Eco-tourism


Torres Del Paine, Chile, 2007

 

Purchasing your own ecosystem seems to be the latest trend to hit South America. From Chilean billionaires to Goldman Sachs…it would seem big businesses and entrepreneurs want a slice of South America’s environmental heritage. It’s all in the name of conservation (so they say).Millions of hectares worldwide are being bought by business leaders and placed in private charities, conservation trusts or handed over to governments as a bid to conserve and protect fragile environments. Has the corporate world suddenly woken up to the tired rhetoric of social and environmental responsibility? Or is this just another PR stunt to soothe their battered reputations during a worsening global financial crisis?

 

So here are some of the facts…

Sebastian Pinera is one of the richest men in Chile and is more attuned to managing real estate and aviation companies that the environment. Pinera bought Parque Tantauco on Chiloe Island, near Patagonia two years ago. He’s the proud owner of 120,000 hectares of inland virgin forests and a delicate ecosystem which supports offshore blue whales. He says his sole aim is to protect the area. Whilst Goldman Sachs acquired 270,000 hectares of alpine forest in Southern Chile and Argentina back in 2003. Laurence Linden, the then bank director, said: “Goldman Sachs is an investment bank, so we know what to do with shopping malls and apartment complexes. But an ecosystem down in Tierra del Fuego? We had to get out an atlas.” But even they recognized the environmental value of this land. The land is one of the last remaining pieces of a fragile alpine and coastal beech in South America and home to the guanaco, a llama-like animal and native lenga tree which takes 200 years to grow just 20 metres. Industrial forestry projects, overgrazing, oil spills and over-fishing have already taken their toll on this fragile eco-system. The bank have also vowed to protect the fragile eco-system.

First let me set the scene. Patagonia, is a region straddling Southern Chile and Argentina, and the most southern tip of the world before you hit Antartica. It has an abundance of rare flora and fauna, a population of endemic species from Magellenic Penguins to the elusive orca, and is framed by ‘crystal green lakes, volcanoes, untamed mountain ranges and magnificent glaciers that follow the Andes coastline’. Despite this obvious environmental value, only 5% of the area is protected as a national park and environmental threats are rising with increasing numbers of tourists and mineral miners flocking to the region. So basically it’s all about stewardship – should we (I) really be so cynical about who is in control of preserving this landscape? Surely the most important thing is that the West (American big business) is interested in conserving it and who really cares what their real motives might be.

 

The Moreno Glacier, Patagonia, Argentina - The world's last advancing glacier

The Moreno Glacier, Patagonia, Argentina - The world's last advancing glacier

Pinera, now an eco baron and a billionaire businessmen, has apparently been won over by the deep ecology movement. A philosophy that calls for a radical re-evaluation of man’s relationship with the planet. This theory stipulates that ‘we cannot go on with industrialism’s “business as usual.” Without changes in basic values and practices, we will destroy the diversity and beauty of the world, and its ability to support diverse human cultures. This radical environmental movement advocates redesigning our whole way of life to focus on values and methods that preserve the ecological and cultural diversity of natural systems. Basically putting nature first. The movement has focused much of its work in Patagonia, picking it out as an area at risk from the monoculture of the industrial and modernist development model. I find it ironic and a little bit ridiculous that this billionaire has treated himself to an ecosystem in the name of deep ecology. Has he actually read any of their literature? When he eventually gets round to it…he might finally realise that his whole ‘corporate’ way of life conflicts with the basic environmentalist discourse that emerged after the publication of Rachel Carson’s highly influential book Silent Spring.

I am not saying that it is a bad thing that the corporate world and America’s business men are taking an interest in environmentalism. It should be celebrated that these kind of issues are being put on the international agenda. What I am saying is that it should be for the right reasons. My worry is that some may be buying land to improve their public image and as a kind of status symbol, whilst others may have considerably darker motives. Patagonia is resource rich as highlighted by recent mineral mining ventures and proposed hydro-electric dams. Chile and Argentina are newly emerging economies on the global stage. The West want their slice of all these things, not just a pretty little ecosystem.

