Indigenous Ecotourism and Sustainable Development:
The Case of Río Blanco, Ecuador

David T. Schaller
Department of Geography
University of Minnesota

Section 4: The potential of Río Blanco's project as sustainable development

Scholars often seem to operate on the assumption that any analysis with a rosy outlook simply does not adequately understand the matter at hand. Ecotourism researchers have not been derelict in this regard, as the literature review earlier showed. All the researchers who have looked at Capirona's project, however, have been impressed by its grassroots nature and are optimistic about its potential as eco-development (Colvin 1994, Wesche 1993, Silver 1992).

All of these researchers, however, visited the community in its early years of operation. As mentioned previously, recent, non-scholarly reports are less positive. Thus there remains some doubt as to the long-term viability of even such a model of indigenous ecotourism development as Capirona. This study originally proposed to study Capirona's project, but that community was weary of such research visits and refused a request to carry out the study there. Río Blanco, though completing only its first year of ecotourism development, was chosen as an alternate site. Perhaps it should not be surprising that the prospects for ecotourism in Río Blanco appear, as they did in Capirona, quite bright.

Ecotourism as Development, Part One
Ecotourism development differs from mainstream development efforts in that, aside from start-up loans, much or all of the continuing financial support comes from tourists rather than from governments or development agencies. As a result, the two main players in any ecotourism endeavor--the hosts and the guests--are driven by differing motivations. The local population hopes to improve its own lot by taking advantage of the curiosity, disposable income, and in some cases, perhaps, good intentions of ecotourists. The tourists want to "explore the natural wonders of the world," whether that be a wildebeest migration across the Serengeti or the march of leaf-cutter ants across the jungle floor (Ryan and Grasse 1991:166)

In contrast to mass tourism, ecotourism permits tourists to seek educational self-fulfillment in the form of travel, and tries to transform that activity into something that benefits the greater good--specifically, to fund environmental preservation, rural development, and even cultural survival. However, in order to satisfy everyone--tourists, environmentalists, tour operators and the local hosts--ecotourism must bring into alignment a variety of contradictory purposes. Ecotourism promotes feelings among tourists that they are part of the solution when, in fact, the very act of flying a thousand miles or more to their destination consumes resources and pollutes the environment (cf. Somerville 1994). The beauty of ecotourism is that it can exploit this egotistic motivation; the flaw is that it is forever limited by it.

Even a brief foray into development literature, however, shows that flawed conceptualizations are the rule, not the exception. As development, ecotourism may be no more inchoate than any other approach, and in some ways it is as progressive as any theory. For example, ecotourism's twin development goals--conserving the environment and benefiting local peoples--are increasingly seen, both within and outside of tourism circles, as interdependent. Without economic development, many argue that environmental conservation is neither ethical nor sustainable (Boo 1990:1, West and Brechin 1992:14, Brandon and Wells 1992). Such conservation can be achieved only by "providing local people with alternative income sources which do not threaten to deplete the plants and animals within" the protected zone (Brandon and Wells 1992:557). Most research on this issue, however, assumes that the protective regulations have been established by the government or another external agency. In Río Blanco, however, the people themselves are already acting to protect their land.

Of course, local initiative and control does not guarantee preservation of the remaining resources. Some researchers believe it is crucial that the linkages between the project and environmental conservation be explicit. The new development strategy should be understood to replace income from resource use, not just supplement it (Brandon and Wells 1992). Otherwise, resource exploitation will continue even as the people take advantage of the new income opportunity. Many development planners "implicitly assume that poor households have a fixed income and if that need can be met then the poor will stop their environmentally destructive practices" (ibid.). Such a strategy may constitute conservation (assuming restrictions on resource use can be enforced), but it does not constitute development. It is merely substitution.

