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

David T. Schaller
Department of Geography
University of Minnesota

Section 1: The Community of Río Blanco, Ecuador

Amazon Even more than is the case with most industries, tourism is intimately associated with place. The place, and the people who live and work there, are not only the providers of the goods and services related to tourism, they are also the product--that which attracts tourists to visit this place instead of another. Thus, even with conventional mass tourism, the geography, economy and culture of a tourist destination are central to any study of the tourism enterprise there. Place takes on even greater importance in ecotourism, since any such project must be carefully integrated into the local economy and culture in order to minimize negative impacts and maximize benefits. Río Blanco's location in Napo Province in the Ecuadorian Amazon is of great significance not only to the origin of its ecotourism project but to its potential as well.

Physical and Human Geography of Napo Province
Napo Province is one of five provinces in Ecuador's Amazonian region, or Oriente, and shares with its neighboring provinces a tropical climate and biogeography (Figure 2.1). With the exception of the cloud forest along the province's western edge, Napo is characterized by equatorial rainforest typical of the vast Amazon basin (Caviedes and Knapp 1995). Historically, Napo Province has the longest record of Hispanic settlement of any Oriente province, though even this is minimal compared to Ecuador's highland and coastal regions. The Oriente accounts for nearly one-third of Ecuador's land area but only 4 percent of its total population; Napo itself is home to over one-fourth of this population. The 103,000 people who live in the province belong to two main groups: about 40 percent are indigenous peoples who have long occupied the area, and the balance are colonists from other provinces who have recently migrated to the jungle (Griffin 1993:12). Lowland Quichua account for the majority of the indigenous population while most colonists are peasant farmers of Spanish or mestizo heritage.

Figure 2.1.--The Oriente of Ecuador
Ecuador's Oriente

Though oil production plays a large role in the national economy and the national consciousness, its greatest impacts within the Oriente have been social and environmental rather than economic. Particularly in upper Napo Province, where oil activity is currently limited to exploration, agriculture dominates the economy and, increasingly, the landscape. Sixty-four percent of the province's population work in agriculture or cattle ranching (Griffin 1993:21). Though Napo's production accounts for less than five percent of the national agricultural sector in volume, the province produces significant proportions of several crops, such as tea, naranjilla, manioc, palm oil and coffee. From 1983 to 1986, the area under agricultural production in Napo Province tripled, increasing from 19,646 hectares to 65,300 hectares (Hicks 1990:11). This rapid expansion of Napo agriculture accounts for much of Ecuador's deforestation rate; at 2.3 percent annually, it is higher than either Peru's (0.4 percent) or Colombia's (1.7 percent) (Long 1992).

Many of the crops which replace these forests are grown on monoculture plantations for the export market (Hicks 1990:39). The lowland Quichua typically practice more traditional agricultural systems such as subsistence or a mixed system of subsistence and cash crops. However, colonists are increasingly threatening these indigenous systems with cattle ranching and monoculture, both adapted from practices in their homes in the highlands or coast (Fundaci¸n Natura 1988:43). Particularly in the Tena-Archidona area, colonist inmigration puts increasing pressures on the local Quichua, whose average cultivable plot of fourteen hectares compares poorly to the forty or fifty hectares which the government grants to colonists (Muratorio 1991:180). Such forces, along with high rates of natural increase among both the Quichua and the colonists, cause families to continually subdivide their land until individual parcels are too small to support a household.

The Association of Río Blanco
In the late 1960s and 1970s, many Quichua families in the Tena-Archidona area were feeling the land pressures brought on by agricultural settlers as well as cultural pressures from missionaries and the tide of mestizo colonization. Colonization was coming from the west along arterial lines of roads and rivers; to the east lay relatively unpopulated land, and many Quichua families began migrating in that direction.

After helping other Quichua establish communities in the lightly populated county of Ahuano, one young Quichua man and his family organized a community for themselves. By selling their cattle and growing corn for the market for over a year, they saved enough money to purchase a block of land. They located several parcels owned by four mestizo farmers along the Ríos Huambuno and Blanco. The nascent community purchased these parcels along with an additional block of 934 hectares downstream on the Río Bueno, because there was not enough high-quality forest land available in Ahuano county for each member-family to have fifty hectares, which even the government considered the minimum for a family lot.1 An individual or family paid about $160 to join the community (followed by annual dues of about one dollar) and was granted sixteen hectares in the main block of land on the Río Huambuno and an additional thirty-four hectares in the Río Bueno block. On January 17, 1971, the Association of Río Blanco was officially founded.

