As I float up a serpentine creek in the heart of the Ecuadorean Amazon in a canoe paddled by two men from the Kichwa community of Añangu, I marvel at the exuberance of the surrounding vegetation. In the bow, Remigio Grefa pulls his paddle through water the color of five-bag tea—dyed by the tannins in the rainforest foliage—and scans the branches ahead for wildlife.
An iridescent blue morpho butterfly the size of a child’s birthday card floats out of the jungle and weaves its way over the dark waters ahead of us, its electric blue wings flashing against the greenery. The sound of squawking in the treetops draws our attention upward as a pair of giant parrots fly across the sliver of sky above us. “Red-bellied macaws,” says Grefa, without touching the binoculars dangling from his neck.
Around the next bend, we catch up with the canoe transporting a family from Seattle, who have stopped to watch a group of hoatzins—large-crested birds with frog-like voices—perched on some bushes lining the creek. As we stare at those bizarre, croaking birds, one of the boys in the first canoe spots something moving in a tree in the background. We spend the next few minutes watching a troop of red howler monkeys move from tree to tree, leaping fearlessly between branches, chasing each other up tree trunks, and pausing now and then to stare back at us.
The wildlife on display is amazing, but it is hardly surprising considering that we’ve spent the past hour paddling our way from the Napo River—an Amazon tributary—into Yasuní National Park, one of the most biologically diverse protected areas on Earth. Just as impressive as the flora and fauna, however, is the fact that our guides, and all their neighbors in the Kichwa village of Añangu, are the owners of the jungle lodge that we’re headed for: the Napo Wildlife Center.
Perched on a small ridge at the edge of a jungle lake, surrounded by pristine wilderness, the Napo Wildlife Center is one of Ecuador’s premier nature lodges, with a dozen attractive bungalows, excellent food and knowledgeable guides. It is also a model for Native-owned tourism, conservation and community development in the tropics.
The center is the result of more than a decade of hard work by the people of Añangu and the vision of a former subsistence farmer and hunter named Jiovanny Rivadeneira. Rivadeneira began driving guide boats at an American-owned nature lodge near Añangu, taught himself enough English and ornithology to work as a guide, and became a good enough guide to lead groups of birdwatchers on tours of Ecuador. He eventually returned to Añangu—two hours down the Napo River from the city of Coca—with a plan for a community-owned tourism project.
“I was traveling around the country, earning good money, but people in my community had no work; they lived off agriculture,
but the market prices were low, and it cost a lot to get their crops to market,” explained Rivadeneira as he sat in Añangu’s community hall. “If I was one of those people who don’t think about others, I would have been fine. But I left it all and came back to work for my community, with the knowledge I gained from lodges I’d visited.”
Rivadeneira convinced a group of his neighbors to start building a few bungalows in 1998, but it wasn’t until they secured a loan from a small foundation that they managed to complete the lodge and welcome the first tourists in 2003. It took them another six years to pay off their debt, but the Napo Wildlife Center is now a successful business that provides employment for local people, purchases produce from Añangu’s small farmers, and funds initiatives that benefit the entire community. “This isn’t a business, it’s a community enterprise. We reinvest everything we earn in the community,” Rivadeneira said.
He explained that education is the priority for his community, and local kids are required to complete sixth grade before they can work at the Napo Wildlife Center. Whereas Añangu only had an elementary school a decade ago, it now has a small high school that offers a vocational degree in tourism. The Napo Wildlife Center has built several classrooms, pays the salaries of five teachers, and provides school supplies and free breakfast and lunch for 96 students—many of who come from other Kichwa villages along the Napo. The center also donates medicine to the small government clinic in Añangu, pays a monthly pension to every villager over 60, and distributes a share of its profits to every family annually. “The business has had a major impact on Añangu. Everybody benefits from tourism, and living standards have improved a lot,” said lodge manager Miguel Andy.
The Napo Wildlife Center has had a comparable positive impact on the surrounding wilderness, which suffered for years because of illegal hunting and logging, despite being part of a national park. He and Rivadeneira realized that wildlife was the lodge’s main attraction, so they convinced the village council to ban hunting in the area; poachers now risk a $500 fine. Community leaders then got Ecuador’s Environment Ministry to grant Añangu a concession for almost 53,000 acres of rainforest, which is patrolled by community rangers who are equipped and paid by the lodge. The result is that the Napo Wildlife Center is one of the best places in the Amazon Basin to see wildlife; the lake that it sits on is home to endangered giant river otters, and a camera trap placed on game trails in the area has recorded other such rare-animal sightings as brocket deer and jaguars.
For local guides like Grefa, that means there is plenty of wildlife to show the guests. The park is home to more than 650 bird species, 185 kinds of mammals and at least 5,000 plant species. Grefa explained that he began by washing dishes at the lodge while learning the names of the area’s wildlife, then studied English in Quito in order to become a guide. “My dream is to become a famous birding guide and to travel to different countries,” Grefa says. “Everybody in the community is happy with the lodge, which is why they now protect nature and wildlife.”
With guidance from the international conservation organization the Rainforest Alliance, Rivadeneira and his colleagues have also taken steps to limit the lodge’s negative environmental impacts, such as improving its sewage treatment, trash management and use of solar energy. He explained that those good practices have been extended to Añangu, which used to be littered with garbage and lacked latrines. Each family has a composting toilet, and it separates its trash, placing nonorganic waste in bags along the riverbank one day a week, when it is picked up by the center’s boat and taken to a river port for transport to a recycling center. “Now the community is much cleaner and better organized, and we are consequently avoiding illnesses,” Rivadeneira noted.
Another innovation was the creation of a women’s group called Asociación Kuri Muyu, whose members make and sell handicrafts and perform traditional dances at a visitor center where tourists learn about Kichwa culture. Because the center is near clay licks that are visited by hundreds of parrots and parakeets each morning, it also receives visitors from other lodges on the Napo River. María Yumbo, one of the group’s members, said that she uses the money she earns there to buy clothes for her two small daughters and food that they can’t produce on the family farm. “The lodge has provided good work for our husbands and for us, and the profits are invested in health and education,” Yumbo said. “We are proud for what we’ve achieved. We’re an organized community and we’ve worked hard for this.”