In Río Blanco, few respondents offered such an explicit link between ecotourism and conservation (Table 5.1). Of the thirteen usable responses to a question about the goals of the ecotourism project, only four linked it to protecting the forest or the land, and only one of these explicitly said it was to replace agricultural income.1 Most of the remaining nine said that the goal was to "earn money," to "improve our lives" or to "develop the community," which may or may not include forest conservation. Income from ecotourism was almost universally used for daily essentials such as food, clothing and supplies, though two respondents had purchased tin roofs for their homes with their earnings. With future earnings, one respondent hoped to build an outhouse for his family, and another planned to build a house in the center of the community so his children would be close to the school.2

Table 5.1.--Purpose of Ecotourism Project
Improve/advance our lives 4
Protect land/forest 3
Earn money 3
Replace agricultural income 1
Develop community 1
Revive culture 1

If conservation is enforced without a clear understanding of this linkage, the local people may not feel like they are benefiting from the development project; after all, they have no more money now than they did before the project began. Thus, to satisfy local demands for development, a project must not only supplant the income from resource use. There has to be the opportunity for a net gain over the existing situation. This gain should not be measured solely in income, however, but with a comprehensive review of the costs and benefits of ecotourism development.

The Benefits and Costs of Ecotourism Development
By its nature and definition, ecotourism development restricts the choices and opportunities of the people living in the destination area (Sherman and Dixon 1991). If working properly, of course, it also benefits them, but in many cases around the world these benefits do not outweigh the costs. While the case study of Río Blanco does not provide data of sufficient depth or accuracy to conduct a formal cost-benefit analysis, it is worthwhile to consider these benefits and costs, and their distribution, to better understand the project's viability.

Ecotourism's close integration with social and biological structures makes it particularly important to consider both financial and nonmonetary (i.e., social and environmental welfare) impacts of a project. Costs include direct costs, which require financial outlays, as well as indirect costs, which affect the surrounding environment, and opportunity costs, which preclude other activities (Sherman and Dixon 1991). In Río Blanco, direct costs include the loans which the community arranged with FOIN, and fifty-one mingas to construct trails, bridges, and tourist cabins. Río Blanco was able to repay its loans within a year, but several other RINCANCIE communities which have received few tourists continue to put all earnings toward their loans.

The indirect costs of ecotourism development are a matter of concern for many researchers, who have found cases of trail erosion and land and water pollution (Hunter and Green 1995). Other indirect costs may include impacts on local cultural, economic, and political structures (Place 1991, Dearden 1991). The small scale and local control of Río Blanco's project appears, so far at least, to have kept these costs at a minimum. The relatively small number of tourists means that trail erosion is minimal and probably less damaging to the soil than the forest-clearing which might occur in the absence of the ecotourism project. Furthermore, since tourists must hike in to the community, few pack more than they require and thus have little trash to leave behind. Solid waste is taken care of by the latrine near the tourist cabins, a more ecological solution than the toilets used by most members, which flow directly into the Río Blanco and the Río Huambuno.

Matters of cultural and social change are more difficult to evaluate at this stage of the project's development. As discussed earlier, ecotourism development can dramatically affect local customs, either by further acculturating locals to regional or even international styles, or by reviving traditional ways (Healy and Zorn 1983, Dearden and Harron 1994, Weil 1995). The hopes of some members of Río Blanco to reintroduce traditional Quichua music to community events suggests that the latter may occur. Other incidents, such as an exchange between a tourist and the guide of an elaborate U.S.-made knife for a simple knife of sentimental value, indicate another kind of influence that visitors may have on the community. Furthermore, while Río Blanco has incorporated the ecotourism project into its existing political structure, the example of another RINCANCIE community which has split over potential benefits from tourism indicates that local control is not a panacea. Such an indirect cost can prove far more devastating to a community than more obvious direct costs such as loans and communal work days.

Opportunity costs are not only a facet of ecotourism development, they are integral to its goals. An ecotourism project such as Río Blanco's can succeed only if the people of the community choose to forsake expanded resource use in favor of tourism work. Most respondents were aware of the choices involved. For example, those respondents who said that the prohibition on hunting was due to tourism (50 percent) expressed no regret about the matter, though this may be because, as other respondents said, there weren't enough animals left to make hunting worth the effort.

The choice (or linkage) between agricultural expansion and ecotourism is more crucial to both the people of the community and the project itself. The majority of mostly male respondents (eighteen out of twenty-three) said that, if they needed to earn more money, they would prefer to receive more tourists than clear more forested land for agriculture. For many of these respondents, the opportunity costs of ecotourism development were low. Ten male respondents volunteered to say that tourism is easier work than clearing forest and planting crops. Eight respondents noted that, by preserving the forest, they were able to pass on to their children a healthier environment. (Most of the rest simply said that they needed to protect the forest in order to attract tourists.)

