Field Study and Service-Learning MediaBlog

30 May, 2011

Achiote: Los Rapaces Ecotourism Group

Community development
The name of the restaurant “Los Repaces” is inspired by a kind of raptor (eagle or predator), which is known to take full advantage of its environment. The restaurant owners and locals believe that communities can survive and thrive off of what’s given to them by nature. People are very proud of their own land, diversity of birds, and natural surroundings that are filled with rich resources. We have witnessed that they truly built a sustainable community with their own hands, rely on the immediately available resources and their belief in communal interest. Rather than merely chasing after the artificial, global and commercial, they are more developed than the rest of the world by returning to what’s truly natural, local and original. As shown in the picture, most of the restaurant workers are female. The restaurant business creates jobs for the women from the town, who traditionally were expected to stay at home to raise the children. Men are viewed as the breadwinner of the household and owner of the property and land. This kind of cultural arrangement prevents women from accessing social and economic power. They are often not given education and training from youth, never expected to compete, gain independence or succeed in the marketplace growing up. As a result, women are more vulnerable to unemployment than men. While men can leave home to work in the city, women and children are left behind, which creates potential problems for the family and community. Vast lands are abandoned or exploited for commercial uses, which leaves abundant natural resources and habitats uncared for.

The restaurant conveniently awards the women a stable source of income with skills that they already have without taking them away from their nourishing and supportive roles at home and in the community. Moreover, it minimizes the negative psychological and socioeconomic impact of the unequal cultural arrangement by empowering women economically and promoting interdependence socially. It allows women to fulfill the female role of nourishing their children and homeland, while gaining revenue and contributing to the society as ecotourism professionals. The women feel proud about their business and contribution to local prosperity, are happier to stay close to their families and home, and build a harmonious community. It solves the problem of unemployment and uneven distribution of wealth. Potentially, it will generate locally-sustainable economic profit and establish their land as the world famous bird watcher paradise by providing convenience and authentic service for tourists.

International Assistance
The local sustainable development group CEASPA was started in 2003, which spearheaded the initiatives of community development and the idea of women empowerment. They encouraged the restaurant owner and many locals to come up with self-sustaining business ideas, and offered them necessary funds and community support. Many international efforts are also behind the financing, construction, and development of the ecotourism restaurant. For example, the Peace Corp volunteer came up with the idea and stayed for a year to help the group to build the restaurant and support the women in 2005. A Spanish organization helped them build the protector around and over the well in case that clean water could not reach the community. As a community, they are guaranteed access to clean water for all seasons. Colorado State University professor and students from U.S.A came to visit and built the museum coffee house, where they can educate visitors about their organic coffee farm, original and modern production site, and manufacturing process. The U.S also provided the wood and materials already in place to construct the restaurant so that the locals do not have to cut the trees around. Therefore, although it started with individual will and community conscience, the restaurant by the community, for the community, and of the community, is a collective effort of an international community.

Economic development
Even though organic farms provide high quality food, and local ecotourism services enhanced experiences for customers, the farmers and workers are not reaping what they truly deserve. In the current economic system, comparing to the rest of the supply chain, the farmers provide the raw material such as coffee beans, staples, and vegetables that are not nearly rewarded as much as the commercial activities of distribution, promotion, packaging, and marketing by large corporations. The product’s added value is not recognized for its production, which has essential impact on its quality.  Rather, the profit flows unevenly to the far end—to reward the large global distribution networks (energy consumption monsters), marketing communication/advertisement (psychological manipulation), as well as in-store and shelf display (artificial aesthetics). The questions we must persist to ask are: what is the genuine value that customers eventually receive? Who contributes the most along the way? By calling question and doubts to the existing system in search of fair trade, we can come closer to envisioning an alternative model and reward system that will take consideration and care of all.

As the world acknowledged best bird watching spot, the community takes pride in its abundant natural resources. On one hand, the community establishes a close tie with the rest of the world; on the other hand, the world demands economic exchanges and a share of their resources. There is profit and danger in unchained development. In a global context, although they have embraced modern economy by welcoming visitors, they do not merely extract resources and use it for economic profit exclusively because they understand profit in a holistic and complete sense. For example, the owner told us that she does not distribute the restaurant’s profit, but rather the group bundles up the money every month and distributes it by the effort that members have put into the business. The restaurant also provides employment opportunities and provides support for women with no income. They never lose sight of the value in people that they love, planet that they live in, and plants that they rely on, in face of desirable economic profit and expansion opportunities.The locals seem to have recognized that like biodiversity, community activities needs to be diverse and serve different functions. It is hard to imagine the local economy, environment and community relationship if every family opens a restaurant. For future business ideas, people should think from a larger picture of the community needs, capability and capacity, not just from individual economic profit goal; because everybody can and should be able to contribute to the health and diversity of the community. So far there is still only one restaurant in the community, and people continue to come up with sustainable and profitable farming and trade activities inspired by local or neighboring community and organizations in Panama.

The ecotourism development goes hand in hand with community conscientiousness of sustainable development and business opportunities. The owner started the business by using seed money received from CEASPA (the Panamanian Center for Social Action) to invest and sell locally-made coconut bread and tamales. With the support of tourists and its community, it has grown from a small entrepreneurial venture to a sustainable restaurant business. It is an empowering idea that, without micro financing projects from large international financing and support, but with the help of local groups such as CEASPA and their own hands, the locals built and improved the community by forming organic farming groups and keeping promises they made to consumers. The locals maintained relatively low levels of extraction by reducing resource consumption and making full use of waste. The locals help protect the ecosystem & spread the word to others, which is essential in providing aesthetic services (birds, biodiversity and landscape), and provisional service (food, water, and energy, etc) to sustain and support family and create a prosperous community. In fact, the people requested that the restaurant stay open longer to serve the community, not just for tourist groups. Now it has become a business that can serve both internal and external demands, almost equally.