Case Study Methods: Quichua Interviews
Virtually all the information presented in this paper about Río Blanco was gathered during fieldwork in the community in September and October 1995. Much of the data was collected in formal interviews with adult men and women of the community. Because of the small size of the community, a total enumeration rather than random sample of the adult population was sought. While this was not accomplished due to time and cultural restrictions, a male representative of all but one of the community's twenty-two households in residence was interviewed. Interviewing women proved more problematic and only nine women from twenty-two households were surveyed, usually with an abbreviated interview schedule. About two-thirds of the interviews were conducted with the help of a local man who served as guide and, when necessary, Spanish-Quichua interpreter.

The interview schedule consisted of seventy-four questions on topics including land use activities, hunting, diet, involvement in the ecotourism project, and perceptions of the land, the forest, and tourism. Several questions dealing with more abstract concepts such as development and authenticity were asked of only a few respondents due to cultural and linguistic barriers.

The relatively brief duration of fieldwork in Río Blanco (just under a month) meant that much information was not thoroughly corroborated, and a great deal more relevant information was never collected. Much of the data should be considered somewhat "soft," not only because of these limitations but because respondent knowledge may be to some extent unreliable or inaccurate, and most probably is inconsistent between respondents.

For example, the maps depicting lot boundaries and locations of cultivation within lots are closer to illustrative sketches than official plats. Every respondent (with two exceptions not relevant here) claimed to have a lot measuring 200 meters by 800 meters, yet, in order to fit into the government's plat of the community, lots could be only 180 meters by 700 meters. Respondents explained this discrepancy by saying that they measured distance by pacing it off on foot while the government used surveying instruments. Due to the rugged terrain, the local method produced larger measurements than the government's method. To accommodate these differences, maps and tables in this paper reduce every areal value given by respondents by 10 percent. While this method of prorating undoubtedly distorts the actual layout of the community, it seemed the most straightforward solution short of personally demarcating the entire community.

Despite such problems with the data, several broad trends involving population growth and agricultural expansion appear clear, and it is on these that this paper concentrates. For example, while individual data about agriculture are approximate, taken as a whole they reveal changes in Quichua life which are corroborated by other information regarding income, family size, and diet. Additional qualifications and limitations about specific data are discussed at the appropriate place in the text.

The Struggle for Land Tenure
Land is the organizing principle around which Río Blanco was founded, and which has attracted all its members. However, until the 1990s the community's title to its land was insecure. Land reform laws passed in the 1960s and 1970s undermined indigenous claims to land. Fallow land and primary forest were designated as unclaimed; not only could the owners of such land not gain or keep title to it, but the government encouraged colonists to settle such land, particularly in the Oriente, and clear it. By law, the first step in the process of obtaining a title to a piece of land was deforestation (Uquillas 1984:277).

In the 1970s and 1980s, the people of Río Blanco typically cultivated less than one hectare of their lot at a time, leaving another hectare in fallow for a year or two and the remaining hectares in primary forest. In order to fight for their land, the community joined the Federaci¸n de Organizaciones IndÔgenas del Napo (FOIN). The founding purpose of FOIN and other Ecuadorian indigenous federations was to gain secure land tenure for Ecuador's native peoples. Racism and cultural arrogance on the part of government officials slowed the progress of FOIN and the other indigenous federations toward gaining land titles for their organizations (Vickers 1984:19). Río Blanco was not granted its title until 1992, when in the last days of his administration President Rodrigo Borja Cevallos granted 1.2 million hectares of land to Amazonian Indians in order to end the escalating hostilities between the government and indigenous federations (Farah 1992).

While the people of Río Blanco were engaged in this struggle to secure their land from outside threats, they were also forging economic links with Napo's colonist population. In 1982 a path was cut between Ríos Blanco and Napo, greatly reducing the time required to reach a market town. Via the new path, however, the Río Napo was less than an hour's walk away from the center of the community. From there a canoe could be hailed for the twenty-minute journey to the market town of Puerto Misahuallí.

