The role of communities in conservation success with Böëna Lodges, Costa Rica

14 minute read

Written by Rebecca Woolford, Senderos 

Conservation projects are about more than landscapes and wildlife. In fact, the success and longevity of a conservation project hinges upon how much - or how little - local communities are engaged in not only the problem but the solution. 

Nature conservation, at its core, is a social process.

With a fierce passion for enterprises which work in balance with people and nature, Priscilla (see below) is at her happiest when she is empowering local communities. 

Read on to discover how this looks in one of the world’s best ecotourism destinations, in an insightful interview with Böëna Lodges sustainability manager. 

Working within tourism since 2005, Priscilla Murillo has witnessed the vision of one lodge grow into 4 unique sites. From the Pacuare River to the Cloud Forest, Böëna Lodges brings together a network of 5 sustainable focused properties in Costa Rica.

Senderos' stories celebrate the positive cultural and environmental impact that sustainable and regenerative tourism can bring to destinations, and Böëna Lodges does just that.

priscilla boena lodges

Priscilla Murillo, sustainability manager at Böëna Lodge

Welcome Priscilla, it's wonderful to have you here. Responsible for 5 unique eco-lodges across Costa Rica, it sounds like you’ve landed a dream job. Can you give us some insight into the life of the sustainability manager?

"It's my pleasure to be here, and yes it’s a dream job. Being a sustainability manager means working in balance. Like an ecosystem, everything is interconnected.

I cover four different areas of Costa Rica that are all equally spectacular. We're currently in the “green season” which translates as “rainy season”, so it's incredibly lush and green. 

The 5 eco-retreats are located across four unique sites. There’s Pacuare Lodge, Lapa Rios lodge, Tortuga Lodge, Cloud Forest Lodge and Monteverde Lodge.

Across these five properties we have such an amazing team of local people. And these people are what makes a different way of operating. 

When you are received as a guest at Böëna, when you are hosted by people that are from the local area, who know the recipes, the producers, the projects in their community - it’s a unique experience. 

Every Böëna Lodge is located in a truly spectacular place, a pristine paradise. At Böëna Wilderness Lodges, we are guided by the philosophy of the four Cs founded by The Long Run. Culture, Community, Conservation, and Commerce. 

With this we have a huge responsibility to make sure that these locations not only remain “pristine paradises” but become even better through the work we do. Sustainability is about far more than just doing less harm, it’s about creating a net-positive impact."

bungalow
Accessible by white-water raft and drinks served to guests @ Pacuare Lodge

It’s great to hear you mention the Long Run's 4 C’s as it’s the framework we use at Senderos. Could you talk us through each ‘C’ and what kind of initiatives Böëna Wilderness Lodges is involved in? 

"The first C is Conservation. We have more than 2,000 acres of nature private reserves across the five wilderness lodges. Since 2009, Pacuare Lodge has supported the Jaguar Program, and we have since widened the initiative to the other lodges - Lapa Rios and Monteverde.

A top predator of these tropical forests, the jaguar is a keystone species, as it controls the populations of herbivores (deer, peccaries, mountain pigs, etc.). It keeps everything in balance. 

Upon signing an agreement with National University we have been providing their researchers with food and lodging, we support cameras and equipment needed for their expeditions including tent camps. We provide them with camping tools, transportation, and whatever research needs they have. 

Working with the private sector, public organisations, NGOs - there's a lot of people working towards the same goal of gathering information and doing critical research to make better decisions for conservation and the protection of the Jaguar.

The next C is Community. For the Jaguar program, we are at the beginning stages of an initiative with our indigenous neighbours. As camera guardians they will play an important role to better support the wider research in the area. 

One of my favourite examples of community is our engagement in education. By focusing on education we naturally integrated into the communities, their families and everything we do in conservation is connected.  

Tortuga Lodge is very remote. From San Jose it’s a three-hour drive followed by a 1.5-hour boat ride through the rivers and canals that characterise this corner of the country.

bungalow
From chocolate and coffee tours to baby turtles hatching @ Tortuga Lodge

There are very limited options in terms of education in this part of Costa Rica, so we sponsored a music school which grew into 2 locations. Providing more choice and opportunity is amazing for the kids. It is a great project, the only problem we have is that we now have a waiting list of kids trying to enter the school. 

