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.
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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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.