However, even some of those who preferred tourism over increased agriculture were still planning to expand their crop hectarage. Almost half of all male respondents (ten out of twenty-one) said that they were planning to clear more forest--an average of 2.5 hectares--for both subsistence and commercial crops. Most respondents simply did not yet trust such a new and peculiar business as ecotourism to provide for their family. "I don't know that tourism will leave anything for me and my family, but I know that agriculture will," said a woman in her thirties. Some believed that agriculture pays more than tourism per hour of work, which is undoubtedly true if the mingas are included.3 Tourism is harder work than agriculture, others said. For a male respondent, time devoted to tourism was merely time taken from agricultural work; "I can't work in my fields when tourists are here." Though a third of these forest-clearing respondents noted that they intended to clear only secondary forest, others still preferred primary forest for its better soil.

With these differences in mind, it seems that the community's current agreement about ecotourism may fracture if forest conservation is stressed as a fundamental goal of the project. Some members may balk if the opportunity costs of ecotourism development prevent them from managing their own land as they wish. Even for a people with a growing conservationist mindset as in Río Blanco, such a restriction may be seen as undermining their ability to live off the land--the very reason most members migrated to the community.

These concerns might be ameliorated if economic formulae could determine that earnings from each tourist were equal to--and thus could replace--x square meters of commercial agriculture, or that every hectare of primary forest was worth y tourist dollars. Such analyses have been performed in Kenya and found, for example, that one elephant is worth about $14,375 a year or $900,000 over the course of its life (Olindo 1991). However, the attraction of tropical forests such as Río Blanco's is not so discrete. "Most parks in Latin America can be experienced only by becoming part of them, walking through them, to observe the overwhelming diversity of plant and insect life" (Boo 1990:16). A single tree is valuable only in the context of the forest and the animal and plant life it helps support.

Even calculating how many hectares of agriculture the existing tourist flow might replace is fraught with difficulties. First, there is the danger of assuming that members are satisfied with their current income and will not use tourism earnings to supplement income from the ongoing agricultural expansion. Second, the earnings from one hectare of commercial agriculture vary depending on the crop and the farmer. On averge, one hectare can produces about $66. One hundred tourist-visits, then, are roughly equivalent to one hectare of commercial agriculture per member family.

Even if this figure was known to be accurate, it does not reflect the distribution of the costs of tourism development. While tourism earnings are distributed equally to all members, the amount of land in agriculture is not uniform. Large families have more hectares in cultivation than small families and could more easily live on their existing cultivations. As long as every member has fifteen hectares of potential agriculture, every member can consider himself equal to the others. But even slowing the community's deforestation rate would disrupt this equality, affecting members with small farms more seriously than those with large farms. Maintaining the sense of fairness crucial to the project's communal control may mean that the project's other goal of forest conservation takes the back seat.

In many economies, growth is widely seen as the answer to concerns about inequity. In Río Blanco, growth of the ecotourism project will earn each member more money but, in light of member wishes and other limitations, it is unlikely to replace all agricultural earning. As the key benefit of the project, however, current and potential tourism earnings bear examination.

As noted previously, each member family earned about $100 from 150 tourists in 1995. Nearly all respondents surveyed said that they hope to receive about twice as many tourists in the coming year. Regional comparisons may help put these tourist rates in context: Capirona receives 700 tourists per year;, and a single Quichua family which has its own ecotourism project west of Tena receives 150 tourists per year.

If 300 tourists visit Río Blanco in 1996, annual tourism earnings per family will, roughly, rise from 18 percent to 30 percent of the mean household income of $547 (Table 5.2). These figures are very approximate since, being based on respondent interviews, there was no way to verify any income data except that regarding the tourism project itself.4 Respondents did not consult any records except those in their own memory when giving income information. Nevertheless, even approximate data such as these indicate the significant role that ecotourism earnings can play in household economies. If other activities such as commercial agriculture remained the same, a doubling of tourist arrivals could increase the ecotourism's economic role to almost one-third of the median family income. While grossly simplified, these figures do indicate the economic potential of even small-scale community-based ecotourism projects. Three hundred tourists per year, if most come in groups of 15 of so as the community wants, average out to only 1.6 groups per month (though of course more will come in July and August). By almost any measure, Río Blanco's aspirations are modest, and yet due to its community control the project has the potential to notably raise family income.

