The Meeting of Two Worlds in the Bolivian Amazon

by Abigail Rome

A visit to the indigenous community of San Jose de Uchupiamonas in lowland Bolivia reveals an incongruity of times and cultures.

Most travelers arrive by boat after an 8-hour ride up the Tuichi River and a 1-mile walk through the forest. They are in the heart of Madidi National Park, a 1,895,750-hectare reserve that is one of the world's top conservation priorities. And, they are about to witness how Joseanos, as the residents are called, are adjusting to life now that their ecotourism business, Chalalan Ecolodge, is generating profits.

Other than the trail underfoot, the first signs of the Tacana-Quechua people are three ancient wooden crosses, erected by their ancestors as a sign to visitors that they are entering a peaceful community. Now the crosses list to one side or another and peanut shells and perhaps a dried flower lie underneath.

Upon entering the village of bamboo-sided houses with thatch roofs, newcomers find themselves in front of several tall antennas and a satellite dish. San Jose now has radio and telephone communication to the rest of the world. The community school, recently enlarged to include 7th and 8th grades, sports a solar panel and a computer. The church, however, has a dirt floor and is open to the elements, save for the tin roof resting precariously overhead.

"Ten years ago people were leaving San Jose because there were few ways to make a living or get an education," says Guido Mamani, when asked about the effects of ecotourism on the community. "Now, people are returning to our village. We used to call San Jose a place to suffer; now we call it a place of opportunity."

Mamani, general manager of Chalalan, is proud of the changes he has seen in his community since it approached Conservation International (CI) with a dream of building the ecolodge on Chalalan Lake and then entered into a partnership with CI and the Inter-American Development Bank to make it a reality in 1995. In 2001, CI transferred all shares of the successful project to the community, giving it full control and ownership. The lodge became the first community-owned ecotourism enterprise in Bolivia.

"Since many of us have received training to work in tourism, everyone sees the value of education," Mamani said. "The community now expects a good education for all its youngsters. This helps us develop other sustainable businesses and improve our living standards." Some of the Joseanos are even thinking of taking up consulting. "Since we were the pioneers in community-based ecotourism, other communities in the region are coming to us, asking for assistance."

Mamani was one of 35 people who shared experiences and recommendations on operating a community-based ecotourism business as part of three workshops that recently took place between community representatives from three ecolodges in the Amazon: Chalalan in Bolivia, Posada Amazonas in Peru and Kapawi Ecolodge in Ecuador. The exchange was part of the Learning Host to Host program supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund to encourage community-based biodiversity conservation and natural resource management in the Tropical Andes hotspot.

The participants agreed that their respective ecotourism enterprises are providing important economic and social benefits. Education and health services are improved and villagers have a wider range of economic opportunities. Many are engaged in organic agriculture, small animal production and handicrafts, all of which help ensure income flow when tourism is down. They also discovered similar challenges and discussed lessons learned.

In San Jose, visitors and their local guides walk along grassy paths on their way to visit Pascual Valdez, one of the artisans who carve wooden animal figurines for sale to tourists. He displays a toothy caiman, a fish-eating hawk and a jaguar with prey on his bare living room table, and credits the economic well-being of his family to Chalalan.

Aside from the income he generates by selling handicrafts, his family and each of the others who contributed sweat equity to Chalalan, receive $80 per year. In addition, 50 percent of Chalalan's profits go into a fund for the health and education of the entire community, which is home to about 70 families.

Zenon Limaco, one of the founders of Chalalan, tells tourists how the ecotourism business has helped the community rally together to safeguard its forest. "Chalalan is one of the best tools we have in San Jose to help protect Madidi (National Park) while also guaranteeing a future for our children," Limaco says.

Threats include conflicts over land rights, unsustainable agriculture and hunting, poor management of rare natural resources—such as the salt licks where parrots, macaws and other wildlife congregate—and even poorly managed tourism. Now, with environmental education, management planning and increased interest in enforcing regulations, biodiversity seems to be prospering.

It is their forest identity and the values inherent in maintaining their Tacana-Quechua heritage that the Joseanos want to share with tourists. Each year the Joseanos scatter peanut shells and flowers at the bases of the ancient crosses as a gift to Pachamama, Mother Earth, to ensure a good harvest. If they succeed in their business ventures and continue to share lessons learned and their expertise with other communities developing ecotourism projects, a large portion of the Amazon just might reap the harvests of those peanut shells.

- July 2003

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