The Biggest Challenges Facing the Peruvian Economy

On Wednesday, March 22nd, we had the privilege of meeting with Fernando Villarán, a professor and dean at the Antonio Ruiz de Montoya Jesuit University and former Minister of Labor of Peru. Mr. Villarán enlightened us regarding the economy of Peru. He began the presentation with a discussion of Peru’s macroeconomic status in both the Latin American and global context, explaining that the country has made great strides on increasing GDP growth, reducing poverty and income inequality, and opening up to the global market. The second half of his presentation, however, was a rebuttal of this notion as he described the biggest challenges facing the Peruvian economy. Some of the major challenges he discussed were Peru’s regional inequality, poor education system, low productivity in many sectors, and what is perhaps the most significant issue: high economic informality.

While some regions of Peru have thrived, others remain very poor, which has led to stark regional inequalities. The poorest departments of the country are often the ones that are the most rural. In the north these include Amazonias and Cajamarca. In the south, the poorest departments are Huancavelica, Ayacucho and Apurimac. The wealthier regions of the country are Ica, Arequipa, Moquegua and Madre de Dios, which we visited. The economic activity in many of these regions is driven by large informal sectors, namely the highly lucrative activity of illegal gold mining, as we witnessed in driving through a gold mining town outside of Puerto Maldonado. Generally, the regions in which mining is the dominant economic activity are the ones that are the least poor. The lack of a diversified economy and the high profitability of the informal sector, however, have created vast regional income inequalities in Peru. Such disparities lead to economic instability and can create market distortions that favor certain sectors of industries over others.

Another challenge facing Peru is its poor education system, which is holding back economic growth and causing the country to be underdeveloped. Mr. Villarán explained how Peru scored last on the international PISA test, which measures education quality in countries throughout the world. Public education in Peru is poor because the government does not adequately invest in its school system. Peru invests only around 3 percent in education compared to the 4 percent average for the rest of Latin America.[1] Investing in education leads to improvements in human capital, which can boost labor productivity and promote growth. Another problem concerning the education system is inadequate infrastructure. Only 51.2 percent of educational institutions are in good condition, while 13.3 are in poor condition and 35.5 percent are in decent condition.[2] The lack of quality educational infrastructure creates negative consequences for students who often need an engaging environment to learn and develop. Improving Peru’s education system through greater investments in infrastructure would go a long way to improve the country’s economic outlook and reduce incentives for informal economic activity.

Low productivity is another issue facing the Peruvian economy. Some of Peru’s largest and most important economic sectors are its least productive. Mr. Villarán specifically mentioned agriculture and mining in this category, stating that both sectors have unnecessarily large employment for the amount of GDP that they produce. Low productivity per worker partly stems from the aforementioned poor education system that does not properly equip workers with the skills to thrive in the marketplace. It is also a result of poor and inefficient technologies that slow down production. These issues increase costs and dig into profits. Improving productivity in these vital sectors and throughout the economy can be done through properly training workers, providing them with efficient technologies, and increasing access to credit for business ventures. There is a lot of untapped potential in the Peruvian economy that can be realized if the government is able to improve on any one of these issues.

The biggest challenge facing the Peruvian economy is its vast informal sector. Mr. Villarán indicated that recent estimates show roughly 60 percent of Peru’s GDP is comprised of informal economic activity. What is even more concerning is that 75 percent of the workforce participates in the informal sector, which not only means that they do not receive any social benefits but also that the government misses out on potential tax revenue. While illegal gold mining is often the most talked about of Peru’s informal economy because of its human rights aspects, informal agriculture and fishing contribute a larger share to overall informality in the country. Informality is a persistent problem in Peru because it is by far the most lucrative economic opportunity for poor citizens. Moreover, compared to the scope of the problem, the Peruvian government has not done nearly enough to tackle informality. Illegal gold mining especially, is an open secret that the government hasn’t done enough to address. While the government has raised awareness about the issue and destroyed many gold mining towns to reduce the scope of the activity, it still remains the most attractive economic activity in some areas for poor, uneducated Peruvians. The long-term key to reducing informality in Peru is to improve quality of and access to education and to train workers in order to make participation in the formal economy more lucrative. Improving education would also improve competitiveness and boost productivity while alleviating many of the chronic economic problems that have held back economic growth and development in the country.

