The Chalalan Example

Partnerships for Community-based Ecotourism

As we sped up the Tuichi River in a motorized canoe, scarlet macaws squawked by overhead; capybaras at the water’s edge defied my perceptions of rodents; and tapir’s footprints blemished the spotless sands. This was going to be no ordinary visit to the Amazon. First, there was the veritable abundance of wildlife along the open river. Second, I was on my way to visit one of the pioneers in community-based ecotourism. And, I was about to learn about a unique form of ecotourism development: one that partners indigenous communities with private companies, conservation organizations and banks.

The Chalalan Ecolodge in the Bolivian jungle is a model ecotourism project, friendly to toucans (below) and owned by the community.
Haroldo Castro / Conservation International

My destination was Chalalan Ecolodge, in the Bolivian jungle five hours upriver from the town of Rurrenabaque. I had been hearing about Chalalan for many years. After all, the group Conservation International was involved. So was the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), a huge development funding agency. What I didn’t expect was that, in spite of these associations, this ecotourism lodge is a homespun business in every sense of the word. It was established way before the big guys got involved, and now, after receiving training and funding from its partners, it is an independent, community-owned corporation.

Chalalan is a model project. Belonging to the Quechua-Tacana community of San Jose de Uchupiamonas, it is far along in an experiment that partners indigenous communities with tourism businesses and nonprofit organizations to develop and operate successful ecotourism programs. Other examples of such partnerships are Posada Amazonas in Peru and Kapawi Lodge in Ecuador. The first marries an Ese" eja-Riberenho community with a Peruvian tour operator, and the second brings together the Achuar indigenous federation with a cruise ship company.

Representatives from each of the three enterprises had come to Chalalan to participate in an Ecotourism Exchange, organized by Texas A&M anthropologist Amanda Stronza and funded by the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund. Our purpose was to discuss the benefits and challenges of partnerships for ecotourism development. But it wasn’t all meetings: Our trip was enlivened by encounters with barking howler monkeys, flocks of multi-colored butterflies, a three-toed sloth, and a recently downed deer, still warm from the jaws of a rainforest cat.

Does the Community Benefit?

Ongoing conversations between these community-based tourism pioneers are resulting in many interesting and sometimes surprising environmental and social outcomes. My visit to the village provided some telltale signs.

After a three-hour boat ride upriver from the lodge, we disembarked at an inconspicuous spot and walked the half mile to the community. Scattered along the forest trail, I noticed several ancient wooden crosses. I was told that they were placed there hundreds of years ago by Tacana ancestors as a sign to visitors this was a peaceful community and that guests needn’t fear harm. The Joseanos routinely scatter peanut shells and flowers at the bases of the crosses as a gift to Pachamama, Mother Earth, to ensure good harvest.

In contrast to these ancient symbols, modern-day visitors arriving at the village’s central plaza also encounter a tall antenna and satellite dish. Thanks to the income from tourism, Joseanos now have radio and telephone service. Another advance due to tourism revenue is a new middle school. Until a couple of years ago, local children could only receive a sixth-grade education.

In fact, 10 years ago, people were leaving San Jose because there were few ways to make a living or to get an education. Guido Mamani, general manager for Chalalan, says, "Now, people are returning to our village. Many of us have received training to work in our tourism business, and the community now expects a good education for all its youngsters. This helps us develop a variety of sustainable businesses, which improve our living standards." And, at the same time, Joseanos and visitors alike can continue to enjoy the forest and its wildlife.

ABIGAIL ROME is a freelance writer and ecotourism consultant.