The opening of this new path dramatically altered members' relationships with and perceptions of the outside world. They began cultivating cash crops such as coffee and cacao, which were easily hauled to market for sale to the mestizo population and, in a few cases, to be exported. They were more easily able to send a comisi¸n or delegation to Tena in order to learn about an issue of importance to the community. These delegations, composed of several members, were dedicated to a variety of topics such as natural medicines, improving the school, hiring another teacher, community health, and eventually tourism.

A Growing Community
By the mid-1980s, inmigration to Río Blanco had virtually ceased, yet the community continued to grow. Many children of existing members joined as members in their own right when they married and began having children. By 1995 the population reached 120. The community had thirty official members, and all but one of the twenty-two member-families in residence had children.2 The average household size was six and notably young. Twenty percent of Río Blanco's population was less than five years old in 1995, compared to 16 percent for the province (Griffin 1993:13) and 13 percent for the country (G¸mez 1994:76). Such high growth rates have forced the people of Río Blanco to place increasing demands on the land and natural environment of the community.

The Expansion of Agriculture
Napo Quichua have historically employed a slash-and-mulch system of swidden agriculture, they utilize the land's "lush natural vegetation to release the nitrogen, phosphoric acid, and potash through decay of leaves, stems, vines and wood, to planted crops, while allowing other forest areas to restore themselves in a cyclical fallow" (Whitten 1981:143). In Río Blanco, strict reliance on such subsistence practices lasted only ten years, from the founding of the community until the early 1980s. Then, with the opening of the new path to the Río Napo, families began planting cash crops such as cacao, coffee and rice, and also planted more maize to have some to sell at the market. This activity has paralleled agricultural change in Napo and the greater Oriente as well, where most Quichua now cultivate cash crops as well as subsistence crops (MacDonald et al. 1993:11).

Driving this expansion into commercial agriculture was a complex of changes occurring locally, regionally and nationally. As described above, the population of Río Blanco was growing, initially through inmigration but by the 1980s primarily through natural increase. Members without children or with only a young child or two had little need for money; they could usually support themselves on subsistence cropping. As they had more children, however, and as their children grew in age, the needs of the family increased. School supplies, along with other goods such as clothing and tools, became increasingly important to members in the 1980s and required a cash income.

Even as such needs increased over time, the subsistence resources from the forest became increasingly scarce. Ahuano County, which had been lightly populated when Río Blanco was founded, was thoroughly settled by the 1980s. This regional population, growing through inmigration and natural increase, greatly stressed the ecosystem. As Napo Quichua continued their traditional hunting and fishing practices, they soon extirpated such staples of the Quichua diet as monkeys, wild pigs, rabbits, deer, and most birds and fish of any size.

With hunting becoming less productive, the people of Río Blanco had to grow more crops for sustenance. Nearly all respondents reported a change in diet over the past few years, and particularly since childhood. Except for an occasional chicken or fish (from the Pacific coast!), meat has almost vanished from the plate. Instead, families eat more rice, which, along with eggs and beans, complement the traditional crop staples of manioc, plantain, potatoes, chili pepper, and chicha (a beer made from fermented manoic or maize). Some members also regularly buy sardines and pasta noodles in Misahuallí.

Also, as the people of Río Blanco became increasingly integrated into the national economy through the sale of cash crops and the purchase of goods and services, they were increasingly affected by events at the national and even international scale. The economic crisis that struck South America in the 1980s did not spare Ecuador. Oil prices fell throughout the decade. In 1987, an earthquake destroyed the pipeline carrying crude oil from the Oriente to the coast, further damaging the economy. A contraction in the agricultural market worsened conditions (Kurian 1992:534). The inflation rate hit 52 percent in 1983 and the government began a series of devaluations of the sucre, Ecuador's national currency (ibid.:535). As a result, the cost of living increased for all Ecuadorians. Between 1980 and 1994, real income dropped by half. Thus, in addition to other factors such as growing families and deteriorating hunting, the people of Río Blanco found it necessary to plant more cash crops every year simply to maintain their income levels.

In the past 15 years, the amount of land under cultivation in Río Blanco has increased dramatically. In 1980, virtually all cultivation was dedicated to such staple subsistence crops as manioc and plantain, along with a variety of supplemental crops such as papaya, pineapple, peanuts, beans and chili peppers. Based on interviews with representatives of nearly all of the commuity's twenty-two households, the mean number of hectares in cultivation per family rose by 55 percent between 1990 and 1995, from 1.9 to 3.0.