Photos are of La Pampa, an illegal gold mining town in the Madre de Dios department

For further readings about challenges facing Peru’s economy please see:

http://www.limaeasy.com/peru-info/peruvian-economy

http://www.humanosphere.org/world-politics/2016/06/poverty-and-other-challenges-ahead-for-perus-new-president-kuczynski/

[1] Marino, Eleni. “The State of Education in Peru.” The Borgen Project. March 20, 2017.

[2] Fernandez, Alfredo. “Challenges of the public education system in Peru.” Social Policy UPF. May 14, 2015.

– Mirish Shah

Entrepreneurship in the Amazon: An Exception to the Traditional Business Model

Rainforest Expeditions (RFE) is a Peruvian ecotourism company that challenged the traditional approaches to entrepreneurship by collaborating on a joint venture with the Infierno community in the region of Madre de Dios. Together, they established the first eco-lodge, Posada Amazonas, co-owned and operated by an indigenous community and a private company. RFE co-founder and former CEO Kurt Holle’s innovative view on the Amazon rainforest as a “product” requires further exploration by the business community as it breaks the typical mold by overcoming common obstacles to private ventures. In a way, Posada Amazonas simplifies a highly complex and multifaceted community and environmental system to a seemingly reliable business transaction. Holle describes his business model as a unique combination of access, services, and product (being the Amazon) that culminated in the Rainforest Expeditions project in 1989.

Kurt Holle and the founding team approached the many barriers involved including travel logistics, the environmental impact, the relationship with the local community as business partners, and the native community’s cultural traditions in place from a business perspective. In this way – the seemingly insurmountable complexity of an uncontrolled and risky environment such as the Amazon, became an even stronger engine for success. Business theories, economics, and statistics were applied to this project to overcome these variables. For example, to address the arduous process of transporting visitors to the lodge, Holle said that their analyses suggested that five hours of travel time is the maximum amount most tourists would endure to get there. For every additional hour, the company would expect to lose a third of their potential customer base. This calculation proved critical for dealing with what Holle rightly described as the “non-homogeneous” nature of the Amazon rainforest. From the company’s view, unlike an urban tourism site where all logistics can be controlled, the Amazon is and will remain the more powerful force when faced with the incoming foot traffic and waste that comes hand-in-hand with the growing profitability of the business.

Rainforest Expeditions shares 70 percent of the profits from the lodge with the Infierno Community. Infierno then typically re-invests 10 percent in the lodge or other community development projects and disburses the remaining 60 percent to the community. Posada Amazonas provides an estimated $1600 per family on top of their regular annual income. In response to concerns about the negative implications on the native community’s culture, Holle responds that as long as the business is providing options for the community rather than taking them away, it can be viewed as a success. The growing amount of options made available to the people of Infierno is evident. For example, there are now more community members with homes both in the town of Puerto Maldonado and in the forest such that they can maintain contact with their home while seeking outside opportunities for income. Guides who are employed by Posada Amazonas have arguably the greatest access to new options by way of the English education they receive and their reliable income source at the lodge.

Gilbert is a guide at the lodge who explained to us that his sons live in Puerto Maldonado and that he commutes to the town when he isn’t working at the lodge. His sons have opted to aim for careers in accounting and international business – which may be viewed as the type of doors opened by the wealth created by Posada Amazonas and the company’s profitable model. While it is hard to separate the impact of globalized technologies and natural modernization in order to draw this conclusion, this type of conclusion based in economics is often utilized by the company in responding to concerns regarding any negative impact on culture.

As a public policy student focused on social issues, the idea of coordinating with an indigenous community to build a tourism attraction that has implications for both the receiving and visiting cultures, as well as the environment, was perplexing and somewhat concerning to me. However, after learning about the founder’s business-focused mindset and simple intention to share the Amazon with foreigners, I find the project to be as unique as the start-ups gaining mass media attention in Silicon Valley. While Posada Amazonas is in no way a perfect model that should be replicated exactly, the idea of applying the capitalist business model to products that do not fit our preconceptions of what can be sold to the public should be viewed as a great contribution to innovation in the private sector.

To learn more about Rainforest Expeditions visit their website at http://www.perunature.com/about-rainforest/.

