Our Making a Difference award winner for this month is Blancaneaux Lodge, a Rainforest Alliance Verified™ eco-resort owned by legendary Hollywood film director, Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola first found the abandoned lodge in the remote reaches of the Belizean rainforest and decided to bring it back to life, first as a private vacation home and then as a resort open to the public – all the while maintaining a firm commitment to protecting the beautiful natural environment in which it is located. Neil Rogers, Director of Marketing for Coppola Resorts, tells us the story of how Mr. Coppola stumbled upon this jungle paradise, and what he's doing to uphold the highest standards of sustainability there.
Q. What are the origins of Blancaneaux Lodge, before Coppola found it as an abandoned complex?
Rogers: Blancaneaux Lodge is named after the original owner of the land, Michael Blancaneaux, a French botanist who worked with the Natural History Museum in London. He had traveled throughout southeastern Mexico and British Honduras, the former British colony now known as Belize. During his travels, he learned numerous Mayan dialects and occasionally helped broker peace between the Mayans and the British forces. For payment of his services to the British crown, he wrote to the governor of British Honduras and requested 60 acres of land on the banks of Privassion Creek. This parcel of land is now the site of Blancaneaux Lodge.
Q. How did Coppola find Blancaneaux Lodge?
R: In the early 1980s, Francis Ford Coppola visited the fledgling democracy of Belize to try to convince the government to apply for a satellite license and become a communications hub. They turned him down--but during that trip, Coppola fell in love with Belize, whose verdant jungles reminded him of the Philippines, where he'd filmed Apocalypse Now. He visited an abandoned lodge overlooking a creek in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve and bought it. For more than a decade afterwards, his family and friends used it as a private retreat.
Then, in 1993, he opened his jungle paradise to the public. According to Coppola, having a resort in the remote reaches of Belize isn't intimidating at all. It's like being on location for a movie, he said – you just bring everything with you or build it yourself. Coppola has done just that. He is delighted that he can be deep in the rainforest and still use a laptop computer that runs on clean, renewable energy provided by his river-powered hydroelectric plant.
Q. Why is sustainability so important for Blancaneaux Lodge?
R: Coppola sees his role as that of a conservator, preserving the pristine environment in which Blancaneaux exists. Consequently, he is a strong supporter of Belize's commitment to ecotourism. At Coppola Resorts, we believe that individual tourism businesses can make a real difference through adopting and championing sustainable practices. By working closely with a wide range of community-based partners and by inspiring our own staff, we hope that real and meaningful change can be achieved in the long term.
As hoteliers, adopting sustainable practices and conserving resources on one's own property is a great start, but what ultimately defines a company's true commitment to conservation and sustainability is support for the wider challenges faced by protected area managers, NGOs, and local communities. Blancaneaux Lodge is lucky enough to be located in one of Central America's last remaining wilderness areas. In order to protect this undeveloped and complex landscape and preserve it for our guests and future generations of Belizeans, we strive to learn more about the region's rare and endangered species and their critical habitats. To this end, we collaborate with local and international researchers, make our own operations as environmentally friendly and sustainable as we can, encourage our staff to spread sustainable ideas in their own communities, and help inspire school children through fun, hands-on conservation outreach.
Q. What conservation projects is Blancaneaux Lodge involved in?
R: Blancaneaux Lodge works closely with Friends for Conservation and Development, the Belize Raptor Research Institute, and the Ix Jaguar Density Research Project. We also support the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund-supported Neotropical Bat Risk Assessment Project, Northeastern State University's mesocarnivore survey, and the scarlet macaw monitoring and nest site protection work undertaken by a range of partners including the Rainforest Restoration Foundation, the Loro Parque Fundacion, and the Mountain Pine Ridge Environmental Coalition (MPREC).
We support environmental initiatives in several ways. We help gather data for wildlife research in the form of retrieving and recording footage from motion sensitive cameras, satellite telemetry monitoring of raptors and macaws, and bi-monthly point counts for raptor monitoring. We provide logistical support to researchers and their staff, including accommodations, food, transportation, and manpower.
Educational outreach is also extremely important to Blancaneaux Lodge. We provide community education and outreach support in collaboration with NGO and international funding partners. For example, we participated in a poster campaign aimed at educating local farmers and communities that raptors help them and are not a threat.
We support local NGOs by increasing their visibility and key messaging via media support. Whenever we have visiting journalists, we invite NGO leaders to meet with them in the hopes their valuable conservation work will be highlighted in the resulting media coverage.
Q. How are you supporting the local community?
R: We primarily support local communities through direct and indirect employment and through a policy of sourcing goods and services locally. Almost 100% of our staff at Blancaneaux Lodge is Belizean, and as a hotel group, we are one of the largest employers in Belize with a guest to staff ratio often in excess of 1:3 during our busiest periods.
We provide educational scholarships for girls enrolled in local schools, contribute monthly to the locally-run Cornerstone Foundation, donate to local charities, provide used furniture to schools, and encourage our "green team" at the lodge to promote sustainable practices in their own communities.
We recently collaborated with the Rainforest Restoration Fund with support from a Woodland Park Zoo Jaguar Conservation Fund grant to establish a Wildlife Watching Club pilot project at the San Antonio Village School. The school and community are located close to Blancaneaux and are adjacent to two protected areas: the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve and the Elijio Panti National Park. Our goals are to curtail hunting by children and adolescents, establish pride in local wildlife and protected areas, and, in time, turn the youth into Belize's future environmental ambassadors and field biologists.
We provide classroom lectures on wildlife and their habitats, conservation, and organic farming. We then supplement classroom activities by taking the students into the field to go birding and service motion-sensitive jaguar research cameras. The field trips by our naturalist guides are followed by refreshments at Blancaneaux Lodge, where wildlife photos from the remote cameras are downloaded to laptops so the kids can see them. We also provide tours of our organic gardens, where they can learn about organic farming and sustainable practices from our staff. A secondary goal is to establish an organic garden for the school.
Q. Of all of the hotels in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve area, what makes Blancaneaux special?
R: There are actually only a handful of hotels located within the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, and all of them share a wonderful and spectacular ecosystem. One of the factors that make Blancaneaux Lodge so special is the spectacular setting, along with the tumbling waterfalls, huge granite boulders, and many rock pools of Privassion Creek.
We're located at the western edge of the Mountain Pine Ridge and, within just a few miles, there are steep escarpments and canyons that drop into the lush moist broadleaf forests of Elijio Panti National Park. This ecotone (transitional) habitat is very diverse and has one of the highest densities of jaguars in the Americas--we've recorded 11 individual jaguars within a 10-mile radius of the lodge. There are also high densities of puma, ocelot, margay, and jaguarundi. Birders can enjoy varied habits and more than 350 species close to the lodge. There are well over 100 orchid species close by, and the region is pock-marked with caves rich in Maya artifacts. Also nearby are Caracol, Belize's largest Maya site, Chiquibul National Park, and Belize's only nesting site of the endangered scarlet macaw (Ara macao cyanoperta).
Beyond the natural wonders, there's the amazing service provided by our staff and the welcoming attitude and friendliness of the locals that Belize is famous for. Blancaneaux Lodge has been voted the #1 Resort in Central and South America for two of the last three years in the annual Travel + Leisure Readers Poll--something that we're very proud of. We believe this recognition is a reflection of how much effort our staff puts into making our business successful and sustainable in the long term.