Difference Maker

Kurt Holle's ecolodge employs locals while slowing the devastation of the Amazon

He opened Posada Amazonas to tourists in 1996. By 2016, Peru's indigenous Eseeja community will operate the business by itself.

By , / Staff writer

For someone who's changing the way business is done in the Amazon, Kurt Holle is remarkably low key. Raised in Peru's capital, Lima, he seems happiest in knee-high rubber boots, walking jungle trails while the indigenous co-owners of his ecolodge help guests spot saddleback tamarin monkeys and scarlet macaws.

The Posadas Amazonas lodge he launched 13 years ago in a ground-breaking venture with a native Amazon community now is studied by business schools at Stanford and Harvard universities. It's won multiple awards. And it's seen worldwide as a model for protecting the rain forest while providing jobs – and careers – for indigenous people who would otherwise join the swelling ranks of illegal gold miners or loggers tearing up the jungle to strike it rich.

"This is a pioneer effort, not only in Peru, but in the whole region," says environmental activist Enrique Ortiz. "People are always talking about working with the Indians, but no one is actually doing it. We all talk about community-based approaches, but there are no other examples that have worked and lasted. [Mr. Holle's success] is extremely rare."

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Holle might be forgiven for puffing out his chest while the accolades roll in, but that's not his style. He prefers to speak about the details of his business, and he likes to remind people he's not there for charity. "The market is giving us an opportunity to give value to the forest," he says matter-of-factly. "We've always been frank that this is a moneymaking operation."

His preference for action over talk is a big part of his success. Perhaps more important, though, is his ability to hear the concerns of his Indian partners and make unorthodox business decisions based on them.

"The project is running well, because [Holle] consulted with the community and we moved ahead little by little," says Federico Duran, the community leader in charge of relations with Holle. "It's a good example for other communities that want to do something similar."

Holle and his business partner, a fellow well-to-do white Peruvian named Eduardo Nycander, got into the ecotourism business in their early 20s using start-up money from friends and family. After founding Rainforest Expeditions in 1989, they built a couple of successful ecolodges aimed mainly at European tourists, whose longer vacations gave them time to get to lodges deep in the jungle. They wanted to build a lodge closer to the provincial capital, Puerto Maldonado, so they could attract Americans, who often had only three or four days to visit the Amazon while in Peru.

At about that time, they received a letter from a local chief asking them to build a lodge on his community's land to provide jobs.

In 1996, Holle and Mr. Nycander did the unthinkable. They formed a joint venture whereby the entire Eseeja community – whose communal values ran completely contrary to Western business concepts – would own a new lodge funded and initially run by Holle and Nycander. The community receives 60 percent of the profits until 2016, when it will completely run and own all aspects of the business.

"We said, 'You [contribute] the land and labor, and we'll fund the lodge. We need 20 years to recover the investment and to train you guys. We also need special zones where you do nothing else,' " says Holle, explaining that any hunting, fishing, mining, and logging would chase away wildlife and ruin the business.

The precedent-setting arrangement hasn't been easy. "There's always tension," Holle says. "It's difficult to establish trust with the community. We look different. We think different. Our objectives are different."

For example, Holle says, high job turnover is bad for business. But local chiefs wanted everyone in the community to cycle through all the positions at the lodge so that everyone would gain valuable skills. The rotation hurt the business. It took Holle months to explain the need for a highly qualified staff to make foreigners comfortable in the middle of the jungle.

"Consensus is more important [to the indigenous community] than making quick decisions," Holle says. "Nine times out of 10, we go with consensus."

The lodge is now managed by a woman from the community, and members with the most aptitude are now learning marketing and other business skills.

But one of the most promising signs of the success of the Posadas Amazonas lodge is that many of its employees used to make a living by damaging the forest. Javier Reynoldo Chambi, a groundskeeper at the lodge, used to hunt the forest's animals and sell illegal timber to a Chinese company. He now makes slightly more money while enjoying a steady income and good job security. And he doesn't have to worry about dodging the police.

Bus driver Ronaldo Salazar, who wants to be trained as a mechanic, used to illegally mine gold from the nearby Tambopata River. While his income from mining would sometimes dwarf what he makes now, he enjoys not going through the back-breaking work and long periods without income. "Before, I had no job security," Mr. Salazar says. "Now, whether it rains or not, I work and I'm paid."

Holle's ability to navigate the tensions between sound business practices and community values has been key to the company's success, says Gilberto Arrospide, the lodge's lead tourist guide. "Kurt [Holle] always has time to listen," he says. "He knows how to explain things."

Back in Holle's cosmopolitan circles in Lima, however, people have a simple explanation for the time he spends in the Amazon: He must be out of his mind. "I'm [considered] kind of a wacko in Lima," Holle admits with a shrug.

That doesn't bother him. As the son of a natural scientist, he has always been infatuated with the jungle and its creatures. Now he makes a living sharing that with the world.

"Imagine an 8-year-old kid looking at taxonomy books. I was nerdy – really nerdy – at least about animals," he says. "I loved stories about great explorers and tribes that had never been contacted. It's just ingrained in me."

Part of being an environmentalist now is tackling the daunting challenge of providing livelihoods for indigenous people, who will otherwise put food on the table by harming the rain forest. The makes Holle a man in demand.

"Kurt is my guru [of] whom I ask questions every time I have a problem with the native communities," says businessman and born-again environmental activist Roberto Persivale.

Holle's success still amazes him.

"When we started, we were way out in the bush," he says. "Now we're listed online next to Disney for vacations."

Matthew Clark traveled to Peru on a Gatekeepers trip organized by the International Reporting Project.

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