– Samantha Stein

Sex Trafficking in Madre de Dios

At 5:30am Tuesday morning, our group loaded up into two vans and went for a long drive. I dozed off and awoke to the sound of Javier, a professor and environmental consultant in the region and our guide for this excursion, pointing out abandoned gold mining sites. A few minutes later, we were driving through a gold mining supply town. At 6:30am, the town was bustling with activity. People flitted in and out of homes and businesses, shoddy structures built from cinder blocks, wood planks, and sheets of metal. One structure we passed was a “prostibar.”

Prostibar spotted from the Interoceanic Highway

A prostibar is a Peruvian term for brothel. The prostibares are common in gold mining towns because miners find entertainment in two activities: drinking alcohol and having sex. Most of the women working in these prostibares are trafficked into the industry.

For the purposes of this piece, I will use the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) definition of sex trafficking: “in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.”

In cases of human trafficking, accurate numbers of victims can be difficult to quantify. Research methods vary for capturing this unseen population. However, in 2015, Peruvian police identified 699 potential trafficking victims—589 adults and 110 children. In Peru, this trafficking is primarily done domestically (within Peru’s borders).

Trafficked women and girls are often taken to Madre de Dios under the false pretense of a new job (like waitressing or cleaning), but instead end up in a prostibar. If the woman tries to leave upon learning this, the man that escorted her to the mining town says that she owes him money for the trip there so she must work it off. The woman is left with no choice.

Trafficking victims en route to a mining town. Pimps can be seen at the top of the stairs. Source

The woman is forced to abide by several strict rules and schedules like the ones pictured below. Breaking some of these rules results in fines (multas). In the second picture, the fourth rule down reads “No running away (ask for permission).” If broken, the woman would have to pay a fine of 300 Peruvian soles (about $90 USD). By “no running away,” the rule means no leaving the prostibar — not even to walk around town. An escort is always required.

   Prostibar rules. Source

The Peruvian government’s response to human trafficking involves raids by the federal police in which they destroy the entirety of the gold mining camps (also the state’s response to illegal gold mining). The federal police have made it a practice to not tell the local police they are coming. If the local police knows, they will help hide the girls under 18 to prevent the arrest of traffickers. However, corruption occurs on a federal level as well. The federal police lack the necessary equipment for the raids and are not accustomed to the extreme temperature of the rainforest. It’s easier for them to get paid for tipping off miners than to put in the work needed for a raid. [Cite: Ana Lucia Hurtado]

According to Javier, the mining supply town we visited Tuesday morning (La Pampa) was illegally constructed and tied to the illegal gold mines. The police and government know these people are there, know they sell supplies specifically catering to the needs of gold mining sites in the jungle, but have chosen to not disturb the town. These individuals in the town have become untouchable because of their numbers, their size. It would be too much work to displace that many.

Thankfully, some nonprofits are taking action. Asociación Huarayo is an organization based in Madre de Dios that provides shelter for children and adults who were forced to work for criminal organizations but have escaped. Albergue Juvenil de Mazuko is a temporary refuge for children and adolescents who have become victims of human trafficking. On Monday afternoon, our group was fortunate to meet with Oscar Gustavo Guadalupe Zevallos, founder and Director of Asociación Huarayo, and Ana Lucia Hurtado Abad, the Executive Director of Asociación Huarayo and leader of the Albergue Juvenil de Mazuko. Last year Asociación Huarayo recovered 59 women from prostibares. These women are currently receiving psychological and legal help and reuniting with families.

Knowing all of this, it felt wrong to pass by the prostibar Tuesday morning and keep driving by. What could any of us do to liberate any women who may have been trafficked there? We have no training on trafficking intervention and extraction. Very few of us even speak the language. The pimps would likely be armed. Even the police here are unlikely to intervene. So what could we do?

As policy students, the weight of the world’s problems (human rights violations, climate change, food security, healthcare access–among many, many others) presses down on us. We’re going into this field to fix something, hopefully to even fix some things. One day I hope we can hold governments accountable for their actions and negligence. For now, I’ll settle for shedding some light on the topic.

