Twenty years ago, my associate Eduardo Nycander and I founded Rainforest Expeditions to take visitors on intense experiences to comfortable eco-lodges in the headwaters of the Amazon in Tambopata, Peru. There was no master plan. We just wanted a place where we could play in the tropical rain forest. We learned many things.
We've always thought of Rainforest Expeditions as a nature conservation company: our visitors pay to see macaws and monkeys and ancient trees. The more of these we have, the better our product is. We learned that our core business is to add value to nature and thus protect it. Conservation is our vocation, and it is also our business plan.
We also learned that macaws and monkeys and ancient trees are used by indigenous peoples and ribereño settlers in ways not compatible to tourism. So partnering with the Ese'eja indigenous communities of Infierno and Palma Real and ribereño families in Baltimore and Condenado became an important part of our business plan. They also taught us many things you don't learn in school. I like to think some of those lessons are a competitive advantage.
We learned some things the hard way. We learned ecotourism has its limitations as a tool for conservation. Most of the Amazon is difficult to get to, including many of the most exciting places. Most of the Amazon is off limits to time-starved visitors. So if adding value to nature is a business that will protect the Amazon rain forest, there has to be more ways than just ecotourism.
When I started looking around for other ways of adding value to the Amazon rainforest, I discovered we are much like the tributary of a large river moving in the same direction. Numerous other social enterprises and responsible businesses already form part of this "river basin". To name but a few:
- Pats is working with the Yanesha to produce handmade furniture.
- Violeta Villacorta and Rocio Martinez are working with Awajun, the Cofan and the Ese'eja to make unique collections of biojewelry.
- Camino Verde is learning how to reforest 150 species of trees which have economic value, but no reforestation science behind them.
- Eco-ola is getting neighboring farmers to try out bio-char.
- Ecotribal has been trading Ashaninka coffee and cacao for decades.
- Nature Services Peru and Asesorandes are working to monetize the ecosystem services of Machiguenga, Yine and Ashaninka forests.
- Candela and Shiwi take gathered wild Brazil nuts to the marketplace as finished food products.
- Ecoguerrero is designing charcoal from Brazil nut shells to put an end to the incredibly damaging illegal production of hardwood charcoal.
- Achuar, Kichwa, Waorani and Secoya in Ecuador, the Kichwa in Bolivia, and the Machiguenga in Peru have all set up eco-lodges.
The Amazon is a difficult place to do business in, especially if you are trying to do it responsibly. It is the world's benchmark for biodiversity. It is difficult to get things in and out of. Its peoples define wealth in time and peace of mind and nature.
These attributes do not do well in today's marketplace. You can't mass produce or scale-up much of anything in the world's most diverse ecosystem. It is logistically very expensive. The visions and skills of its stewards do not translate fluidly in today's global economy. Sometimes it is not correct (or practical) to bring the market to the Amazon or vice versa, but sometimes it is necessary or inevitable.
Despite its remoteness, the list of businesses above is proof that social innovation is exploding in the Amazon, reaching people and places where it is most needed. There is no better place to be in these exciting times.
Kurt Holle is Founder of Rainforest Expeditions.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, in recognition of the latter's Social Entrepreneurs Class of 2013. For more than a decade, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship has selected leading models of social innovation from around the world. Today we have 254 from nearly 60 countries, covering renewable energy and sanitation to job training and access to higher education. Follow the Schwab Foundation on Twitter at @schwabfound or nominate a Social Entrepreneur at http://www.schwabfound.org/sf/index.htm. To see all the post in the series, click here.