Community Ecotourism in the Global Economy

by | Dec 24, 2002

Lowland Quicha girl at farmers market. Photo by Bruce Farnsworth. RICANCIE guide with machete. Photo courtesy of RICANCIE.

(Napo Province, Ecuador) The RICANCIE community eco-tourism project in the lowland Quichua Indian community at Runa Huasi embraces two rivers. Winding northward through Amazonian indigenous lands, Rí­o Arajuno brings Indians in canoes cut from trees deep within the forest, Quichua youth on fishing expeditions, and relatives visiting with bundles of food. Just east of Runa Huasi, Rí­o Arajuno disappears into the Rí­o Napo, a wider and shallower river that transports European and North American tourists and their global culture in motorized canoes down from the provincial capital of Tena.

Many Runa Huasi residents live on an island created by the two rivers as they flirt and tangle with one another intermittently until finally joining once and for all to flow east toward the mouth of the Amazon. Like the cultures that they carry, the rivers periodically change course, coming together and pulling apart, fertilizing Runa Huasi with rich silt deposited from land far upstream.

After a canoe from Tena deftly navigates between the flows of the two rivers at their confluence to motor upstream on Río Arajuno, the community’s eco-tourism cabañas come into view. Tourists smile and take pictures. “This is Runa Huasi or ‘house of our people,'” the guide explains. “It offers the experience of cultural exchange and community life, health and shamanism, and of course, relaxation in the mystical Amazon Rainforest.”


The RICANCIE indigenous eco-tourism project—a network of ten lowland Quichua communities in the Ecuadorian Amazonian province of Napo—grew out of the 1970s struggles of Napo Quichua communities to organize themselves. Faced with the ever-accelerating colonization of their land and resources by the Ecuadorian state, extractive industries, and migrants from the Andes, Quichua leaders conceptualized the project as part of the third phase of organizing by the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of the Napo (FOIN). After securing land titles for most of their communities and helping to pressure the national government to create a bilingual education system in the late 1980s, FOIN began looking for development alternatives. Ever since the multinational oil giant Texaco struck oil in the Sucumbí­os province north of Napo in the late 1960s, oil companies had been knocking at the door of the Napo Quichua. As witnesses to the severe deforestation and toxic contamination in Sucumbí­os, FOIN leaders knew that they needed alternatives to fund territorial defense and development projects without resorting to the destructive development of multinational oil, mining and timber interests.

Non-Indian guides working out of Quito and Tena had already begun to bring foreign tourists down the Napo River to Quichua communities by the late 1980s. The unplanned influx of visitors and money caused problems as guides paid some families but not others, dividing communities and angering residents. Organization leaders, however, saw opportunity in the chaos. It took five months, forty people, and twenty deforested acres to sell enough corn to pay for the basic supplies for a rural school and the fares required to send local leaders to Tena to defend indigenous land. The leaders figured out that the community could earn that very same amount with one person working for three days in tourism, with the added bonus of conserving the environment instead of deforesting for agriculture. Despite scattered doubts and lack of knowledge about tourism, the benefits seemed to far outweigh the costs.

In 1990, Napo Quichua leaders began looking for financing for a project that would eventually become known as “RICANCIE,” short for Indigenous Community Network of the Upper Napo for Intercultural Exchange and Ecotourism. The project, founded in 1993, aimed to improve the quality of life in participating communities. It sought to defend indigenous territory from globalizing oil and mining interests. In a move to take advantage of other face of globalization, thirty interested communities sent representatives to an assembly that would control a project to find international tourists and bring them to Quichua communities. A small administrative office was set up in Tena for marketing and logistics; participating communities began to construct cabañas and catalogue their tourism attractions.


While the economic benefits of eco-tourism appear undeniable, the question regarding the effects of selling culture on tradition and self-esteem sets off alarms in both the everyday conversations in Quichua communities and the academic debates of anthropologists and development workers.

