Rainforest Restoration and Sustainable Community Development -Costa Rica

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Rainforest Restoration and Sustainable Community Development -Costa Rica

Costa Rica
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Geotourism means to also focus on human welfare and advancement, in contrast to solely environmental-focused welfare/wellbeing. This is what Rios Tropicales has been quietly doing since the company’s founding in 1985. The genesis of Rios Tropicales’ geotourism efforts came from complementary goals of wanting to protect and conserve the rivers and rainforests of Costa Rica while empowering and engaging the local community members, including the native Cabecar Indians, to play leading roles in this effort for their own economic, educational, health, and soulful well-being.

Your idea
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Street Address

PO Box

City

San Jose

State/Province
Postal/Zip Code
Country
Year innovation began

1985

Geotourism Challenge Addressed by Entrant

Quality of tourism management and impact on the destination

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Indicate sector in which you principally work

Tourism-related business

Geographic location

Rural, Mountain, Rainforest, Multiple locations.

Plot your innovation within the Mosaic of Solutions
Main barrier addressed

Lack of local input

Main insight addressed

Establish community incentives

Innovation
What is the goal of your innovation?

Protecting the Costa Rica rainforest through the collaboration of local communities, tourists, and conservation organizations, while facilitating sustainable community development.

How does your approach support or embody geotourism?

Geotourism means to also focus on human welfare and advancement, in contrast to solely environmental-focused welfare/wellbeing. This is what Rios Tropicales has been quietly doing since the company’s founding in 1985. The genesis of Rios Tropicales’ geotourism efforts came from complementary goals of wanting to protect and conserve the rivers and rainforests of Costa Rica while empowering and engaging the local community members, including the native Cabecar Indians, to play leading roles in this effort for their own economic, educational, health, and soulful well-being. Rios Tropicales actively engages and collaborates with, the local communities and their individual eco/geo-tourism entrepreneurs. Rios hires community members to manage its eco-lodge and sustainable farming projects, and its staff is 95% Costa Ricans across all its operations. Rios takes it a step further, and directly facilitates the establishment of complementary geo-tourism companies owned solely by Rios’ former top guides, now turned ecopreneurs. It would have been easy for Rios to simply hire guides to run more Rios “outposts”, but because of the founders’ beliefs in entrepreneurial ownership & mentoring, instead Rios helped their best guides start their own businesses. Rios collaborates with each to best serve guests with countrywide geotourism opportunities now.

Describe your approach in detail. How is it innovative?

Our Rios Tropicales Lodge, located in protected lands on the banks of the Pacuare River is a good example of how we develop our adventure offerings with geotourism principles. In 1989, Rios purchased 90 acres along the Pacuare River near a small subsistence farming community. Rios bought the land from local, Anibal Obando, whose large family had cut down significant tracts of rainforest to create farmland. We then hired the same Obando family to reforest most of this area, in alignment with our mission to collaborate with local community and to educate them, not just our guests, about the importance of environmental protection and reforestation. In 1989 we planted over five hundred trees as part of our reforestation program. We used all local species of seeds that had been previously collected on the same land by the Obando family. Our reforestation efforts have continued since 1989 with land purchases using company earnings. We are careful to make use of pre-existing hunting and Indian trails for hiking and travel within the property. Three members of the Obando family live onsite at the eco-lodge and manage it year-round, three sons works as river and naturalist guides, with one of them also the manager of all Rios guide staff.

What types of partnerships or professional development would be most beneficial in spreading your innovation?

Partnerships with organizations that can bring funding to rainforest protection and tree-planting projects, and sustainable development ideas and programs to local communities that enable adequate living standards while preserving traditional values and culture.

Impact
In one sentence describe what kind of impact, change, or reform your approach is intended to achieve.

To create sustainable business practices that engage tourists, locals, businesses and conservation organizations together to protect and preserve the biologically rich rainforest and its people.

