Bolivian Ecolodges Lead the Way for Sustainable Tourism

In honor of World Tourism Day, Conservation International’s Candido Pastor shares an inspiring story from Bolivia.
I have spent over a decade at Conservation International-Bolivia, working with indigenous communities to help them sustainably manage their land. If you asked me what provides the biggest incentive for people to accomplish this goal, I would answer without hesitation: ecotourism, an incredibly powerful and effective tool.
Why? Among other reasons, because two of the ecotourism ventures that have been supported by our CI-Bolivia team have been a huge success. Today, they are internationally recognized and a model for building local, sustainable economies.
Bolivia has the largest indigenous contingent in Latin America. Indigenous peoples make up 62% of the national population, representing 36 different groups and languages. The majority are in rural areas, where more than 70% of the population lives in poverty. Many rural people earn their livelihoods from agriculture, and the cutting and clearing of forests to make room for more farmland is common.
In certain ways, these land practices — often necessitated by poverty — conflict with traditional beliefs of many groups. For example, one story passed down from generation to generation references “the owner,” a guardian of the forest who is responsible for punishing those who abuse fauna and flora. According to local beliefs, this is a real being to whom one must ask permission to use the forest resources.
In the early 1990s, a group of Uchupiamona villagers in western Bolivia proposed building an ecolodge as a source of income that would value standing forests over logged ones. Soon afterward, Chalalan Ecolodge was constructed; it is now considered the only ecotourism company in Latin America whose management is 100% indigenous.
The ecolodge is located in Madidi National Park, on the edge of a heavenly lagoon surrounded by primary forest, Madidi is one of the most diverse reserves of flora and fauna in the world — home to rare species such as the giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis), harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja) and many more. At Chalalan, visitors can hear local folklore and take part in activities such as bird-watching, canoe trips, wildlife photography and swimming. This ecolodge currently receives around 1,600 visitors per year, including such notable figures as the prince of Denmark.
In the past decade, Chalalan has transformed the local community. Families have benefited both from direct income from the ecolodge and from investments in health and education paid for with some of its profits.
The jobs generated by Chalalan have also given many young people a reason to stay in the region rather than migrate to cities. They are the new Bolivian experts in ecotourism, who have acquired skills in business management, tourism services, environmental guidance, biodiversity monitoring, marketing and other subjects.
Chalalan has won several major international awards, including a 2008 Equator Prize. In 2009, National Geographic even chose it as one of the top 10 ecolodges in the world in the “rainforest” category.
Inspired by Chalalan’s success, another ecolodge was built soon after in Madidi National Park: San Miguel del Bala Ecolodge, conceived by the indigenous Tacana peoples and driven by CI-Bolivia and its partners (CARE and the U.N. Small Grants Programme).
Co-owned by 35 indigenous families, the lodge has increased their household incomes by 150%, provided business training for more than 100 local residents and improved management on thousands of hectares of forest. In addition, San Miguel annually supports the creation of new sources of employment, improving housing and health care.
Last March, San Miguel won the 2011 “TO DO! Socially Responsible Tourism Award — an honor given out after a rigorous organizational, economic, social and environmental evaluation by international experts.
These initiatives have not only improved economic and social conditions in indigenous communities — they also are among the most profitable businesses in the municipalities of San Buenaventura and Rurrenabaque.
Thanks in part to these two projects, Bolivia is now one of the most promising fronts for sustainable tourism in Latin America. I’m proud to be part of this movement, and I hope we can expand our efforts and help more people benefit from the beauty of their homelands.
Cándido Pastor is the environmental policy coordinator for Conservation International-Bolivia.