For a couple of weeks in December I traveled around Ecuador with my family. We began in the southern coast, where we visited a few fishing towns as well as Isla de la Plata in Machalilla National Park. From there we headed north to Estero for a long weekend, before venturing to the Amazon Rainforest. We finished the trip with a week in Ecuador’s two largest Andean cities: Cuenca and Quito. We had an amazing time, and encountered a wide variety of climates and cultures, but among the most fascinating parts of our trip were our experiences with various community development efforts in Ecuador. I have chosen to profile two of them (in separate posts):
Case 1: Sani Community, Río Napo, Amazon Rainforest:
From December 19-23, we stayed at Sani Lodge, an Amazon lodge along the Napo River near Yasuní National Park. In choosing a place to stay for our Amazon adventure, a number of factors had been considered. My sister Kate, who did the bulk of the research and decision-making for this part of the trip (and for most of the rest of the trip as well), wanted to stay in a place where the community was intimately involved in the tourism venture. In this regard Sani was the perfect place, as it is the only lodge in the area (and perhaps in all of the Ecuadorian Amazon?) where the local community has been in complete control of the lodge since its creation (12-15 years ago). Sani purports to employ only community members and almost holds true to its word: of the 25-30 lodge employees, only 3 are not from the community. The directors of marketing, financial operations, reservations (these are all Quito-based positions, I believe) are from other places; however, the goal is to have community members educated in these areas so that these positions can be turned over within the next 5-7 years.
Sani also follows through on its promise to promote a form of tourism that is ecologically responsible and sustainable. Unlike many other lodges that rely heavily on generators for electricity, 100% of Sani’s electricity is derived from solar power.
At this point, some readers well versed in the region might be wondering how they haven’t heard of Sani, or could be thinking that it sounds too good to be true. Importantly, Sani’s greatest strength—namely, its insistence on self-sufficiency—is also the source of its greatest weaknesses. For instance, the idea of a lodge run entirely by community members is a good one, but when I was consistently voicing complaints about the condition of the rooms and promises made that were not kept (hot water), I couldn’t help but wonder whether a bit of training in hospitality and hotel management from someone with experience in the field might have helped the staff members at Sani. And while I do not like the idea of a generator humming outside my cabin and I am a proponent of alternative forms of energy generation like solar, when I got back to the cabin after a 14-hour day of climbing around in the jungle and the power was out, I wondered whether Sani, with its highly inefficient method of capturing energy from the sun, was really ready to fully “go green” and rely fully on renewable energy for electricity.
Nonetheless, despite the setbacks and disappointments, I left Sani a believer. I left feeling invested in the place and wanting it to succeed (and with a $17 t-shirt on my back to help in the lodge’s advertising efforts). But as one of Sani’s newest supporters, I also left concerned about what the future might hold for this community. Sani is located in a quiet and seemingly untouched area nearly two hours away from the nearest road, but this could soon change, as Sani is also home to significant pockets of unexploited oil reserves. Thus, the people of Sani find themselves at a crossroads, with a choice between short-term gain or long-term investment. According to Tío Orlando, one of our guides and a community leader (as well as a shaman), the community is split over whether to continue with a difficult and only somewhat successful ecotourism venture (the lodge) or to make the far easier and less time-consuming choice of awarding the highest bidder the concession that many oil companies have sought after for years.
The choice that the Sani community faces is not unlike the decisions that may confront Estero residents over the coming years as Estero too grows and develops. Unfortunately, there are more examples of rapid and reckless development than there are ones of slower, more controlled models of growth in Ecuador. And those communities that chose to prioritize short-term financial gain over all else did so at a price: the communities that they left behind are changed forever, and there is no turning back.
Yet in my next post I will profile one community that made a different choice, and is undeniably better for it. Agua Blanca serves as a model of community-based development in Ecuador and beyond; visiting this community provided me with a reason to be hopeful about the future of places like Estero.