Douglas Trent Interview
Dr. Jonathan Coulis of Emory University in Decatur, GA, interviews Focus Conservation Fund President Douglas Trent. Emory is one of the world's leading research universities and Dr. Coulis leads a program to give voice to the unheard.
Dr. Coulis: Douglas, you have a long history in Brazil and other places. Can you tell me how you got started in your work?
Douglas: Focus Tours, www.focustours.com, is a nature tour company I founded after graduating from the University of Kansas with an Honours Degree in Environmental Studies in 1979. I moved to Brazil in 1980 and set to travel through the Amazon. On that trip, I sat in the front seat of a bus in the state of Mato Grosso, passing through tall, lush rainforest. As we reached the top of one hill, the entire landscape changed to a wall of burning trees across a recently deforested field. As we approached the fire the road appeared like a tunnel, giving us passage through the inferno. As we entered I witnessed a black jaguar leap onto the road in front of us. This was the first jaguar I had seen in the wild, and I was captivated as it ran forward before diving back into the rainforest. This event evoked both delight and despair and led me to create Focus Tours to raise funds to preserve nature and cause social change by alleviating poverty. I launched my business and authored a paper “Save the Amazon, Save Ourselves” that outlined strategies to prevent deforestation.
In 1983 I was invited to meet likeminded people with similar experiences witnessing deforestation, held in San Francisco. We invited the major NGO’s at the time, and together created a strategy to collaborate to stymy tropical deforestation, among other issues. This agreement became the Rainforest Conservation Movement, which recognizes the members of our conference as the co-founders of the movement.
Dr. Coulis: Interesting start for a young man just out of college! Tell me what happened next.
Douglas: I founded Focus Tours (FT) in 1981, as the first and only professional nature tour company offering tours in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia. For almost two decades, I had the perhaps the only company designing and guiding tours in these countries for operators and travel agencies around the world. The funds generated through the business were reinvested strategically to programs that jointly aimed to alleviate poverty and preserve nature.
In the early 1980s I was guiding bird and wildlife tours into Brazil’s Pantanal on the somewhat recently opened Transpantaneira raised dirt highway. I noticed a large concentration of endangered hyacinth macaws, the world’s largest parrot, on the land of a Pantaneiro, (a term for people from the Pantanal) named Lerinho de Arruda Falcão. He owned a simple bar in a shack by the side of the road. I arranged to take my tourists there for a lunch and drinks from his bar. I had recently used Focus Tours profits to provide 6 pair of binoculars to the guards that were fighting poaching in the area. I saw working with Lerinho as a way to help a local landowner see the value in protecting the macaw population near his property.”
“After a decade of helping him and his family, Lerinho showed me a canine tooth of a jaguar, and I learned that Lerinho was a jaguar hunter. He killed them in the traditional way. His dogs would tree the 180kg jaguar, and he would approach with a steel tipped spear. As the cat leaped on him, he would raise the spear and the cat would impale itself, dying just centimeters from his face! I was shocked to learn that my friend was a jaguar hunter, but appreciated the trust he showed in me.”
Two weeks later I was back and Lerinho was there, with his extended Pantaneiro family, and that canine. He looked me square in the eyes, holding the canine between us, telling me that I had proven myself to be a friend of his Pantaneiro community. “If I would accept this canine as a symbol” he stated, “I would become a Pantaneiro, and a member of his family”. Of course, I accepted, and then everything started to change. Pantaneiro ranchers began to stop and chat with me along the roads while looking at wildlife with tour groups. They thanked me for my support, much to the amazement of my clients.”
Dr. Coulis: Very impressive! What happened next?
Douglas: A couple of weeks later, I offered Lerinho a new deal: If he would stop killing jaguars, I would help his family get into the jaguar tourism business. I explained how his earnings from tourism would more than offset his losses from jaguars killing his cattle or his income provided from killing jaguars for other ranchers. Lerinho agreed to the deal and I set the plan into motion. As one of the only professional tour operators in Brazil, my business attracted many clients at that time. Focus Tours received advanced payments form clients to prepay the ‘room nights,’ enabling Lerinho with funds to build the lodge. By building two rooms at a time, he could host smaller groups, and expand the infrastructure gradually. Our agreement typified a “win-win” for all parties involved.