One last fact…

Prices are soaring in Patagonia. When American conservationists bought 70,000 hectares several years ago, they paid about $10 million. Today 9000 hectares will set you back $12 million.

 Is this all about making money and exerting control?

One of Rio De Janeiro's 40 shanty towns. These shacks are precariously perched on steep mountain-side. Photo courtesy of google images -http://www.google.co.uk/search?hl=en&q=rio+de+janeiro+slums&meta=&aq=f&oq=)

One of Rio De Janeiro's 40 shanty towns. These shacks are precariously perched on steep mountain-side. Photo courtesy of google images -http://www.google.co.uk/search?hl=en&q=rio+de+janeiro+slums&meta=&aq=f&oq=)

 

I read an article this week in the Independent titled Rio tries to contain slums with concrete’ with utter disbelief. The Brazilian government has begun a ludicrous scheme to wall off the slums of Rio De Janerio to stop shantytowns from spreading. Outrageous was my first response to reading this first paragraph. As I read on the government minister behind this plan, Icaro Moreno, justified this scheme with more ridiculousness; this was all for the good of the environment, and more specifically, to protect the Amazon rainforest.


Brazil‘s National Institute for Space Research, which monitors forest destruction, reported in December that between 2005 and 2008, deforestation of Rio‘s urban rainforest had doubled as compared to the previous three years. About 506 acres were destroyed in the last three years. So the poor are now being blamed for the depletion of the rainforest as well as their impoverished situation? This kind of blame culture is exactly the reason why the rainforest is being depleted at rapid levels. No one is willing to take responsibility and blame is always displaced. Logging, drug running, unethical tourism. Surely these are much more critical causes of rainforest depletion than the development of marginal land by people who have no where else to live.

The most ironic and hypocritical thing about this latest strange project is that these 10 foot barriers, aimed to hem in the poor and further segregate them from rich suburbs, will cost 12 million to erect and will surround 40 favelas. 500 houses will be demolished to make way for this barrier in a with an already chronic lack of housing. 12 million pounds to trap the poor in and hide away an impoverished under class all in the name of rainforest protection. Outrageous.

Icaro Moreno, the planning minister behind this plan, said: “Each year that passes we’re losing more of the Atlantic rain forest, now we’re setting limits on where these communities can expand.” It doesn’t take a genius to work out what the real motives behind this shallow rhetoric are. Rio is a city of extremes, with rich neighbourhoods juxtaposed with shanty towns. Many of the slums are built on the steep mountains that surround Rio‘s landscape and look down on the wealthy, beach front areas. This is a scheme manufactured by the privileged so that they can more easily ignore the plight of millions of poor and enjoy the luxury of their swimming pools and mansions.

This barrier will divide the city further, exacerbate existing socio-economic problems and heighten segregation. In his blog, Portuguese writer José Saramago compares the wall to the Berlin Wall or the Israeli West Bank barrier, while other critics liken it to the wall between the United States and Mexico. Whilst Global Justice, a Brazilian human rights group, has likened this to social apartheid. Emphasis is not on solving the deeply engrained socio-economic problems of this city, but is on shielding the rich from having to witness them…and all in the name of the environment! This is ostrich politics at its worst.

 

Perhaps the real reason for erecting this cage to trap in the poor is, as the Latin American Herald Tribune suggests, to create a bullet proof barrier to protect the rich from the ferocious gun battles which occur on a daily basis between drug dealers and police. The president of building firm Ultra Greten, Pedro Moreira Leite, told O Globo newspaper that “Not even a rifle bullet penetrates those walls.” Still it seems blindingly obvious that this cage will not solve any of the problems it will just make them a little bit less visible to the Brazilian elite. The problems will not go away, they will just get worse.

 

 

Just think what this 12 million could be used for instead of a useless barrier. A third of Rio’s 6 million dwellers live in shantytowns. There is a chronic lack of housing. The city is rife with drug traffickers and drug related violence. Would this money not be better spent on addressing these widespread problems; food for the malnourished, proper housing and sanitation for the millions who live in squalor, creation of jobs, reduction of economic disparities, the development of a welfare state or adequate health facilities, bringing together of divided communities, deconstructing drug gangs and criminality in the favelas, and finally developing environmental schemes that will actually save the rainforest and it’s resources?