Describe the degree of success of your approach to date. Clearly define how you measure quantitative and qualitative impact in terms of how your approach contributes to the sustainability or enhancement of local culture, environment, heritage, or aesthetics? How does your approach minimize negative impacts? 200 words or less

Here is one example of Rios engaging with the local community, through educating their children, to create measurable results to preserve the local geography through sustainable business practices:

The Foundation that Rios Tropicales established and funded, Rios Tropicales Foundation (FRT), has launched environmental education programs in elementary schools in Costa Rica. By educating the children on how and why they should care for their natural resources, Rios is arming a generation of future leaders with knowledge and tools for sustainable business practices that incorporate environmental management. These local children are learning how to care for and manage their natural resources for measurable sustainability. Addressing the children is a very important and longer-term strategy that can increasingly influence Costa Rican government policies when these children push for change in high school, college, in their communities, and in their careers. Our Educational programs to provide environmental education at local schools were started back when such education was only offered at distinct schools in San Jose. Thanks in part to nationally recognized efforts like FRT’s, environmental education is now part of most school programs.

How does your program promote traveler enthusiasm, satisfaction, and engagement with the locale?

Our adventure trips offer naturalist interpretation at every step whether is be biking, kayaking, rafting, hiking, or canopy tours. Our expertly knowledgeable local guides share the science, the history, the culture, and the stories of the flora and fauna and how it shaped their customs and culture, bringing our guests intimately into a world that they cannot experience from a bus or a luxury hotel with invisible separations between “us and them”. With Rios Tropicales experiences, language barriers that are dissolved and opportunities to share life experiences become the highlights of each trip. The design of Rios eco-adventure tours facilitate and actively encourage guests and guides to mix and share experiences, from tours to shared meals, and shared tree-planting volunteer work.

In what ways are local residents actively involved in your innovation, including participation and community input? How has the community responded to or benefited from your approach?

We engage local residents in multiple ways in our programs, including reforestation, rainforest wildlife protection, adventure tour operations, and eco-lodge management. The most exciting thing is the partnership nature of our work together. They are managers and decision-makers, not simply order-takers. Here’s an abbreviated example.

The effects of unregulated poaching along the Pacuare, in addition to deforestation, had taken a major toll on the environment. We partnered with the indigenous Cabecar Indians to put a stop to the poaching and illegal fishing in the area. We hired several of the Indians as Rios hiking and naturalist guides who proved to be invaluable in educating other locals, as well as our clients, on the needs and issues affecting the area.

Describe how your innovation helps travelers and local residents better understand the value of the area’s cultural and natural heritage, and educates them on local environmental issues. How do you motivate them to act responsibly in their future travel decisions?

To teach our guests that they are actually in the “lungs of the world” ,we encourage them to actively participate planting trees and showing the rainforest improvements that have been accomplished by previous clients. The local communities have understood that a sustainable tourism economic model produces a better quality of living.

Sustainability
Is your initiative financially and organizationally sustainable? If not, what is required to make it so? What is the potential demand for your innovation?

Yes.

How is your initiative currently financed? If available, provide information on your finances and organization that could help others. Please list: Annual budget, annual revenue generated, size of part-time, full-time and volunteer staff.

Our programs are financed through Rios’ earnings, partnerships with conversation organizations, and donations from tourists and friends. Land purchases have been financed with the company’s profits. Out of the six hundred hectares (1,500 acres) -four hundred generate an annual income of $25,000 through oxygen credits that allows three full-time employees to care for the reserves. The trees to be planted are donated by the EARTH University and all of Rios Tropicales guides and staff volunteered to the program.

What is your plan to expand your approach? Please indicate where/how you would like to grow or enhance your innovation, or have others do so.

We would like to buy many more hectares of rainforest to further protect and reforest the region, and collaborate with local communities to create sustainable businesses that work to support the region while meeting the very real and urgent needs for adequately providing for these residents (food, education/schools, healthcare, etc.) and facilitating positive interaction with the larger world community while not eliminating cherished ways of life. We need funds and interested partners to further our goals, and replicate them in other needy areas worldwide.

What are the main barriers you encounter in managing, implementing, or replicating your innovation? What barriers keep your program from having greater impact?

These are long-term commitments that require several years to subsidize. Investors in this kind of projects are not easy to find in order to expand to other needed areas.

Another big challenge was that local community members were alienated, disempowered, and not educated on how deforestation and poaching were really damaging their lands. In response we were persistent in our commitment to engage locals from the very beginning, despite educational barriers that had to be overcome. We were very willing to use our adventure company to educate our guests and attract publicity for related causes like tree-planting of depleted areas of the rainforest, stopping damming of the Pacuare river to save the river, the rainforest, and the local communities along it. This enabled development of Fundacion Rios Tropicales and partnerships with other international and national organizations.

