Lapa Rios: A Model of Responsible Ecotourism and Sustainable Development
John Lewis came to the conclusion that his two years of teaching in the Peace Corps in Kenya, East Africa in the late 1970’s were the “best years of his life”. This realization came after 20 years of being a trial lawyer in Minneapolis, MN. He and Karen Lewis immediately started out for Costa Rica for what was decided would be an “adventure.” Never really having gotten emotionally out of the Peace Corps John Lewis wanted a change. It had to be a new country, a new language and culture, a new business or endeavor, but it also had to be something that would in some way contribute to other people and somehow make a difference.
After deciding that Costa Rica was a grounded possibility, John Lewis returned, hiring a local guide and set out looking for land from which to launch his new life. 25 acres would do but he ended up buying 1000 acres of endangered prime rainforest in the wilderness. The idea then became “private nature preserve” and ecotourism. Recognizing his vulnerability in such a remote location with such a large purchase in a strange land he set out on foot to meet all his contiguous neighbors carrying bags of cookies and loaves of bread as a welcome gift. He quickly learned his neighbors all had children with no hope of education. He organized the first Osa Peninsula neighborhood party at which the idea of building a school was hatched. The Carbonera School was built with donated funds and help from volunteer organizations and the US Army Corps of Engineers; it provides educational opportunities for his neighbors.
Now, what to do with the rainforest? What real difference is another 1000 acres of protected forest? He decided that what was needed more than more acres of protected rainforest was more “acres of awareness”. He could not save the rainforests of the world but perhaps becoming a model for others to follow could make a bigger difference than he could if what was done would motivate others to do the same.
Lapa Rios is now such a model with this mission statement: “No matter how you cut it a rainforest left standing is worth more than one cut down.” Rainforest preservation coupled with ecotourism and sustainable practices at Lapa Rios has demonstrated that such practices are practical, profitable and worthy of serious consideration in the overall scheme of environmental protection and cultural preservation. Various Lapa Rios neighbors with equally endangered prime rainforest have entered the ecotourism field and dedicated their land under the Lapa Rios model. This is Lewis’s definition of success.