Obviously, the idea of the community has also been enlarged because of the economic activities of the restaurant. It becomes a chain of benefit in ecotourism, employment, community development, and economy. Based on economic theory, any exchange should provide value for trade partners so that they can focus on what they are good at and take advantage of what they have most effectively.  Hence, business relations should be established in order to share with others what we each have to offer for the betterment of the community and environment.

Energy cost and hidden costs
The restaurant uses butane gas and wood as its primary source to cook food. The wood is directly cut down from nearby trees, and is used sparingly for additional fuel to supplement the butane gas, which is bought from the nearest city. It is important to recognize that despite the local’s effort to provide ecotourism while preserve the environment, any human or business activities inevitably places energy and resource demand on the local environment. Butane is used commonly by campers as fuel.  However, it does have negative effects on the environment and human health. Butane burns to form water vapor and carbon dioxide, which contributes to greenhouse gases. Furthermore, inhalations of butane can cause health concerns such as euphoria, drowsiness, narcosis, asphyxia, cardiac arrthymia, and frostbite. In fact, the paper “Emission of nitrogen dioxide from butane gas heaters and stove indoors,” from the American Journal of Applied Sciences, indicated that that burning butane gas can create nitrogen dioxide, a toxic gas, and therefore represents a human health hazard. Nevertheless, the restaurant’s only alternative to burning wood is using butane, which is a highly flammable gas.

What’s available and prevalent in the energy market and in their natural environment determines the extent of impact and amount of waste that we can make. Technology for renewable and clean energy faces tremendous inertia in reaching down to the common people because of its high cost and limited availability. Given available energy resources, the best individuals can do is to minimize energy consumption and resource extraction. The restaurant buys the 100 pound gas tank that lasts for 20 days for $62 dollars: Thus consuming 5 lbs. of butane costing approximately $1.61 per day. Using only 5 pounds per day represents the restaurant’s understanding to use as little butane as possible while creating healthy and delicious meals to its customers. Moreover, the wood the restaurant uses is mostly wood that is picked up from trees that had previously fallen. The restaurant uses cutting down trees as a last resort, and when the one does cut down a tree for the restaurant, all parts of the bark is used for fuel.

Traditional Food and Waste Treatment
During an interview, the owner identified one of the major differences between her restaurants and others, especially those in the cities. She claimed that her group promotes a circular system, where the locals benefit. The food in the picture is one of the main dishes served at the restaurant. It contains rice, chicken, beans, lettuce, tomato, and bean paste. The restaurant buys the materials needed for creating this delicious and rich plate by buying them from the local community that sells various vegetables, fruits, and meat. The restaurant also hires people to cook for them, which in turn provide an income for the cooks, who can invest money into sustaining their crops, vegetables, fruits, and meat, which they would sell to the restaurant for food. This type of circular system is only possible because of the local community, and is far different from the linear system one tends to see in the United States, or in many bigger corporations and restaurants, which solely rely on externalizing and reducing costs for a bigger profit margin. Instead, the restaurant focuses not only on its annual revenue, but the wellbeing of its community that surrounds it. This is a display of true community consciousness and responsibility. The restaurant is fulfilling its obligation to operate in the greater interest of the greater society.  That is: Providing jobs, wages, and buying food from locals, while pursuing their mission of creating economic value for the owner.

In the rare occasion that the food is not finished (because the food tastes amazing), the restaurant does not act irresponsibly like the bigger city restaurants and catering services, which simply throw away their leftover food along with other inorganic wastes. Instead, the owner collects all the leftover food each day as a primary source of food for her pigs she has at her home. The waste returns to become nourishment for animals and decompose in nature—human waste can integrate naturally into the circular system of the ecosystem gain. Indeed, the food itself is not wasted at all, and as the ecotourism group’s name suggests, the restaurant owner uses all possible resources to their maximum potential.

Owner Interview and Additional Thoughts
The owner confidently stated in the end that the restaurant and the group is a replicable, and in fact she started her business within one year. She was able to create a sustainable restaurant with the help of the land, its resources, the community, and international help to accomplish this significant step in true sustainable development, instead of solely economic growth. This is not one success story of a talented or lucky individual. As the owner said: "any women from the village could do it".  However, it should not be mere replication of the same restaurant business model, but rather a sustainable community mindset, ethic, and effort.  At the same time, whether building similar restaurants that would end up as success is questionable. While there is no doubt that her circular system should be replicated and adapted to fit different communities, there is only an extent to which restaurants should be built. While the restaurant may not be the best initiative to replicate, the inspiration and ideas behind the restaurant are certainly a display of social responsibility and sustainability. Whether it is preserving the environment while taking full advantage of what it gives the people, creating bonds and trust in the community, providing jobs and wages for cooks, educating about women’s rights, or minimizing and efficiently using waste to provide other means, the existence of this restaurant and ecotourism group creating this sustainable community and environmental is nothing short of miraculous. The group has managed to persuade the community to work and trust each other to develop sustainably in ecological, social, and economical means.  This local sustainable development effort is simple but not easy. It requires substantial and persistent amount of individual dedication, natural resource, family support, community participation, as well as international assistance. Furthermore, many intangible values pave the foundation of their success, the local’s traditional belief of self-sustaining and respect for nature, value simple attitude of joy and contentment from family, and nourish the sense of community and solidarity.

Author: Yangzi Jin and Tetsuro Miyatake
Foundation of Sustainability, Professor Karian
2011 Semester At Sea Short Term Voyage