– Stephanie Areizaga

The Interoceanic Highway and Illegal Gold Mining

At 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday, our group set out on a two-hour road trip along the Interoceanic Highway: a $900 million road extending from the Atlantic coast of Brazil to the Pacific coast of Peru that “only the mosquitoes pass.” After waving (swatting) good morning to our fellow travelers, we made our way toward a supply town for illegal gold mining and an abandoned site where mining used to occur, a town dubbed La Pampa. Javier Gordillo, a researcher on ecotourism and our guide for the morning, described the road’s budget, local reception, and history. Peruvians have mixed opinions on the road as some believe the country does not need an under-used road like this and others benefit from greater economic opportunities and access. While the road undoubtedly improves ease of transportation between Puerto Maldonado and Cusco (the 500 km trip now takes twelve hours rather than 24), it also increases access for illegal logging, illegal gold mining, and human trafficking in the Madre de Dios region.

The Peruvian and Brazilian governments had considered a collaborative infrastructure project connecting the countries and opening access to the Pacific Ocean since the 1970s. In 2004, the two presidents struck a deal and construction on the 2600 km road began. Backpackers and tourist groups (like our own group) use the highway, but commerce was at the heart of the intergovernmental agreement. The Interoceanic Highway’s primary purpose was to transport Brazilian goods to ports on the Pacific Ocean. Javier informed us, however, that Brazilian goods have not crossed the road in the years following its completion. Some economic gains validated the international support for this road at first. The number of jobs increased as Peruvian workers helped construct the road and bridges. More rural areas in the Andes and Amazon rainforests also gained access to nearby towns and cities, and this allowed them to transport goods for sale in larger markets. Even with this economic benefit and the theory that infrastructure projects contribute to development, the regional support for the road quickly turned into opposition when the alarming environmental and social impacts on Madre de Dios emerged.

In addition to mosquitoes, we passed a landscape filled by new grasses that shows the long lasting impacts of illegal gold mining activity on the land, revealing the road’s severe environmental impact. We also saw a roadside mining supply town representing the negative social impact on communities in Peru. According to Javier, one side of the road is legal to mine with a state-issued permit and the other side is illegal to mine. The abandoned gold mining site was on the illegal side and directly next to the road. Miners likely used this site around 2008 and while the field was growing more palm trees and becoming greener, the remnants of dead trees and bare landscape show the road’s destructive effect on the environment. Deforestation around the road has become a rapidly growing problem. On a clear day, the deforested areas are even visible from planes after taking off from the Puerto Maldonado airport. The practice of using mercury to extract gold from the soil especially increases environmental impacts and contributes to many Peruvian citizens’ disapproval of the road. In a region as biodiverse and rich in resources as the Amazon rainforest in Madre de Dios, increased illegal gold mining permanently damages the environment.

An array of social threats to the community have spread along kilometers both beside and away from the road. Ana Lucia Hurtado Abad, the Executive Director of Asociación Huarayo, presented the growing issue of “trata de personas” or human trafficking. Young girls, miles away from mining sites, are lured and brought to bars off of the highway and across roads that are only accessible by motor bikes. The demand for these bars comes solely from illegal gold miners in the area and increases as access to open mining land improves. Supply towns along the road like the one we saw from our vans also appear as mining expands. The local police will sometimes raid a mining town and destroy the equipment. Nevertheless, these towns are commonly referred to as “untouchable” and more are appearing all along the highway. Oscar Guadalupe Zevallos, another director of Asociación Huarayo, estimates that 72 towns now exist for illegal gold mining. Because these towns already prosper under an informal economy and lawless region, corruption and exploitation are frequent occurrences. These social impacts on Peruvians are severe indirect costs that have expanded as a result of the Interoceanic Highway.

The proximity of the abandoned gold mining area and the busy supply town to the Interoceanic Highway is no coincidence. As Javier described, the Peruvian government has not publicly addressed these indirect costs of the highway. Although access and better infrastructure often elevates people out of poverty, the Interoceanic Highway does this in an unsustainable way that endangers the environment and vulnerable citizens in Madre de Dios and Peru as a whole.