 

 

Whoever decides these planning policies needs to take a long hard look at the priorities of its nation, one which is an emerging world power and economic leader in South America. Barriers to hem in the poor should never ever be a top priority costing £12 million when there are so many millions of people living in great poverty and misery. The rainforest is important. I am not questioning that. What I am questioning is why the environment is being used as an excuse for unethical and imperialist planning strategies for the benefit of the rich minority at the expense of the poor.

The niche area of ecotourism has been growing three times faster than regular tourism. Sustainable development efforts have often focused on the tourism sector as an alternative to ecologically destructive livelihoods such as mining and logging. From Amazon Basin tours to eco-lodge treks in Machu Pichu…the options are diverse…but how socially responsible and environmentally friendly are these trips?

The Eco-Tourism and Sustainable Development Conference was held in Canada this week. The conference was aimed at defining exactly what ecotourism, sustainable tourism, nature tourism and similar terms mean, and developing formal guidelines to implement them. Many travel companies have jumped on the eco band wagon and market themselves as green. The truth is often very different.

There is a wide-ranging discourse focusing upon ecotourism and how to make it sustainable. The so-called benefits of eco-tourism are often publicised but this must be weighed against the problems. It is now worth looking briefly at the two schools of thought towards eco-tourism and examples of tour companies offering the green experience….

PROS

Sustainable tourism is an excellent example of participatory development as tour communities are beginning to realise the important role they have in not only protecting their own environment.

This article focuses on the Galapagos islands and shows that a delicate balance between tourism and environmental protection is possible with careful management. Whereas this initiative in Panama seeks to combine education and protection of natural habitats to change how people think in that area.

There is also a monetary value in maintaining these traditional ways of life.

CONS

These niche destinations force the question: when will the organic growth of island eco-tourism reach its carrying capacity? When they are destroyed?

An article in the guardian recently recommended visiting Ecuador if you wanted to experience a trully ‘sustainable’ form of tourism. See here for an example of responsible tourism.

However, I feel that the way these ‘traditional’ communities are represented portrays them as primitive and backward. Travel literature reinforces out-dated stereo-types namely that developing countries and its people are a ‘primitive other’ that need modernising. This rationalizes and perpetuates modernist ways of looking at the developed world and clings onto outdated theories that developing countries need transfer of technology and knowledge. Although, project like this seek to celebrate traditional ways of life they also help to stigmatise these people which in the long term is contradictory to their development needs.

Rather predictably the main factor underlying this image is that it makes money and thus is encouraged. This legitimizes and rationalizes imperialist attitudes. This can be seen as an example of western style conservation ethics that once again look after first world interests at the expense of those in the developed world. The needs of the local community are ignored by external, profit-making predators? The natural system has monetary value and economic needs drive tourism not environmental ones.

These so called green travel companies exploit local people and use them as a marketing or media tool. The emphasis of trips is very rarely placed upon the environment or local communities. It takes only a few minutes of perusing this kind of eco-tourism propaganda for this to become apparent. It is these kinds of trips which influence the way that western media represent these communities – it a very narrow, one dimensional way.

Eco-tourism is  inherrent with contradictions. These well meaning travellers with environmentally conscience attitudes are often the agents of damage and suffer from an evolving guilty conscience about their air miles – carbonised footprints? Is the best form of protection not visiting these places at all? Doubtful. Atleast these visits raise awareness of the issues and attempt to put the environment on the political agenda.

Eco-tourism – another casualty of the recession?

As with many things at the moment we have to put this issue in the context of the current world recession.  It is niche markets that demand a higher price tag which will be most effected as people reign in their spending and choose less exotic destinations. Emphasis on the environment is increasingly likely to be biased in these difficult financial times where the short term goals of making money dominate the tourism agenda.