At a series of workshops held earlier this year, members of indigenous communities, private industry and conservation organizations gathered as representatives of three pioneering community-based ecotourism lodges in the Tropical Andes.
The exchange was part of the Learning Host to Host program supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) to encourage community-based biodiversity conservation and natural resource management in the region.
Conclusions and recommendations from the exchange will be published later this year. Here, we share preliminary lessons learned from a CEPF interview with Amanda Stronza, who directs the program on behalf of the private company Rainforest Expeditions and is an assistant professor at Texas A & M University.
1. A partnership of communities, nongovernmental organization (NGO) and private enterprise is the model.
The model for partnership is not necessarily just autonomous community management or between communities and companies or between communities and NGOs like all three participating communities have now, Stronza says about the participants' findings.
The best model would involve communities, an NGO and the private sector—all three—because these actors each bring different kinds of capital to community-based ecotourism:
"If any key theme came out of the workshops, it's here is the new model: If you want to set up a community-based ecotourism project, the best way to do it would be to link a private company with a community but somehow also bring in the cooperation of an NGO," Stronza says. "It seems like a simple finding, almost intuitive, but it just came up again and again that if we were to create the ideal community-based ecotourism model, we would bring in all three actors."
2. An enduring alliance, rather than autonomous management by communities, may be best.
"Right away from the get-go there was resistance to the idea of transfer," Stronza says. "They said, 'Maybe that's not the best model. Maybe we should not talk about transferring everything to the local communities anymore but how to share responsibilities. Let's talk about strategic alliances and the different kinds of actors so that communities are capitalizing on what they do best, NGOs are doing what they do best and private companies are doing what they do best. We all continue to cooperate and collaborate in the long run but maybe the goal isn't that the communities will ultimately run their ecotourism operations single-handedly.'
"I think this was the most revolutionary finding of the three workshops. This is what you read in all the literature and what you hear in all the meetings but they said, 'Who says we have to transfer everything to local communities? We can still focus on bringing benefits to communities and making that translate to conservation but it doesn't necessarily mean you have to get private companies out of the picture - they can continue to bring resources to the partnership that are important for the company and the same with NGOs.' "
3. Ecotourism is not a panacea.
Even if ecotourism benefits all community members, satellite or complementary projects are important. Ecotourism may be the mainstay but other projects and initiatives are important in case tourist numbers decline or the community simply has greater needs.
"This is not rocket science but it was interesting that this theme came up again and again," Stronza says. "They said, 'We are still in the process of learning how to make ecotourism effective for conservation but these are the things we know for sure: that ecotourism is not a panacea for development or conservation in the long run and we have to be thinking about complementary activities.'
It was about the importance of needing to think creatively about other options beyond ecotourism, and again this is where the role of NGOs are important because they have the knowledge and contacts for these sorts of alternative projects."
- July 2003