Rios Tropicales entire company was involved in each aspect of our programs, as it is part of our company philosophy. It was not a separate, sideline activity with a solo champion. Had it been, the company would not have been able to achieve what is has to date. Rios Tropicales’ eco/geo-tourism and sustainable business practices will continue in everything with which we get involved.

The Story
What is the origin of your innovation? Tell your story.

Native Central Americans, Rafael Gallo and Fernando Esquivel founded Rios Tropicales in 1985. Rafael and Fernando were longtime childhood friends who spent their early youth in neighboring El Salvador. Rafael’s family left El Salvador in 1980, and Fernando’s family moved back to Costa Rica, the home country of his Costa Rican father. His mother is Salvadoran, and Rafael’s parents are also Salvadoran. The two friends broke from conventional career paths shortly after college to start Rios Tropicales, an integration of their vision of conservation, love of sport, and passion for whitewater rivers. Rafael was already at that time a world-class kayaker and slalom competitor of international renown.

Since those early days of working out of Fernando’s mother’s house with two rafts and a handful of paddles, lifejackets, and helmets, Rios has grown into a multi-sport eco-adventure company with operations on the Pacific and Atlantic sides of Costa Rica, as well as in the central and northern mountainous regions. Rios Tropicales paddlers, led by Rafael Gallo pioneered explorations and first descents on numerous Costa Rican rivers in the late 1980s, culminating in development of the first complete river guide for paddlers; “Rivers of Costa Rica” (Menasha Ridge Press, March 1988). The company now employs more than 150 staff across all their operations; over 95% are local Costa Ricans and the rest hail from the Americas, New Zealand, and European countries. In November 2007, National Geographic Adventure Magazine rated Rios Tropicales the #1 Adventure Outfitter in Costa Rica, and #4 Rafting Outfitter in the world.

Rafael and Fernando founded Rios Tropicales from the very beginning with a business approach that chose engagement and collaboration as the rule, not the exception. In some sense, they were “doing geo-tourism/ eco-tourism”, (or whatever the term of the year might be) as a simple matter of business in order to save the rivers they loved, promote and protect the areas they loved, and constructively engage with the local community members who became their friends, colleagues, partners, employees, managers, and facilitators in this dream.

In its third decade of operations, Rios Tropicales is focused on further integrating its sustainable business practices and environmental protection programs within its communities of operations. These practices and programs include: land protection and reforestation projects, green construction projects, environmental education programs in elementary schools, and support of local communities, including the indigenous Cabecar Indians, through employment, development assistance, sustainable agriculture, and providing markets for local products

The company’s Mission and Vision Statement has not changed from its 1985 roots:
Rios Tropicales Mission:
To share the rivers and natural resources of Costa Rica, our culture and conservation values, always committed to professionalism, safety, high quality and extraordinary service.
Rios Tropicales Vision:
To achieve excellence and uniformity in all of our services.

Please provide a personal bio. Note this may be used in Changemakers' marketing material.

Rafael Gallo has been a leading contributor and change maker in Costa Rican adventure tourism for over 20 years. Rafael has led the effort to protect over 1800 hectares of Costa Rican rainforest. Rafael sits on a number of boards where he continues to push for the protection of Costa Rica’s rainforests, rivers, and local communities. A few of these boards include adventure organizations like International Rafting Federation, International Canoe Federation, Fundación Ríos Tropicales, Reservas de Costarricenses, America Outdoors, Explorer’s Club, and leading Costa Rican Tourism organizations.

Please write an overview of your project. This text will appear when people scroll over the icon for your entry on the Google map located on the competition homepage.

Geotourism means to also focus on human welfare and advancement, in contrast to solely environmental-focused welfare/wellbeing. This is what Rios Tropicales has been quietly doing since the company’s founding in 1985. The genesis of Rios Tropicales’ geotourism efforts came from complementary goals of wanting to protect and conserve the rivers and rainforests of Costa Rica while empowering and engaging the local community members, including the native Cabecar Indians, to play leading roles in this effort for their own economic, educational, health, and soulful well-being.