Böëna Wilderness Lodges fund the teachers, music supplies, instruments and other things like transportation and meals when/where it's required. 

It’s worth saying that even though Costa Rica has a very well-established public education system, post-pandemic it has been really difficult for many of the schools. 

The music school at Tortuga Lodge leads nicely into the third C, Culture. 

Calypso music was introduced into Costa Rica by Jamaican immigrants who settled along the Caribbean coast. It began as a form of communication between slaves from Africa. 

The Calypso music, taught at the school, is a Caribbean style music that was dying out because there were too few people passing it onto future generations. To keep this Caribbean heritage and save it from being lost we created the school. 

We have produced a book about the story of how Tortuga was founded and by whom it was founded. In fact we’ve honoured and celebrated them by placing their names on each room at the lodge. 

At Pacuare Lodge, our closest neighbours are the Cabécar Indians - Costa Rica’s largest indigenous group, who live in harmony with the rainforest. We’ve supported members of a clan that lives in the nearby Nairi Awari Indigenous Reserve to build a typical Cabécar rancho (a thatched house) a short hike from the lodge, creating an area for their tools, materials and techniques.

We create commerce opportunities to keep their culture alive, providing a way to engage our guests with them and ensure their way of life remains - it’s been a work in progress since the very beginning. 

bungalow
Cabécar, the largest indigenous group in Costa Rica.

The final C is Commerce. Commerce is all about the exchange of goods or services. There are so many areas we could talk about within supplies and logistics, it is a really big piece.

As a sustainability manager you constantly chip away at the areas for improvement. It’s a never ending journey and exciting learning process. I think that we need to talk more openly about this process of trying failing, trying failing, it’s a natural part of the journey in sustainability. 

This C - commerce - is a big part of my role, it’s something I work on everyday. It’s not easy because we provide quality gastronomy, and a level of service, which means the review of our supply chain remains a work in progress. 

Although we’ve built a strong community of local food providers at each of the lodges, the ideal scenario would be to be able to say, “We have 100% of our food supply from locally sourced, sustainable producers,” but we are not there yet. 

When we first installed solar panels at Pacuare Lodge, they were not very efficient, but that was the technology back then. Since then we have invested in research, and now we do things differently. We now have 2 complimentary ways to generate green energy. We have solar panels and the hydroelectric system. 

The C’s don’t work independently, they are all interconnected and work together.’

Böëna Wilderness Lodges in Costa Rica are clearly committed to sustainability. As you well know, it’s an ever-evolving journey not a destination. Where do you see the biggest areas for improvement there? 

"There are 2 areas for improvement that come to my mind first. Supply and energy. 

Supply…. 

Sourcing quality local produce at each location is an exciting challenge and I know there's plenty of room for improvement. I would love to say that we have 100% local supply in each location, strengthening relationships, supporting producers and local markets. 

As a guide, over 50% of our supplies are locally sourced, but that number varies for each lodge. For example, Tortuga is very remote. We don’t have a farm to grow food, and there is no nearby agriculture so supplies are brought in. 

Energy… 

The other one is energy. It’s not just about reaching the current demands but a growing demand for energy as the lodges evolve. We service 122 rooms across five lodges. 

As our guest services expand - for example we introduced electricity at one of the lodges which previously didn’t have it, some of our kitchens have introduced better equipment - it all increases the amount of energy we use. 

It’s all about finding a balance between what we need and what we can produce in clean, green energy and each of the 5 lodges pulls on different sources of energy. 

At Pacuare and Lapa Rios we produce our own clean energy using hydroelectric turbines and solar panels. Because it’s a remote location there are no public services such as waste collection or electricity. Since the very beginning we had to think outside the box and be self-sufficient because of its location. 

In Lapa Rios, we have invested heavily in solar panels and hydroelectric turbines. 