Table 5.2.--Mean Household Income by Economic Activity
Cash Crops Tourism Project Tourist Crafts Other* Total
1995 Actual $400 (73%) $100 (18%) $20 (4%) $27 (5%) $547
1996 Potential $400 (60%) $200 (30%) $40 (6%) $27 (4%) $667
*Other economic activities include small-scale logging, clothes laundering, and gold panning.
Source: Respondent interviews

With benefits as with costs, distribution is a key aspect to any evaluation. This is particularly important here since tourism has historically benefited multinational and metropolitan service providers (airlines, hotels, tour agencies), permitting most of the tourist income to leak away from the local population of the tourist destination (Lea 1988). Leakage of Río Blanco's tourist income is minimal, since the community collects almost all of the daily rate paid by tourists (RINCANCIE takes a small percentage for office overhead). Goods purchased with this income are both for the tourism project and for the members' own use and typically consist of household items and food, almost all of which are regionally or at very least domestically made. While the question of the multiplier is outside the scope of this case study, it would seem to be fairly high. One dollar from tourism revenues, for example, might be spent on a T-shirt or rubber boots, which contributes to the shopkeeper's income, regional transportation services, and the Ecuadorian manufacturer. Even the percentage taken by RINCANCIE remains within the region, since that money primarily goes for office salaries and expenses. Of course, a large proportion of a tourist's total expenditures pays for airfare, but most of her expenditures at Río Blanco are recycled through the regional economy.

Along with these monetary benefits, ecotourism can provide a host of qualitative benefits. Sherman and Dixon (1991:95) offer a list which includes watershed protection, biodiversity and ecological preservation, education, and both consumptive (medicines and building materials) and nonconsumptive (aesthetic and spiritual) benefits. Many members of Río Blanco are as aware of these benefits as of the financial ones. One woman boasted that primary forest still remained along virtually all of the community's shoreline on the Río Huambuno, a rarity in the region. Several other respondents repeatedly mentioned that Río Blanco was known internationally for its expertise in medicinal plants. The ecotourism project may well bolster such pride in local knowledge and resources, benefiting the residents themselves as well as the resources and the visitors who come to learn about them. In this sense, these nonmonetary benefits are widely distributed, and though they are difficult to quantify, they are valuable to local residents as well as outsiders.

Ecotourism as Development, Part Two
Many researchers have found cases of ecotourism development in which the benefits do not seem to outweigh the costs, but for the moment, at least, the people of Río Blanco believe that ecotourism is worth pursuing. Many of the tourists surveyed, however, were not as sure. While they were generally satisfied with their visit to the community, some questioned the wisdom of ecotourism as a development strategy. "I have no idea [why they developed it]," said one. "If I were them, I wouldn't do it. I don't understand how it could help them, besides giving them money." Money, of course, is the driving factor, but the question lingers whether, for Río Blanco, ecotourism is appropriate development. For other indigenous groups in Ecuador's Oriente such as the Huaorani, tourism has played a large role in the deculturation process by speeding their incorporation into the cash economy (R. Smith 1993:235). The Huaorani, however, have only recently had contact with the national culture. The lowland Quichua, on the other hand, have had a long history of contact and for centuries have successfully adapted to new cultural and economic influences (Whitten 1981:142).

This history runs counter to the belief that appropriate development must be exclusively drawn from established indigenous methods. Bebbington (1993) argues that true "alternative" development need be neither purely indigenous nor wholly agro-ecological nor otherwise "green" if the goals include local control of development and cultural revalorization. "If grassroots control, rather than technological content, gives strategy its 'alternative' character, what matters is not whether agricultural development strategies are endogenous, but whether they are locally controlled." Whether speaking strictly of agricultural or ecotourism development, the question remains the same: Is it possible to sustain an ethnically distinct identity on the basis of transformed and modernized livelihood strategies?

Though he does not use the term "authenticity," Bebbington is as concerned as any tourist with the concept. He finds that for many Quichua "ethnic identity will be grounded in other social, cultural and linguistic practices and not in traditional technology." Similarly, for the people of Río Blanco, ethnic identity is drawn from the cultural and physical environment, not from traditional economic activities (Table 5.3).