As noted previously, these figures are at best approximate. Furthermore, crude hectarage does not necessarily reveal agricultural productivity. One-third of respondents noted that one hectare in cultivation produced more in 1995 than it did in 1990 because, with more children, they could work it more intensively, while another third said that it produced less due to decreasing soil quality. (The remainder reported no change.) All these variables make it difficult to make any generalizations about the data. Nevertheless, it seems safe to say that recent years have seen a widespread, statistically significant expansion of land in cultivation (Figure 2.3).

The Growth of Agriculture

As dramatic as Río Blanco's population growth has been, its agricultural expansion has been even more pronounced. The population of the community grew by about 20 percent between 1990 and 1995, while the amount of land in agriculture increased by 55 percent. Many of the new hectares under cultivation were not for domestic consumption but to earn money to support the family, a shift which, along with the decline of hunting, has greatly altered the community's traditional agrarian ways. The land use map (Figure 2.3) depicts the distribution of forest and agriculture in the community as of 1995. Since some members may mix subsistence and commercial crops within a field, this map should be considered an illustrative sketch rather than an official plat. Furthermore, because information is based on interviews with members, it is only as accurate as the perceptions of individual respondents.

Figure 2.3.--Land Use in Río Blanco
Rio Blanco Land Use

*See text for discussion of map accuracy
Sources: Community boundary map from Ecuadorian Institute for Agrarian Reform and Colonization (IERAC) Lot boundaries and land use information from respondent interviews

As noted previously, subsistence crops primarily consist of manioc and plantain, along with an assortment of other fruits and vegetables. Rice, which is often grown both to sell and for family consumption, may be planted alone or among the manioc and plantain. Cash crops include cacao and coffee and account for a large proportion of the recent expansion of agriculture. In the community as a whole, there was more land in commercial agriculture in 1995 than in all agriculture in 1990 (Table 2.1).

Table 2.1.--Total Community Land in Agriculture
(in hectares>
Subsistence Crops - 15 -
Cash Crops - 44 -
Total 38 59 55%

Using the community or even the household as a unit of measure ignores differences in family size, which has been a key factor in the expansion of agriculture. While normalizing agricultural hectarage by family member risks draining the social complexity from the situation in favor of statistical simplicity, it can help illustrate the dynamics of agricultural expansion. For example, in 1995, about four times as much land was cultivated per person in cash crops as in subsistence crops (Table 2.2). Even assuming some error, this 4:1 ratio indicates the degree to which the community has become invested in the market economy.

Table 2.2.--Median Area Under Cultivation per Family Member
(in hectares)
1990 1995 Increase
Subsistence - .10
Commercial - .42
Total .28 .48 71%

According to respondents, under ideal conditions, 4/10 of a hectare can earn about $50 from cacao, $90 from rice or maize, or $100 from coffee.3 Conditions are rarely ideal, of course. In 1995, 4/10 of a hectare of commercial agriculture in Río Blanco produced a median annual income of about $28 before expenses.4 The disparity may be due to a variety of factors. Income data are particularly suspect when, as was the case in Río Blanco, accurate recordkeeping did not inform respondents' answers. Variation in these data is much greater than for questions regarding land use, with a standard deviation of $89 and a range of $373. For this reason, these figures are at best rough outlines of the income range.

Another factor affecting yield is the quality of the soil. When choosing a plot of land to clear for cultivation, most members of Río Blanco prefer primary forest since its soil produces higher yields and fewer weeds. Between 1990 and 1995, the community as a whole cleared more than 34 hectares of primary forest (Table 2.3). Individually, members cleared an average of 1.5 hectares of primary forest for an annual rate of deforestation within member-owned land of 2.1 percent.5 If this rate of deforestation continues, the average lot will be cleared of all primary forest by the year 2013.

Table 2.3.--Land Use and Vegetation Change 1990 - 1995
Average Family Lot All Land in Community
19901995 19901995
21% 28% 11% 16%
Primary Forest 37% 27% 58% 48%
Secondary Forest 41% 45% 31% 36%

In contrast to many settlements in Napo, both Quichua and colonist, deforestation in Río Blanco is not due to cattle ranching. In 1995, only four families (20 percent) of the twenty surveyed owned cattle, usually one or two head. However, many members hope to purchase one or two cattle if they can accumulate sufficient money. Every family which currently has cattle expressed a desire to buy more if it became financially possible, as did another six (30 percent) of those surveyed who currently have no cattle. Only four (20 percent) said that they had no interest in ever owning cattle. (Six respondents--30 percent--were uncertain or had no opinion.)