Over a mid-afternoon snack on the deck at Runa Huasi, a guide and a director of RICANCIE quickly recount a laundry list of the complaints they have heard about the dangers of bringing foreign tourists into communities and selling Quichua culture to them. The elders were worried about the evils of too much money. The women had initially resisted cooking with onions and garlic for the tourists. The men were concerned about being looked at as another kind of animal in the jungle. Visiting bishops had voiced concerns that sex and intermarriage with tourists would destroy Quichua culture. Foreign development workers had pointed out that the guides and directors themselves were the most vulnerable to “acculturation.”

The history of RICANCIE has proven all of these concerns to be valid, some more than others. Surprisingly, one of the most significant issues for RICANCIE administrators has consistently been the question of sexual relations between guides and tourists. While anthropologists and development workers worry that contact with the consumer goods of the global market might contribute to materialist behaviors, the real cultural action has been much more physical than psychological. In response to the problem, RICANCIE instituted rules against sexual interaction and against intermarriage in RICANCIE communities. The rules, according to administrators, have largely taken care of the problem. Development workers continue to worry about the acculturation of the RICANCIE guides, but most of other concerns faded as the operation overcame its initial growing pains or as problematic communities dropped out of the network.

For the ten communities that have continued to participate in RICANCIE, the overall results have been decidedly positive. As the directors of RICANCIE explain, the project has led to a sort of “cultural renaissance.” Instead of looking at Western culture through the lens of advertising in Tena, which values all things Western over all things Indian, local inhabitants meet actual Westerners. To the surprise of the Quichua whom they meet, the Westerners who come to RICANCIE would much rather ponder traditional Quichua architecture and enjoy traditional Quichua music than see corrugated metal roofs and hear Rock ‘n Roll. During a stay at Runa Huasi, foreign tourists often ask to work with the local inhabitants on a “minga” or community workday, to sample traditional foods at the meal that follows, and to listen to traditional music at a “fiesta” during the last night of their tour. The result is that both the young and the old Quichua have a newfound admiration for their culture.

Tarquino Tapuy, the former FOIN director who masterminded the creation of RICANCIE, explains that there is a big difference between tourism run by outsiders and cultural eco-tourism run by the indigenous communities themselves. Before, Mestizo guides would come and say, “Hey, Indian, open the door and I’ll pay you,” thereby folklorizing or objectifying Quichua culture. “Now the people have legitimate inter-cultural experiences because we are the ones who decide to show them our houses and our community, not some outsider who is trying to use us to make money,” Tarquino says.

Perhaps most significantly, though, the project reinforces the importance of rainforest preservation because tourists want to see a healthy rainforest ecosystem. If one community member wants to cut down some trees to sell to a logging company, someone always reminds him that tourists like to see trees. The result, according to an Austrian development worker who is using satellite images to analyze deforestation, is that compared to neighboring communities, RICANCIE communities have lost a lot less of their primary and secondary forests.

The act of preserving the environment in which Quichua cultural knowledge is relevant is probably the single most important factor in the continued existence of Quichua culture. “While the Bishops might think that the Quichua people would survive without the forest, and that we should work with the oil companies instead of eco-tourism, they are thinking only about sex and bloodlines when they talk about culture,” Tarquino laughs. “Without the forest, there would be no Quichua culture.”


RICANCIE has its own internal assembly, made up of representatives from the participating communities. Although RICANCIE will often pay for the provincial indigenous federation FOIN activities, FOIN leaders do not control the tourism funds. Both the competitive nature of the tourism business and the consistent lack of funding for FOIN require the strict autonomy of the project.

The most sweeping cultural changes that RICANCIE has initiated are those required by the challenge of creating a competitive business. While leaders can get away with a fluid time-space framework in their approach to meetings with solidarity organizations or with government officials, the tourism market demands punctuality and organization. Instead of the typical “find it, use it” economics of the rainforest, RICANCIE directors and the communities they represent have had to learn to re-invest the bulk of the profits from the project. In “entering the capitalist world,” as Tarquino describes it, the directors and communities have come to understand capital and competitiveness.


