Close to Nature

Ecuadoran Ecotourism Tries to Protect an Ancient Land

Threading down the Capahuari River in an eight-passenger motorized canoe, tourists stare in awe at the dreadlock vines dipping into dung-colored waters along the river’s edge. Electric blue butterflies tickle the air and turtles slip from mottled logs. The only break in the wall of green comes from the sturdy brown dock linking the river to Kapawi, an ecotourism lodge with a daunting mission: to help the Achuar, an ancient forest tribe, retain its culture, secure its economic future and conserve its tribal lands.

The product of an innovative partnership between the local Achuar federation and Canodros S.A., a for-profit tourism company, the Kapawi Ecolodge and Reserve rests deep in the heart of the Amazon, its practices challenging even the most virtuous of tourist operations. “We’re not just a lodge—we’re trying to protect the 5,000 square miles of surrounding rainforest,” emphasizes Paul Malo, Kapawi’s manager. “And we’re not just working; we want to be here. We really care about the Achuar culture and this part of the country.”

Due to cattle ranching, intensive plantation farming and oil exploration, indigenous peoples all over Ecuador are losing their cultural identity and natural resources, says Daniel Koupermann, the visionary behind the project. “We needed a new proposal—a new approach to the conservation problem created by economic pressures on marginal populations.” And so the Achuar lease the reserve’s land to Canodros, sharing benefits and decision-making. They also comprise 90 percent of the staff, training to completely take over the project in 15 years time.

“The tribes are very informed about oil exploration and unsustainable development,” says Koupermann. “It seemed like a good idea to try to make this work—a fair deal between private enterprise and the indigenous organizations. We wanted to plan the future in a different manner from other groups the tribe had seen failing for years.”

A Lush Landscape

The prime attractions of this enterprise are the flooded forests, black water rivers and rainforest canopies, which paint a lush landscape of vitality in the remote Amazon Basin. The rich count of plant and wildlife—including 518 species of birds within just three hours of the reserve—creates a delicate balance, which Kapawi strives to preserve by existing as gently as possible. Materials for the lodge and guest huts were collected from the forest and built by the Achuar in their native style, without the benefit of a single metal nail. Guests take their dinners mid-hike, sitting on mossy roots, with silverware and cloth napkins to minimize waste. Trash recycling , solar energy, biodegradable soaps and locally-grown foods reinforce the lodge’s sustainable message: that the health of the land is vital to the survival of the tribe.

These environmental lessons are entwined with cultural immersion. Besides visiting Achuar villages, and partaking of the locals’ favorite drink (checha, a fermented brew of pre-chewed manioc root) , guests follow a machete-cleared path, the trail for exploration littered with leaves as big as dinner plates. The language and interpretation skills of a naturalist guide complement the ancient knowledge of an Achuar native, who frequently breaks off a blossom or cuts open a root, describing the shamanic mysteries of jungle plants the tribe has depended on for centuries.

A Lost World

“As a learning experience, it’s an enlightening look into a unique part of the world,” says Michael Ebstein, who visited Kapawi from Melbourne, Australia with his wife, Deborah. “And as a vacation, it’s everything we could have wanted and more.” From rainforest hikes and dugout rides to jungle camping and piranha pond swims, the eco-reserve has a diversity of activities to meet the most adventurous of tastes. But back at the lodge, after a tepid solar shower and the tease of afternoon rain, tourists swing gently in hammocks looking out over a white water lagoon. A rainforest feast of freshly-caught catfish, manioc fritters, exotic juices and sweet tree tomatoes, awaits.

When darkness falls, the hoarse bellow of disembodied frogs accompanies a hopeful group of caiman watchers. They glide smoothly along a nearby tributary in dugout canoes, the beams of their flashlights crossing and uncrossing above the murky river waters. Yellow alligator-like eyes glow out of the darkness, triggering shivers of dread and delight, paired experiences that help explain the magic of this unique resort. But Kapawi’s future, and the fate of the Achuar, remains an open question. “Kapawi is a very good model,” says Koupermann, “but if it’s not an economic success, it just becomes a beautiful story.”