We do still have diesel generators but as a backup, they are used as a last resort. We try as much as possible to generate clean, green energy to supply power to the green lodges.’

bungalow
Aguti reserve night tour @ Monteverde Lodge

Böëna Lodges have acquired more than 800 hectares (1,977 acres) of primary and secondary forest in fragile locations in Costa Rica. That’s huge! This acquisition of land is critical for creating ‘wildlife corridors’. Could you tell us more?

"Even in somewhere as green as Costa Rica, wildlife corridors are essential. Just as roads and transport links better connect people and cultures; wildlife sub-corridors are important for wildlife. 

From big animals like jaguars to insects, wildlife corridors are so important, particularly with climate change causing more pressure and issues. Access to water is an example of a basic need that corridors provide wildlife. It's a really exciting subject to learn about.

Costa Rica is considered a critical connection point, it is in an important location for both North and South America. Jaguars, the most amazing beings that we have in the Americas, move from North to South and Costa Rica is that ‘path’ through. 

Many years ago the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) joined forces with the governments and conservationists of Latin America to create The Barbilla-Destierro Corridor in Costa Rica. It was the first area to be created in efforts to save the Jaguar. This wildlife corridor connects the Central Valley with the Caribbean corridor, to Barbilla National Park. 

This initiative marked the beginning of our own understanding about the importance of connection and corridors for wildlife. 

There was some really interesting research which started during the pandemic in the Osa Peninsula region in the national park. It revealed how human disturbance and visitation affects wildlife behaviours.’

As an ‘ecotourism’ destination, navigating greenwashing in Costa Rica can be hard, especially when so many places label themselves as ‘eco’. What's your opinion on greenwashing?

"I agree, there might well be greenwashing going on. There are however a lot of places trying their best to learn more about the topic of sustainability, be better and get involved. 

There are people out there doing some great things - amazing things in tourism and in other industries in Costa Rica too. There are also some companies that are only just starting out.

As a sustainability manager, I am still learning. Sometimes you think you're doing great in a specific area and then new technology comes out OR new research is published and you realise, “Wow, that was not as good as I first thought,” and that's okay. 

The key to approaching sustainability is to ensure that everything is in constant evaluation and is open to review. It’s essential to never fall into a complacent mindset, thinking that you're doing everything right and that there's nothing new to learn.’

Operating across 4 pristine areas of Costa Rica, do you have a favourite out of the five lodges? Whether for its location or sustainability initiatives. 

"That's very difficult to say as they are all very special. If I had to say one it would be Pacuare Lodge. As the first founding member of the collection of five lodges it has my heart. It’s also the place that enabled me to get involved with the other four. 

I've been involved with Pacuare Lodge for many years. The story of my life so far has been at that site, and it’s not just been my work time but my personal time. 

Pacuare Lodge has 20 suites and is situated on the banks of one of the world’s most scenic, white-water wonders, the Pacuare River. The arrival experience is unique in itself as it’s via our white water rafting which is just amazing. This river is known as one of the top 10 rivers in the world for white water rafting according to National Geographic.

It’s also the wildlife that’s there. From when you open your eyes until you sleep, you witness such biodiversity - it's turtle season here currently.

Tortuga and Monteverde lodge in the cloud forest are also spectacular. 

It’s not easy to choose between them. It all depends on what people want most, each lodge offers something special and unique."

bungalow
Tesorito Creek Experience @ Pacuare Lodge 

With so many wonderful initiatives and projects. What's next for Böëna Lodges? 

"My next focus is to get all of the 5 hotels to the same level in terms of sustainability and service. With a particular focus on the newest additions to the collection.

Pacuare lodge is the pioneer, founded in 1986. In 2019 Lapa Rios joined the family and then the other lodges followed in 2021 such as Tortuga and Monteverde. The team is working hard to get all the hotels to the same level. 

I’m lucky because I have such a great team, that’s a big part of the magic here. Such an amazing team in each one of the communities across the four regions of Costa Rica."

You can learn more about Böëna Lodges by clicking below.

Pacuare Lodge

Lapa Rios Lodge

Monteverde Lodge

Tortuga Lodge

« Back to Stories