Access the following articles for more information about the Interoceanic Highway (also known as the Trans-oceanic highway):

– Anne Wagner

Mercury in Fish in Madre de Dios and the Community’s Health Status and Views on External Assistance

According to researcher Katy Ashe, there are significantly high levels of mercury in the human population in the city of Puerto Maldonado as well as the region of Madre de Dios. “Rapidly increasing global prices for gold are causing a massive upsurge in artisanal mining in the Peruvian Amazon, considered to be one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.” (Ashe, 2012) Mercury is used to separate gold from silt, and rivers and other waterways are utilized for this process. Bacteria convert this mercury to methylmercury, an organic form that accumulates in the food chain, increasing in concentration higher up the chain. In other words, humans who consume fish that contains mercury will have a higher dose of mercury poisoning. Ashe finds that amount of fish consumption, gender, and location of residence were important indicators of mercury levels.

During my research on this issue, I came across an article in the Environmental Health News, which stated that Dr. Carlos Manrique, an epidemiologist and a doctor, used to work in mining towns was sworn in as a member of the Madre de Dios regional government council. His reason for running for office was because he believed that in addition to doctors, political leaders must solve the region’s health problems. Being a Public Health major, I became very interested in this issue.

This situation makes me think about how this region perceives the status of health and how health education is usually administered. It seems to me that regional issues are better solved by the leaders of that specific region. As we became more exposed to the Infierno native community while we were staying at the Posada Amazonas in the Tambopata River basin area, I wanted to learn more (from a Public Health and Policy perspective) about how the locals feel about this particular mercury situation on a community level. There is a large amount of existing research on why gold mining and mercury contamination is a health concern. There are also suggestions for more research, government involvement, or better policies. However, one perspective I didn’t find online during my research was the opinions and practices of the local community itself. This is why I ended up interviewing a representative of the Infierno community.

The Infierno native community representative answered my questions and concerns in these following parts:

  1. The fish that contains mercury. The representative stated that most adults in his community are aware of the fact that there can be mercury in fish they are consuming. Due to this fact, he and his community members only eat fish from the Tres Chimbadas oxbow lake or another lake that they know does not have contamination from gold mining.
  2. The possible direct exposure of mercury from mining. Posada Amazonas, the eco-lodge run by the Infierno community and Rainforest Expeditions in Madre de Dios, has provided many community members with job opportunities. There are at least 30 families who left gold mining to work there. Therefore, direct exposure to mercury has significantly decreased in the community.
  3. Health education and policy changes. The Infierno community, according to the representative, values their leaders’ words more than any other officials. If an outsider (professional or not) comes and tells them something, they likely won’t listen. If a government creates a policy that might apply to them, they may or may not follow depending on the issue and how it would affect them. However, if a community leader tells them something, they will definitely listen. When asked about outsiders visiting their community and possibly providing public health education (prevention methods, simpler ways of treatment, etc.), the representative said, “We welcome outsiders who want to learn about our traditions and see our jungle, but we are opposed to outsiders who want to come and change or forcefully help.” I followed up with a question about “What if an outsider who is a health professional cares about your community, found a health concern, and wanted to share this knowledge with you?” To this, he responded positively by saying that his community leaders and elders are open-minded and would make time to meet with this professional. However, the decision of pursuing this issue is completely up to the community. Once or if they need help, they would contact the professional.

His responses were understandable, and I appreciate the time he gave to speak with me. Personally, I think Infierno is a great example of how a native community can uphold their traditions while being open-minded about modern concepts that could improve their way of life.

Citations:

Ashe, K (2012) Elevated Mercury Concentrations in Humans of Madre de Dios, Peru. PLoS ONE 7(3): e33305. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0033305

Fraser, B (2011). Peruvian Gold Comes with Mercury Health Risks. Scientific American.

– Christine Thinn

View from the Canopy Tower

View from the canopy tower on the Infierno native community reserve. The forest in this direction extends into the vast Tambopata Reserve and, eventually, to Bolivia. The Tambopata Nature Reserve is largely inaccessible and, therefore, does not suffer from the activities that lead to deforestation (logging, mining, clearing for agricultural or pasture land).

Photo: T. Hilde

Farming Fish in Infierno

In the Madre de Dios region of Amazonia the community of Infierno, located on the Tambopata River, continues to develop ecotourism opportunities as a component of their partnership with Rainforest Expeditions.  This week we were able to visit one of their newest offerings, slated to be fully operating in just one more month.  Led by our local guides, Gilbert Arrospide and Oscar Mishaja, we discussed the new venture with the Vice President of the Infierno Native Community, Victor Pesha, and Herbert Dias, the manager of Infierno’s new fish farm.

