As a young man in 1977, Raul Garcia went to work for the Ecuadorian tourism company, Transtouri. He joined their operation to help build the Flotel Orellana, the first river cruise to navigate on the Napo River through Ecuador’s Amazon region. While working up and down the river exploring wildlife attractions for the cruise, Garcia came into contact with a number of the ancestral communities of the region. Closest to the river lived the Quechuas; to the north, the Cofanes and Sionas. Farther south resided the Huaoranis in Yasuni National Park, and the Secoyas near the Peruvian border.
“It wasn’t my intention to meet local communities when I started out, but it happened anyways,” says Garcia. As he and his team explored more and more of the rainforest, they began to develop relationships with community members, who shared their insights about the surrounding wildlife. Garcia spent many nights around the fire, eating with the communities and taking part in their culture. He would bring cans of tuna and SPAM to eat with rice when the communities didn’t have time to prepare their forest meats over the fire. Eventually, Raul became general manager of the Flotel Orellana, cementing his dedication to the region.
Garcia says, “In those days, things were really different. There were no outboard motors for the canoes or canopies for shade. The canoes were carved out of one tree.” In these crude canoes, Garcia travelled throughout the jungle with different community members. “They would show me a small secret like where a parrot lick was located,” says Garcia. Additionally, he would read books about the rainforest’s ecosystem to supplement what he was learning during his explorations. He says that back then, without TV or movies in the Amazon, reading books was how they would pass the time during evenings aboard the vessel.
At the same time that Raul was getting his introduction to the Amazon, the oil industry was infiltrating the region. When oil exploration projects turned up positive, the companies would offer large sums of money to the tribes in exchange for their land. For the indigenous people who accepted these offers, this introduction to the modern economy created a disruption in their culture. They bought alcohol, radios, and flashlights in addition to meat that they now did not have to hunt for. In order to sustain their new lifestyle, they purchased chainsaws to cut down portions of the forest and sell lumber. Having been encroached upon by civilization for hundreds of years—from the Spanish invasion of the 15th century to the modern invasion of infrastructure and oil—these cultures were at serious risk of being completely snuffed out. Communities that had never needed to rely on money were quickly becoming dependant on the sale of the precious resources of the Amazon. “This changed their way of life,” says Garcia, adding, “because their real life is to go to the river for fishing, washing, and swimming, to go to the field to hunt and get their protein from that.”
When he had first started out in the Amazon, Garcia did not have an understanding of the importance of sustainability. He says, “For me, all the birds were black, all were the same thing, but then I learned a lot about the forest and about the diversity of species there.” Garcia came to appreciate the delicate ecosystem of the Amazon, each animal and plant with its role and special design. Conserving both the culture and the environment became a passion of Garcia’s. In 1985, he co-founded Ecuador’s Ecotourism Society, an association he would serve as president for from 1995 to 2003.
In 1992, Garcia founded Advantage Travel with his wife, Martha. At first, the travel agency just sold airline tickets before expanding into land service for incoming tourists and building a lodge on Ecuador’s coast in 2000. In 2003, Garcia returned to his roots by launching his own river cruise, the Manatee, named after the vulnerable river species. Garcia’s vision for the river cruise was much larger than simply bringing in tourists to see the sights. He set up his operation as an alternative form of income for the communities of the Ecuadorian Amazon. By hiring and training community members as crew on board the vessel and collaborating with others to protect different areas of the forest, Garcia developed a sustainable tourism model that helped to preserve the wildlife and provide compensation for the local communities. In 2013, Garcia had another vessel built, the Anakonda, and in summer of 2017, a new Manatee was launched to replace the older model.
Garcia believes that working closely with the communities is an important part of preserving the rainforest. Ecuador’s protected national parks are crucial for conservation of the Amazon, but collaborating with the people who live in and around the parks is imperative as well. “We could do our operation without them but it would be an operation without spirit,” says Garcia, who is quick to point out the balance required in including the communities but not selling them as part of his product. “I want it to be a collaboration and for them to get part of the benefit. I really don’t want to use them. I always try to make new itineraries that involve the people,” he says.
In 2010, Advantage Travel partnered with the Wildlife Conservation Society of Ecuador (WCS) and the local communities of the Ecuadorian Amazon to start a project that would protect charapas turtles, a species that is classified as “vulnerable” by the IUCN Red List. The local communities along the river protect the river banks where the charapas lay their eggs, providing a controlled, safe environment for breeding. Once the hatchlings are ready to be released, guests of the Anakonda and Manatee vessels take part in the freeing of the turtles into the wild. This sustainable model allows the communities to receive income for their labor in protecting the treasures of the Amazon.
Garcia has also set up an arrangement with the Quechua community in an effort to stabilize and increase the population of pink river dolphins. Since 2010, the Cocaya region of the rainforest has been designated as a protected area for pink river dolphins. The dolphins are, of course, allowed in and out of the region, but there is no hunting of the dolphins permitted in Cocaya. Having areas like this within the Amazon is crucial to the survival of the species. This project supports conservation, creates a greater chance for tourists to see wildlife, and again, affords the communities the ability to support themselves in a sustainable way.
In addition to the conservation projects, Garcia designs his itineraries with cultural encounter activities where guests can meet community members, learn about their traditions, and experience new tastes like prepared yuca, maito with salt and pepper, and non-alcoholic chicha. Each trip to the rainforest is designed with the intent of mutual benefit for the guests, communities, and environment. Garcia says, “The people want to share their culture and they want to be guides.”
Looking forward, there is still much work to be done. The presence of the oil industry is still strong within the region and the threats of outside civilization still linger. When asked about what he thinks a good outcome for the communities would be, Garcia says, “We are hoping that they can survive. That is the important point. Otherwise, they will be eaten by civilization and other cultures. Our main concern is to help them, share more with them, and provide them with opportunities.”