Many clients who have joined my tours have not only become friends, but at times contributed in unexpected ways. A turning point came with a client named Joanne Devlin, of Black Diamond Paving in San Jose, California. Her company designed a system to finance the preservation of one hectare of nature in the tropics for each hectare they paved in the USA. With Joanne’s assistance, we offered to pay Lerinho the market price for each hectare he transitioned into reserve status. Focus Tours and Joanne / Black Diamond worked with Lerinho to create a 2,000 hectare Reserva Ecológico do Jaguar, the Jaguar Ecological Reserve. We gave it this name in English as tourists are drawn to visit reserves.
Dr. Coulis: I guess having Joanne on your tour really was important for your work in the region, providing much of the funding aside from what Focus Tours was able to contribute.
Douglas: Indeed Dr. Coulis. My clients were delighted to know that their tour was helping to preserve both the Pantaneiro culture and helping to save jaguars. Joanne and I soon founded the non-profit Focus Conservation Fund, in my native city of Santa Fe, New Mexico. This allowed my American clients to benefit from donations to this project. We were able to purchase beds, linens, mosquito nets, fans, a dry cell battery backup system that would charge when the generator was on and provide electricity later, solar water panels and household items, etc. for the restaurant. We also collaborated with volunteers to teach English and provide support for international tourists who traveled on their own. (Three are now Board Members!) In this way, many people contributed to building the infrastructure to preserve nature and host tourism. We used our connections to promote the Jaguar Ecological Reserve, providing it international fame. See www.jaguarreserve.com.
Dr. Coulis: Fantastic! This kind of private initiative to alleviate poverty and preserve nature was rare at the time. What were your next steps?
Douglas: For a community-based tourism project be successful, you need to give them all the tools and skills they will need, but they are the people that must make it successful. After getting international press coverage, which you can see in their site, in 2005, I informed the Pantaneiros that the project was theirs, not mine. I left the Transpantaneira as the tour destination Focus Tours was offering, and started operating tours on the Paraguay River out of Caceres.
Dr. Coulis: I think the wisdom and courage for them to be on their own and for you to restart your Pantanal tours in a new area speaks highly about both of you.
Douglas: Thank you! The success of the Jaguar Ecological Reserve project drew international attention. I received invitations to visit several countries to give a course on “How to Develop Community-based Ecotourism”. Research shows that the majority community-based tourism projects struggle to get off the ground or fail soon after. I designed my course based on the successful experience in Brazil. I have now given this 6-hour course on 5 continents, and it has led to consulting jobs in Zambia, Tanzania, Uganda, and Brazil. In the African countries, I spent 3 months in each, visiting national parks with government representatives. I talked with park directors to learn about problems they had with surrounding communities. I then talked with community leaders to hear of their problems with the parks. After consulting with the involved actors, I drafted a report with the results of the research and suggested resolutions for both sides. Following up I was please to see several of my ideas come to life as a result of this work.
Dr. Coulis: I understand that your work up to now led to other projects and programs. Will you please share these with us too?
Douglas: Based on my experience, in 2006 I started a consulting company in Brazil, SCDC do Brasil – Sustainable Community Development & Communication, with my business partner, Jussara Utsch. By 2007, together with Jussara we founded a Brazilian non-profit, the Instituto Sustentar de Responsibilidade Socioambiental. This Brazilian NGO now has the status as an OSCIP, an Organization in the Public Interest, based on transparency, and is at the highest of three levels. Only OSCIPs in Brazil are able to give Brazilian tax deductions for donations.”
Dr. Coulis: I find it very interesting that NGOs in Brazil don’t enjoy tax relief status as they do in other countries.
Douglas: I was surprised to learn this as well. Apparently corruption in NGOs led the government to create the OSCIP program, based on transparency. We started out being audited every year, and to get to the highest level, with the most donor benefit, we are now audited every 6 months, but continue to enjoy our tax-free status as a result.
Dr.Coulis: I have been a speaker at your Sustentar Forums on Sustainable Development. Can you tell us about this?