Figure 1. Guide Gilbert Arrospide describes the community’s new fish farm from inside its future restaurant.

In 2016, the Infierno Native Community applied for and received funding from Peru’s Ministry of the Environment (Ministerio del Ambiente, MINAM) to create a working fish farm.  Aquaculture, or the farming of fish and other aquatic products, occurs globally and provides a source of income and nutrition for many.  Here in Infierno, not only will the fish fill both of these roles, but they’ll also allow visitors to understand and experience firsthand the traditional fishing practices of Infierno’s indigenous community, the Ese’eja.

The Infierno fish farm includes a series of five ponds, stocked with a combination of freshwater shrimp and a native finfish, known locally as Gamitana (Colossoma macropomum).  Presently, the fish and shrimp are held in separate ponds, but plans are set to integrate the two species into shared ponds. Finfish and shrimp aquaculture often face challenges associated with negative environmental impacts, but there are several aspects of Infierno’s farm that suggest the concerns are not an issue for Infierno.

Figure 2. The Gamitana (Colossoma macropomum) is one of two species being raised in Infierno.  (Photo source: http://fundopalmeiras.com/images/galeria/gamitana/grandes/gamitana4.jpg)

First, the Infierno fish farm is not operating at an industrial scale, and does not have plans to expand to such.  Large-scale farming of shrimp and finfish is often associated with destruction of habitat and alteration of local hydrology patterns. The Infierno Native Community has worked with community leaders, engineers, and NGOs to identify appropriate sites and pond systems that do not affect the nearby Tambopata River or drastically alter the forest landscape.

Additionally, concerns over fish feed have raised flags within the aquaculture industry, but global research efforts increasingly produce more sustainable feed options.  In Infierno, the fish and shrimp are currently fed a diet of organic feed, but over time the integrated pond system (with fish and shrimp in the same ponds) will serve to minimize the amount of feed needed, as shrimp will be able to feed on small plant and detrital material produced by the landscape and accompanying fish.  As the community continues to plant fruit-bearing trees, the Gamitana’s diet will also be supplemented by falling fruit, minimizing the need for processed feed.

Figure 3.  Presently, the fish and shrimp in Infierno’s fish farm are fed a diet of organic feed.  Over time, the reliance on manufactured feed will be less as the fish and shrimp will be able to utilize aspects of integrated multi-trophic aquaculture.

Anyone familiar with the Peruvian Amazon, and a focus of this course (artisanal gold mining in the region), might also question the potential health impacts of consuming fish from these ponds.  The community has also thought of this, and in fact through this project hopes to provide residents and visitors a healthy alternative to wild caught fish.  Infierno’s fish are spawned in a Puerto Maldonado facility and transferred to the ponds, which are fed from a small creek and deep natural spring.  Thus, as described by community members, concerns related to mercury content don’t apply to these fish.  Instead, locals and visitors alike will have access to a safe, reliable, and nutritious protein source.  Infierno’s farm-raised fish and locally grown produce will be available in the adjacent restaurant, as well as sold in the community market.

Figure 4.  The restaurant at Infierno’s fish farm will provide visitors an opportunity to relax and eat while overlooking the community’s ponds and Amazon forest.

One of the more unique aspects of Infierno’s fish farm is that visitors won’t be simply fishing with rod and reel; they can learn the traditional ways of Ese’eja fishers and catch their Gamitana with bow and arrow.  In this way, community members will not only be able to provide a fun activity for guests, but they’ll also share some of their local knowledge and introduce guests to components of their culture.  Visitors can even have fish that they personally caught prepared to eat in the restaurant. In addition to fishing practices, visitors will have the option to bike around the farm and Infierno community, potentially stopping at the cultural house to learn more and purchase locally made handicrafts.  All of these activities will be added as the farm becomes a functional part of the Infierno ecotourism experience.  When fully operational, the Infierno fish farm will employ eight community members and all money generated through the venture will return to the Infierno community. The fish farm at Infierno demonstrates another aspect of the community’s efforts to showcase their local culture and landscape in a sustainable way that benefits the community.