Table 5.3.--Most important aspect of Quichua life and culture
Quichua language or bilingualism 10
The forest/To live in the forest 12
To live on Quichua land 2
Arts/Culture 2

All respondents said that the ecotourism project was either fortifying these aspects of Quichua life, or that it had no effect on them. None believed that ecotourism harmed or weakened them. Furthermore, many respondents cited the ecotourism project as an example of the way that life in the community had improved in the past ten years. Ecotourism is seen by some as part of a wave of recent changes which have strengthened the position of the Quichua in contemporary Ecuadorian society. Other, generally more important, changes include the acquisition of legal land tenure, the establishment of bilingualism in government schools, and increasing levels of health and education among community members.

Every respondent but one said that life in Río Blanco was better in 1995 than it had been ten years earlier. The sole dissenter was a member who lives in Tena and returns to the community for only a few days a month. He, along with several other Quichua from Tena or other Napo communities who were asked this question, said either that life was now worse due to a dilution of Quichua culture, or that the current situation was better in some ways but worse in others. For example, all children now have access to elementary education, but this schooling takes them away from their families and in some cases encourages them to abandon the Quichua language and other traditional ways.

These respondents offer an interesting contrast to the views of Río Blanco respondents, since they live in towns or communities which lie within or close to the provincial road network. Río Blanco's relative isolation may have protected it from deeper degradations of Quichua culture, or it may have only delayed their arrival. In the view of some tourism researchers, ecotourism development is precisely the tool which may accelerate the coming of such cultural changes. By increasing contact with provincial centers to build and improve the physical facilities, with national centers to establish legal rights, and with international centers to attract tourists, ecotourism development may well erode Río Blanco's remaining isolation.

Threats to Ecotourism's Sustainability
The effects of such acculturation are complex and profound, but unfortunately lie outside the scope of this paper. Within the context of ecotourism development, such changes, along with increased forest degradation, may eventually damage Río Blanco's appeal as a tourist attraction. Farther downstream, to the east, lies more pristine rain forest with higher concentrations of animal and bird life, along with less acculturated native peoples. It is plausible that the wave of tourist activity might abandon Río Blanco for more "authentic" sites near Coca. Some local observers, however, believe this will not happen. Randy Smith, a Canadian who has worked with the Huaorani for five years in their struggle to ward off outside exploitation by petroleum, timber and tourism interests, and recently to develop internal tourism projects, believes that the Tena/Misahuallí region is rising in popularity. Tourism destinations in the Coca region are expensive and remote. Many low-budget tourists merely want to see "the jungle" and have neither the time nor the money to patronize luxury nature lodges (R. Smith 1995).

A great many other factors will also affect the fate of Río Blanco's project. Obviously, management practices within the community and, more broadly, RINCANCIE, will affect the success of the project. For example, at least one tour operator in Quito and one in North America have stopped taking groups to Capirona or other community-based ecotourism destinations in the Oriente because they could not rely on the communities. Either due to disorganization or design, the communities occasionally refused to accept groups. While the communities may simply be trying to protect themselves from overvisitation, such decisions complicate the work of tour operators who must often plan their trips a year in advance (Winslow 1995).

Even more, a range of external factors from international currency fluctuations to political instability to rain forest chic affects Napo tourism. No matter how firmly Río Blanco controls its ecotourism project, a community of 125 Quichua in rural Ecuador has little power to influence events and moods elsewhere in the world. For example, for many years Ecuador benefited from its neighbors' political troubles, as tourists were frightened away from Peru and Colombia by the reputations of the terrorist group Shining Path in the former and cocaine traffickers in the latter. However, Peru is seeing an increase in tourist arrivals since the government jailed the leader of Shining Path, and Ecuador's tourist visitation may suffer as a result (Fabricant 1995). Furthermore, the brief war between Peru and Ecuador has been linked to a 20 percent downturn in tourism in the Oriente (CETER 1995). A fall 1995 strike in the Galapagos Islands may also hurt tourism throughout the country.

Prevailing tourist moods also affect the success or failure of particular ecotourism projects. In the past decade, a profusion of books and articles have glamorized the tropical rain forest, spurring travel to such places and the growth of nature tourism in general (Whelan 1991:7). Few ecotourists, however, visit the same destination twice, a point Urry (1990:46) highlights in his analysis of what he calls the tourist gaze: "the initial gaze is what counts." Furthermore, some researchers active in tropical forest conservation and environmental education believe that tropical forest tourism has crested and will soon begin to subside (Neill 1995). Río Blanco has been able to take advantage of the current travel fashion, but it may be less fortunate when tourist fancies change.

