Juan De Dios Carrasco Fernández (age 60) discovered his talent as a tour guide thanks to a simple coincidence. In 1998, he moonlighted as a photographer, taking photographs at social events in his village to earn extra money to support his four children. One day, while he was walking to a shop to have a roll of film developed, a woman asked him if he knew about Mulato Hill in Chongoyape. Juan told her he did and offered to show her the way. This first step as an accidental tour guide launched him on a long career in rural community tourism, which has made him the most important rural promoter on the northern coast of Peru.
Because he had lived in Chongoyape since he was 5 years old, his explanations to tourists also conveyed his love for its landscapes. That, combined with his extensive knowledge of the geography and history of the hill and its petroglyphs, led to an invaluable experience:
Dr. Cabana, who was passionate about archeology, got so excited by my explanations that she cancelled all the meetings she had scheduled in Chiclayo just to stay and admire the place and listen to my stories. She asked me how much I charged for my work as a guide. That surprised me, because I thought people would only pay me for photos. So she told me that my work was excellent and valuable. Thats when I realized that this was also a job opportunity that could be a source of income for the people in my community, who, like people in most of the country, are marginalized and live in poverty, farming small plots and raising a few animals to survive.
Excited by the possibility, Juan began to explore the hills near the area where he lived. Over time, his camera his inseparable companion captured the majesty of every one of the natural landscapes that he viewed with such pride.
Around 2000, Juan and a group of community members formed a small association of tour guides who were known for their eloquence in explaining the historical details of various places. Together they showed that Mulato Hill, the Chongoyape Reservoir and Chaparrí Hill had great potential as tourist attractions. Until then, no government organization had paid any attention to them.
Four years later, they contacted the Center for Research and Promotion of Sustainable Development (CIPDES), which helped them enhance their rural community tourism initiative in the Chaparrí Ecological Reserve, building the infrastructure needed to receive visitors. Eventually, Juan, his companions and the community organized and won legal recognition for the Association for Nature Conservation and Sustainable Tourism in Chaparrí (ACOTURCH).
Businesspeople say tourism isnt permanent. But for me, its a chance to show of the wonders of nature. If we conserve nature, we will have more opportunities and more tourism during our lifetimes and those of our children and grandchildren.
In 2008, thanks to the collaboration with CIPDES, Juan de Dios and ACOTURCH began working with Heifer Peru through the ongoing project of sustainable Development in the Muchik Farming Community, Chongoyape, Lambayeque.
With the project, we learned about agroecology, the sustainable management of dry forest resources, and political advocacy to promote community tourism in the region, laying the groundwork for food sovereignty in our farming community. We are improving our families living conditions. The agroecological farm plots provide nutritious food, and families can sell the surplus to generate income. Gender relations are improving, thanks to womens leadership in small animal management. We can proudly say that they are the ones who organize the sharing of guinea pigs and make it sustainable. Thanks to their dynamic work, we have Passed on the Gift to 10 of our communitys 12 sectors. We have solidified our organizational system, so we can invest 40 percent of the reserve admission fees in maintaining the reserve and 60 percent in health and education for the neediest families in our farming community.
Juan sees community tour guides as playing a very important role and says more effort is needed to ensure the professional quality of their work. That is the message he passes on to his companions, including his son, Antero, who at age 27 is also a photographer and tour guide:
I always insist that our village should have the best trained people. Thats why education is important. People from other places always come here, and it would be embarrassing not to be able to tell them about the things we have here. God has guided me. I always tell my children that they must never stop studying. Thats why I always carry a pen in my pocket. Although my parents were illiterate, my mother worked hard to educate me, even though my father was opposed to the idea. She didnt have money, so she paid for my primary school education with firewood. I went to high school after I was married. My wife Juana helped me. I got as far as the third year of high school, studying at night, and now I want to finish.
The way Juan sees it, trees enabled him to get an education as a child, and now, as an adult, he is repaying them with his work as a tour guide, helping other people understand the importance of conservation:
Love for trees is part of my nature. When I see a place where theyve been cut or destroyed, I cant help feeling angry.
Juan has many dreams for his community, and more of them are fulfilled every year. Leaders from his community, many of whom are young men and women who have been trained as promoters, are often invited by universities and other regional and national organizations to share the experience of their community, which has been recognized by the national government and the regional government of Lambayeque as the first private conservation area in the country to be managed by a farming community. Their experience can serve as a model to catalyze the development of other farming communities in the country.