Since the community as a whole has only nine cattle, the impact on land is still minimal. In 1995, only 17.5 hectares were in pasture, although four of these hectares were owned by members who had no cattle but allowed their neighbors, either within or outside the community, to use their land for grazing. However, the desire on the part of many members to purchase cattle someday, in order to have milk and meat for their children, may have dramatic implications. According to respondents who own cattle, each animal requires at least one hectare of pasture. If in the coming years ten members find the means to purchase two cattle each, then twenty to thirty hectares of forest will be converted to pasture, further encroaching on the community's reserves of primary forest.

The Reserves
Current rates of deforestation and a burgeoning population present serious threats to Río Blanco's remaining primary forests. The people of the community are aware of these trends and have taken steps to preserve large tracts of undisturbed forest. To control the proliferation of lots when the current members' children come of age, only the oldest son in each family will be granted a parcel of land. However, based on an informal survey of youth, many younger sons and daughters expect to remain on their parents' lots even as adults, which may put additional pressures on that land when they begin raising families of their own.

To ensure that Río Blanco's primary block of 457 hectares does not lose all of its primary forest, the community decided several years ago to establish a reserve. Formally dedicated to the preservation of medicinal plants, for which the community was becoming known both nationally and internationally, the reserve officially demarcated 117 hectares of undisturbed primary forest as communal land where hunting and logging are prohibited.7 This reserve locked up most of the remaining available land. In 1995, only one lot was yet unclaimed; once it is taken, Río Blanco's primary block of land on the Huambuno will be "full" and future members will have to settle on the second block, the reserve on the Río Bueno.

Members speak glowingly of this latter reserve. All but a few hectares are primary forest; the five member-households who live there are reported to have only a few hectares in subsistence agriculture and none in cash crops. Rivers and lagoons extensively penetrate the reserve, simplifying travel. Bird and animal life is abundant. Most members visit the reserve several times each year to maintain the perimeter path and keep outsiders from intruding. They enjoy the opportunity to visit pure primary forest and make the trip as often as their financial situation allows. They talk of their children establishing a small settlement on the Río Bueno just as they themselves did on the Río Huambuno twenty-four years ago. In those twenty-four years, however, they have cleared half their primary forest. Unless they find another way to make a living besides commercial agriculture, it seems likely that their children will clear the reserve in even less time.

1 The people of Río Blanco use the term socio--"associate" or "member"--to refer to an entire family as well as to the male representative of the family (typically the husband/father) in whose name the family is registered in the community's documents. While this can lead to confusion, it also indicates the importance members place on participation as a central feature of the community. In fact, while there are several members who are not currently in residence, they must attend at least one community meeting per year in order to retain their membership. In the same spirit, this paper uses "member" and "family" interchangeably.
2 Five members lived at the Reserve on the Río Bueno and did not participate in the daily workings of the community; they joined the community merely to retain their lots when the community purchased the Reserve. Three others lived in Quito and visited the community only occasionally. They had either surrendered their lots to the community or allowed a relative to work their land for them.
3 All amounts are converted at the mid-1995 rate of 2500 sucres per dollar.
4 Expenses include hiring labor to help harvest maize ($1.50 per hundred pounds), hulling for rice and coffee (about $1 or $2 per hundred pounds), and canoe transportation to Misahuallí (between $.60 and $2 per hundred pounds depending on the crop).
5 Within the community's entire 457-hectare block, including over 100 hectares of communal and unclaimed land, the rate was 1.5 percent per year.
6 Includes unclaimed land and the natural medicine reserve, discussed below.
7 Similar problems arise when trying to fit these 117 hectares on a plat of Río Blanco as occurred with individual member parcels--there is not sufficient space for all 117 hectares. According to a digitized adaptation of the land-use map drawn during the fieldwork, the reserve contains only 74 hectares. The difference is difficult to explain. As with individual lots, rugged terrain may account for some of it, since the reserve's land is particularly hilly. However, only additional fieldwork with technical surveying equipment can fully explain the matter.


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