Figure 5. Our group, shown here standing at a dock behind the future restaurant, was able to learn about the fish farming process, as well as help feed the fish.

– Adriane Michaelis

Learning to Fish: Education and Social Entrepreneurship in the Infierno Community

In a community that is rapidly developing a variety of ecotourism services, it is important that children be introduced to social entrepreneurial concepts and skills at an early age. In this case, teaching children to fish is as much about personal sustenance as it is about community development and career options.

During our drive to the Infierno community from Puerto Maldonado, we passed by a newly built school where children were outside playing near a water tower. Our guide, Gilbert, explained that the new school was important for the community because it would reduce costs for families that would otherwise have children split between different locations. My first thought was that any cost savings would be welcomed and potentially reduce the need for community members to seek revenue from informal sources, like gold mining for example. But the more intriguing story is how the school came to be and what would be taught there.

The new school was made possible by the investment of profits from ecotourism back into the community. It is one of a number of recent projects that have been made possible by the contract the Infierno community has with Rainforest Expeditions. As more improvements are made to the community, it would make sense that children learn about the significance of ecotourism as a career option in addition to traditional career paths. However, through conversations with community members and experts, we have learned that Infierno schools have not formally embraced ecotourism as a subject and that education in Peru overall can be improved.

In 2016, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development released its annual Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings. Of the 72 countries included, Peru ranked in the bottom 10 for math, reading, and science evaluations. (www.business insider.com/pisa-worldwide-ranking-of-math-science-reading-skills-2016-12). While former Labor Minister, Fernando Villarán, explained this at a meeting with him in Lima as more indicative of state-run public schools, it presents challenges for all communities seeking economic and social growth.

Gilbert briefly explained the role of education for advancing ecotourism in the community. There hasn’t been a formal curriculum for young students to learn about Posada Amazonas or the wider benefits of social entrepreneurship. This apparent gap in education was acknowledged by Rainforest Expeditions founder, Kurt Holle, who reiterated that the joint venture is about creating options and not pushing people in the community to one sector over others.

My sense is that there is a middle ground between not focusing any class time on entrepreneurial activity and recommending that students consider a career in ecotourism. Currently, the community relies on a paternalistic system where children learn about Posada Amazonas and the community’s other projects through family members. Our class witnessed this first hand during our excursion on the Tres Chimbadas oxbow lake.

Our group was escorted around Tres Chimbadas by four members of the Infierno community. Our guides, Gilbert and Oscar, had already introduced us to the community on our trip from Puerto Maldonado, but this was our first direct interaction with a member of the community outside of Posada Amazonas. The boatman named Leo manages visitors to the lake to ensure the habitat is not disrupted while also maintaining the facilities on-site. For this trip, Leo was accompanied by his nephew, Dylan, a young boy who enjoys working on the lake whenever he gets the chance. Dylan doesn’t speak English but I learned that he represents most of the young people in the community who learn and work by following in the footsteps of their family members.

If the Infierno community is seriously considering managing Posada Amazonas independently, along with several other locations, they should also consider introducing students to the operations of the ventures in a formal setting. In addition to classroom lessons, the community should consider:

  • Hosting classes at Posada Amazonas to familiarize students with the operation
  • Arranging mentor/apprenticeship programs for students that express interest in the project
  • Hiring an Education Outreach Director that can be a liaison between ecotourism projects and schools throughout the region

Further Reading:

Kokkranikal, Jithendran. Community Networks and Sustainable Livelihoods in Tourism: The Role of Entrepreneurial Innovation.

Orams, Mark. A Conceptual Model of Tourist-Wildlife Interaction: the case for education as a management strategy.

– Cory Ryan

Transmission of Indigenous Knowledge and Cultural Practices: Learning through Infierno, the Ese’eja, and Posada Amazonas

Ecotourism ventures operating near indigenous and local communities do not always consider the transmission of cultural and knowledge practices in conjunction with the well-being of the communities. Posada Amazonas, a locally run and managed ecotourism joint venture (with Rainforest Expeditions), has a unique advantage: this project is run and managed partly by the native community of Infierno. Such communities can often be the subjects of Amazonian ecotourism adventures for the gaze of the western visitor. Posada Amazonas allows for community members to be active participants in the transmission of their cultural knowledge and practices. While visiting Posada Amazonas, our group was able to view and investigate the extent of the control of the Ese’eja and Infierno over this transmission.

