiting so many varied settings, the challenge of successfully developing sustainable ecotourism was made all the more clear. By traveling extensively with local tour guides in Ecuador and Costa Rica, I was privileged to learn much about local cultures, the challenges facing women, the role of the Catholic Church, the impact of poverty on the local environment, the impact of corruption at all levels of government on business development and the enormous pride that Ecuadorians and Costa Rican “Ticos” hold for their countries.

In Kapawi in the Ecuadorian Amazon, I saw the impact of western civilization on the local indigenous culture of the Achaur who made contact with the west less than 50 years ago. Very large questions arose in my mind about that interaction. It is possible to preserve a culture, like that of the Achuar, without treating the Achaur people as a museum exhibit? How do we react to the very subservient role played by women in that culture? Is helping to preserve that culture in return for saving a million acres of untouched rainforest an ethical way to proceed in dealing with the Achaur?

Do we have any responsibility for introducing the “benefits” of western society; e.g., clean water, sanitation, public health, electricity to the Achaur or is it ethical to allow them to remain untouched? Is it inevitable that the pressures of modernity will ultimately crash down on the Achuar and destroy their culture based on complete harmony with the rainforest? Has the destruction of that culture already begun?