As an indigenous tourism entrepreneur from the Andes remarked to me, “Globalization is coming whether indigenous people like it or not. The only question is whether we will let it erase us, or whether we will take advantage of it.” The “capitalist” tourism projects that are sprouting up all over Ecuador are very clear examples of indigenous communities’ attempts to survive—economically and culturally—amidst the process of globalization.

Capital and competitiveness, the very issues that make RICANCIE a difficult undertaking for Quichua communities, are at the heart of the global trade agreements that are advancing the process of globalization. By valorizing capital and competitiveness over local and national regulations that protect workers and the environment, global trade agreements practice a type of market fundamentalism. They argue that by extending the market to encompass the margins—both geographical (i.e. Ecuador) and industry sector (i.e. Education and Cultural Exchange)—the outcome will be the most efficient for the system as a whole.

Between Rí­o Arajuno and Rí­o Napo, Runa Huasi is one of the many spaces located at the margins of the global economy. Here the struggle between the traditional and the modern, the local and the global, is a complex mosaic of individual and community choices set against a backdrop of the ever-advancing processes of economic globalization, the consolidation of markets, and the never-ending search for increasing returns to speculative capital. The land of Runa Huasi is coveted by global enterprises, oil companies, gold-mining companies, palm oil companies, and logging companies alike. Global food markets, advertisers, and Wall Street investment bankers compete for the minds and spare pennies of the people of Runa Huasi.

By entering this system and taking advantage of it, lowland Quichua Indians are able to valorize and strengthen their culture while protecting their land from invasion. Paradoxically, and at significant risk, they are trying to take advantage of global markets to preserve a local world and culture where the market cannot be king.


The risks of inserting local economies such as Runa Huasi’s into the global system are significant. In the eco-tourism market, Runa Huasi and the RICANCIE communities have become much more vulnerable to the fluctuations of the global economy. They are also forced to compete with operations that have significantly more capital, and therefore higher productivity.

Without a doubt, RICANCIE is tying the success of the economy in its Upper Napo communities to the economic health of countries halfway around the world. According to Marco Licuy, Director of Community Development and Ecological Management for RICANCIE, since the September 11th attack, the number of tourists has significantly decreased. “Now terrorism, the war, Plan Colombia, everything affects us. What goes on in other countries directly affects this work.” The result is that RICANCIE has a staggeringly low 3% occupation rate, and the operation lacks both capital and profit. While 75% of the profits usually goes to the communities, there are currently no dividends to be distributed.

Without the capital to market effectively, RICANCIE is at a severe disadvantage to local competitors who wield large amounts of capital. On the way to Runa Huasi, visitors motor past the luxurious and heavily capitalized Casa de Suizo or “house of the Swiss,” which sits on a bluff overlooking the Rí­o Napo. The Casa de Suizo, like several other operations in the area, makes marketing trips to foreign countries, sets up joint marketing deals with travel agencies both in Quito and abroad, and brings tourists in directly. The confidence of RICANCIE community members in the potential success of their project and in the valorization of their culture is undermined by the very apparent success of these large operations.

As long as Ecuadorian laws exist to protect communal property and local capital, RICANCIE can coexist with heavily capitalized foreigners, ensuring the survival of their land and culture. However, as attempts to liberalize the trade in services in the hemisphere and the world bring tourism services under their jurisdiction, there will be a constant pressure towards larger capital, higher productivity, more Casas del Suizo, and fewer Runa Huasis.

Although greater foreign eco-tourism investment might benefit the rainforest environment, the lack of participatory indigenous management of these operations would suggest a sort of proletarianization of the Quichua population in centers like Runa Huasi. Without control over the process, the people and their culture would revert to being objectified and folklorized by the ever-consolidating tourism industry. It is in this potential situation, and not the community-run participatory effort, where selling culture would become selling out.

Winter 2002Volume I, Number 2
David Edeli, Social Studies ’99, is currently a Fulbright scholar in Ecuador studying the effects of global trade policy on Amazonian indigenous economies. He would like to thank his former thesis advisor, Ted MacDonald, and the DRCLAS summer grant program for sending him to Ecuador to do his Harvard undergraduate thesis research in 1998. Edeli welcomes any comments or questions about global trade in Latin America.

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