While some scholars believe such a collapse of ecotourism initiatives is part of their natural life-cycle, others believe that ecotourism development may be merely "the thin edge of the wedge" (Butler 1992). According to this latter theory, small-scale projects introduce tourists to an area, and publicity and word-of-mouth fuel increasing levels of tourist demand. Increased demand encourages larger-scale projects to move in, leading to mass tourism, a loss of local control, and the end of any hopes for ecotourism's sustainability.

The Means and the Ends
Sustainability, however, may not be the ultimate goal. Tarquino Tapuy, RINCANCIE's ecotourism coordinator, also uses the notion of a wedge when talking of ecotourism development. He too sees ecotourism as a tool to pry open communities, but not to expanded tourism development. Though he helped design Capirona's ecotourism project and remains prominent in Quichua ecotourism development, he does not consider himself a champion of tourism. Rather, he sees it merely as a temporary necessity.

The Quichua, according to Tapuy, historically have never had need to think about development. "The forest gives you clothes," he says, "it gives you food, it gives you medicines, it gives you knowledge, it gives you everything." However, increasing penetration of Ecuadorian society in the Oriente has altered the Quichua way of life, driving the indigenous people to destroy the forest which has long supported them. Commercial agriculture, he says, is not the answer because soils produce poorly and the market exploits the indigenous peoples. More fundamentally, the Quichua have no skills in dealing with money. "The Indian thinks that money, when you have it, is to eat, to buy, to dance.... This is a great problem of ours. There is no accumulation of wealth."

Business skills are not easily developed in a rural Quichua community, forestalling ambitious projects such as one sponsored by FOIN to sell timber to England and the United States. "Ecotourism is something easier," says Tapuy. "More manageable. All we have to do is make some paths--the tourists come on their own power." With such relatively modest projects as Río Blanco's, the Quichua can learn a variety of skills necessary to succeed in a capitalist economy. "The money comes and they have to learn how to manage it.... It's practice for the indigenous people to learn how to administer money." And at the same time, they will be protecting the forest. "They don't clear the forest because they have to show it to the tourists. They have to consider the animals because similarly they have to tell the tourists that, yes, there are animals here."

With skills and capital from ecotourism, the Quichua will be able to develop other projects. Some communities in the area, for example, have mineral deposits suitable for making cement. "With the earnings from tourism," says Tapuy, "they can build small hand-operated ovens which can be run by just a couple of families. Then they can make cement blocks." He believes that such small-scale enterprises are the key to Quichua autonomy and survival. If ecotourism can be the stimulus to such activity, it will not matter if it withers afterwards. Quichua life and culture are what must be sustained, not any individual industry.

There are risks to such a strategy. Though tourism may be merely a bridge to other types of development, abandoning it could prove difficult even if its costs eventually outweigh its benefits. Many locals, warn some scholars, will have developed a vested interest in tourism by that time and act according to their own agenda rather than the community's (Brechin et al. 1991:22).

It may be that the best answer to this matter, as to so many others which Río Blanco and RINCANCIE have considered, remains communal control. Of course, it alone is not a panacea for ecotourism's potential ill-effects, nor it is a simple prescription for other communities around the world which may not be as small nor as close-knit as those of the lowland Quichua. The model which RINCANCIE has established in Napo may best serve as an inspiration rather than as a blueprint for worldwide ecotourism development.

1 The low response rate stems from cultural and linguistic differences which, due to the relatively brief duration of the fieldwork, I was unable to surmount.
2 No respondents referred to alcohol as a possible use of the money, though one, when asked about his fears regarding ecotourism development, worried that the cash payments to members would allow some to buy liquor more easily.
3 The majority of respondents did not seem to factor in the mingas, however, apparently considering mingas for tourism to be like mingas for other purposes--that is, unpaid work which was a responsibility of all community members.
4 By way of context, the national government's minimum annual wage is about $400; with benefits it rises to $1650.


to Ecotourism Research Home Page
to Río Blanco Summary Page
to Río Blanco Appendix