Douglas: In 2008, Jussara and I created the Instituto Sustentar, which in turn led to an annual event, SUSTENTAR - International Forum on Sustainable Development (http://www.sustentar.net). Now, after 11 consecutive years of giving this Forum in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, and later in São Paulo, it has been hailed as the most important event on sustainability in Latin America by both Brazil’s Minister of the Environment and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). These events bring in top speakers from Brazil and internationally, to present case studies and innovative strategies for sustainable development. We also created a Ranking initiative, with different corporations competing in different categories. Yet another initiative was a Hackathon, where 3 corporations brought us real problems they were having with implanting sustainability in their companies. A number of different teams worked on solutions for 72 hours, and then the finalists were at the 11th Sustentar Forum to present their solutions. Interestingly, these corporations later hired all finalists! We are working now on some other initiatives.
Dr. Coulis: I know of one of your programs we have not yet touch on. Tell me about the Pantanal Wildlife Program, Bichos do Pantanal.
Douglas: In 2012, while searching for opportunities to collaborate with interested partners, Douglas and Jussara designed a two-year research and “connect to nature” environmental education program. We selected the county of Cáceres, Mato Grosso, where I had been operating tourism, which hosted a sizable population of jaguars. I had been identifying individual jaguars found on my tours based on their forehead patterns, and documenting them photographically provided a useful strategy to establish the population size. In 2008 ICMBio (Brazil’s National Parks authority) at the Taiamã Ecological Station, ask me to partner them. You will see the invitation elsewhere in this site.
Via the Instituto Sustentar, we submitted the “Bichos do Pantanal” project to the Brazilian energy company Petrobras’ open competition to fund environmental preservation programs, and was awarded funding in 2012, setting in motion another project in the Pantanal region where I had now been working for 31 years. This two-year project involved research, environmental education using the connection to nature science, and economic development in the county of Cáceres, which ranked as the poorest in the state of Mato Grosso.
The Focus Conservation Fund donated 60 pair of binoculars to support the educational component of the program. At the end of the two-year program, in 2015, 12 scientific papers were published along with 6 Masters and Doctorate thesis, over 44,000 children interacted with the program showing the wildlife of the region, and going into the field with nature leaders that Douglas had trained. The program created a Stakeholder Network, with which the community asked the program to help develop ecotourism in the region. Douglas gave a training program for 50 guides and the University of Kansas sent English teachers who spent months in Cáceres teaching language skills. The program had a clear impact on the community, generating tourism and prompting infrastructure investment to create a road as a new destination in the Pantanal. Local officials accepted Douglas’s suggestion of calling it the TransPantanal of Cáceres, which carries the potential to host wildlife tours. The popular press extensively covered these transformations. By the end of the program journalistic outlets from 34 countries in eight different languages reported on the project. Our contact at Petrobras stated that the Bichos do Pantanal Program was the most successful program in the first two years of all the programs they have funded. See more in the media page of this site.
This program was also recognized by the Banco do Brasil and given a national award for tourism development.
In July 2018, Petrobras renewed this program for 27 months, this time including the counties of Cáceres and Porto Estrela to the north, with the Serra das Araras Ecological Station. I now spend part of each month in Cáceres and in the Serra das Araras Ecological Station wilderness area. This renewal was more effective than the first version that started in 2013, given the previous connections that were still in the region and welcomed us back, and what we had learned from the first program. We now have over 100,000 kids and adults that have taken part in our program, and the TransPantanal is already receiving tourists. Guides are speaking English, and we are reaching many others in the Porto Estrela county.
Dr. Coulis: I am happy to hear this as I have been dying to get the opportunity to join you on one of your research expeditions.
Douglas: I have been inviting you for years now, and trust you will eventually make it to Cáceres!
Dr. Coulis: Can you let me in on what you are doing and planning now?
Douglas: I am very excited about the Adventures of Birdman and Mick J. After Forbes magazine christened me the Birdman of Brazil (see link in the press pages), and we adopted our rescue dog, naming him Mick Jagger, I have been speaking to schools in many parts of the world and this network is growing. We have many possibilities in front of us now, with our experience. I put a lot of confidence in what the two NGOs, Focus Conservation Fund and Instituto Sustentar can do together. From increasing connection to nature environmental education to playing a strong role in the transition to a sustainable world, we are well situated to be a player!
Dr. Coulis: Thank you for this opportunity to interview you, Douglas. Let me know if I can ever assist you in any way.
Douglas: Thank you Dr. Coulis, and I really appreciate your taking the time to speak with me. I look forward to seeing you on the Paraguay River!
Douglas Brian Trent