Baawaja Expeditions is an ecotourism lodge about fifteen minutes downriver by boat from Posada Amazonas. This new lodge, created by the Infierno community, is completely owned and managed by the community. Our guides, Gilbert and Oscar, first mentioned this new lodge during a presentation on Posada Amazonas and the relationship to Rainforest Expeditions during our first night at the lodge.

The next day, we were able to visit the lodge. Baawaja Expeditions was created partly to assess the community’s ability to run and manage a lodge independently. Slightly different than the experience at the posada, Baawaja Expeditions has activities largely based in cultural activities. Visitors to Baawaja learn and participate in activities associated with Ese’eja culture and the Infierno community. This is exemplified by the lodge’s location directly adjacent to the community’s medicinal garden and the region’s indigenous healing center.

The ecotourism project and the community share cultural knowledge and communal life through visits to the medicinal garden, among other activities. The gardens, located next to Baawaja, were visited by our group prior to our tour of the Baawaja lodge. The medicinal garden activity begins with an introduction to the healing center. This center, created in 1986 with the help of the Native Federation of Madre de Dios, allows indigenous peoples from the region to come to the center to be healed or participate in an ayahuasca experience. The guides provide visitors, our group included, with background on the role of the healers for the Ese’eja, and ayahuasca use for community members. We were then guided through one of eight gardens and introduced to the healing qualities of a variety of plants.

During a meeting later in Lima with Kurt Holle, founder and president of Rainforest Expeditions, our group was introduced to the company’s view of the cultural aspects of the posada experience. The cultural activity of visiting the gardens was not originally included among activities at the lodge. Holle explained how in the early years of the project they stayed away from these types of activities due to “icky issues” associated with using cultural activities as a part of an Amazonian experience. Some time after the opening of the posada, the community decided to include the medicinal garden as one of the options for visitor activities. Today, the community is creating an activity where guests can learn traditional fishing methods. Control of the decision-making process by the communal leadership of Infierno allows for the community, in turn, to control activities such as these that involve the transmission of cultural knowledge.

Cultural knowledge transmission has extended from an exchange between the native community and tourists to an exchange involving the youth of the community. Throughout this trip, we have had multiple opportunities to learn about the joint venture, specifically the financial benefits accrued by the community. It has been explained that about 80% of the income gets divided amongst families and contributes to their annual income, the remaining 20% being reinvested into community projects. Among other things, the influence of Western and Peruvian culture and the influence of the cash economy have resulted in the community being largely Spanish speakers. However, as anthropologist Amanda Stronza describes it, the role of culture at the lodges has increased the native community’s own interest in Ese’eja culture and appreciation for Ese’eja identity (Stronza 2008, 251). The elders in the community, having knowledge of the Ese’eja language, have begun teaching the language to the youth in the community school. This, as some researchers would suggest, is an example of the community “consciously reshaping” traditions (Adams 1997, 317 in Stronza 2008, 251). Kurt Holle described this knowledge transmission activity as a function of profits from the lodge being reinvested into the community.

Spending time at the lodge with our guides and our meeting with Holle exposed our group to the ways that some community members view their culture. It has also exposed us to how they see knowledge systems fitting into their community today, including the lodges and the community’s children. The effect of tourism on Ese’eja identity in the community is significant, as in years prior the Ese’eja of Infierno were told their culture was backwards and that they should be embarrassed (Stronza 2008, 251). Today, this knowledge transmission exists in beneficial ways for community members and tourists. As Baawaja is only in its first year, the transmission and influence of cultural knowledge on the tourist experience can be seen as increasingly significant and relevant. Our group’s exposure to this cultural knowledge has allowed us to more successfully situate the Infierno community into indigenous people in Peru as they relate to sustainable development projects.

Adams, Kathleen M (1997). “Ethnic Tourism and the Recognition of Tradition in Tana Toraja.” Ethnology 36(4):309-320.

Stronza, Amanda (2008). “Through a New Mirror: Reflections on Tourism and Identity in the Amazon.” Human Organization 67(3):244-257.

– Emily Dooley