When dealing with different stakeholders – in the present case, this includes the local community, an ecotourism company, the Peruvian government, tourists, nature conservation advocates, nonprofits, academic organizations, and even the media – it is important to gain insight into their relationships in order to know what would be the key issues in establishing an appropriate benefits distribution system.
The present case is the 20-year joint venture of Posada Amazonas by the Ese’eja native community of Infierno and Rainforest Expeditions (RFE), a contract begun in 1996 and originally slated to end in 2016. The contract was recently extended to 2019. The Posada project had some support from foundations like MacArthur at the outset, but has been owned and operated by RFE and Infierno. Both sides of the Infierno-RFE agreement originally hoped to transfer full ownership and management to the local community by 2016. For years, the company has managed the website and bookings, the construction of the lodge in consultation with Infierno’s communal committee, and has handled many other logistics, particularly those involving marketing, management, and accounting skills. However, as many in the community have come to see the importance of the posada project and ecotourism business, the desire for greater autonomy has grown, especially given the potential for mistrust and conflicts of interest in developing an effective partnership with the company. What are both sides’ expectations and how could the partnership either continue or end?
After my talk with one of the guides while we were staying at Posada Amazonas, I realized that for at least some of the people employed by the Posada, there has been an information asymmetry problem in dealing with RFE. For example, when information is provided by the local lodge, RFE typically selects what to post on the website and limits members of the Infierno community from fully knowing what other lodges associated with RFE might be doing or having problems or successes with; RFE is not exclusively bound to its relationship with the native community and the Posada but has other partners on other lodge projects. This information asymmetry has sometimes led the people of Posada Amazonas to feel that they have a lack of consultation and decision-making power, while believing that they know better about the ground-level situation than the company does. Moreover, some view their salary as being rather low in comparison to what they feel they contribute to Posada Amazonas in terms of creating values and profits for the company. Some at the Posada want not only more balanced information, but more economic returns and autonomy in building their own lodge. However, that expectation is still a lofty goal.
RFE’s main idea in setting up the joint venture consisted of three aspects: rainforest experience for visitors; rainforest conservation; and community capacity building (to create more options for people to live a better life). The idea was to add/create market value to the forest reserve rather than let the forest degrade due to unmanaged logging, hunting, or farming activities. As a for-profit company, RFE focuses on access, services, and product. Rainforests and the indigenous culture are part of the services and products and indigenous people are also the executives of the services and products. It is understandable that, to date, transferring full ownership to the community is not a top priority for the joint venture. For the co-founder of RFE, timing is the primary factor in transferring ownership. The project has provided options for families in the community. In my opinion, however, the company is not 100% sure that the community has the ability to run the eco-lodge on its own; neither are some members of the community.
RFE is still exploring better ways to maintain the partnership. This includes attracting true fans (better quality but not quantity of visitors to expand markets), defining a community member in better distributing dividends, understanding mega-family business and the Ese’eja identity in order to speed the process of decision making while incorporating representation of the community, etc.
In conclusion, the native community and RFE hold similar goals of preserving the rainforest and running the ecotourism project in the best way to create the most returns, both economically and educationally. The perspectives of both sides are different but not without common ground. The community wants to make sure that their efforts are appropriately valued and that their home (the rainforest) is not misused and the company wants to make sure that the project is well-managed. This is probably normal.
I do not know the exact details of previous and ongoing areas of disagreement as I am only an outside observer of the Posada Amazonas project. However, from my experience in talking with both sides, I saw space for negotiation and flexibility. What could be possible is that the local community gains more bargaining power with the company as the “experts” of their home territory while the company continues to play a role in training and in those management aspects of the business that some community members do not wish to assume a leadership role in, like marketing. In many ways, I feel the Posada can be a good model for Amazon ecotourism.
Last but not the least, we need to acknowledge that RFE has to deal with visitor demands and feedback, and that the community has to deal with complicated relationships within the community and between other communities in the Madre de Dios area as well as with the local government. This broader range of stakeholders all have influence on the development of ecotourism businesses but I think the partnership between the Infierno native community and RFE will continue to be better coordinated in the coming years.
– Yihong Liu