Tourism Damages Amazon Region

Brazil creates programs to minimize environmental damage without halting tourist boom

TOURISM's negative impact on Brazil's Amazon wilderness is now being recognized by Jos'e Sarney's government as a serious new threat. The tourism industry has already contributed to extensive damage, including widespread pollution, destruction of wildlife, and cultural erosion among the aboriginals.

But President Sarney is moving to prevent further destruction by expanding preservation programs.

Key to the Brazilian government's efforts to regulate a rising flood of visitors, and to stop the decimation of a region already smoldering under siege of development, are programs for ecologically-conscious tourism.

In April, Sarney announced the first step of a broad preservation package: a $100 million, five-year plan to divide the entire 1.9 million square-mile Amazon basin into separate zones for economic and environmental use - making easier the control of land use. Forty-nine newly-signed environmental regulations include the creation of new parks and recreational preserves. And the most significant program, which will give the government more control over tour operators, requires that their staff be tested, licensed and intensively trained in environmental concerns.

Ironically, the worldwide media focus on the Amazon's impending destruction and the need to prevent it, is also responsible for attracting the increasing numbers of visitors. Brazilian ``nature tourism'' operators confirm the surge, reporting 1989 bookings up more than 300 percent over 1988 - predominantly from Europe, North America, Japan, and urban Brazil.

In fact, wilderness tourism is growing so quickly that experts question whether these new preservation measures are not largely cosmetic - a public relations effort by the government to stave off intensified international outcry against destruction of the rain forests. Environmentalists contend that the limited funds allocated will not be sufficient for the programs to take effect in time. Instead, the environmentalists are seeking a rapid increase in public awareness that will foster self-restraint in the marketplace.

Says Carlos Quintela of the Nature Conservancy, a private conservationist agency, ``The words eco- and nature-tourism are so easy to sell that the marketing has begun before an infrastructure has been set up.'' And growth is outstripping the government's ability to put controls in place.

But Amazon tourism is a profit-driven industry, unencumbered by ecological considerations, and offers the Brazilian interior its biggest potential source of revenue since the discovery of rubber.

``It's not the fact that tourism is business,'' says Dr. Quintela, ``but that it is big business.''

However, the greatest obstacle to regulating the interior tourism industry is it's chaotic state. Jos'e Carlos Fonseca, spokesman for the Brazilian Embassy in Washington, says the Ecological Tourism Program can only begin to tackle the situation, and will be limited until it gains local financial support from the state governments.

Even now, experts say it may be too late to regulate an industry composed of hundreds of small businesses peppering a territory two-thirds the size of the United States. The vast majority are mom-and-pop operations which spring up wherever visitors will pay to sight-see.

Officials compare controlling tourism in the Amazon with trying to stop a gold rush. They note that a savvy tour operator can earn an average year's wages in a single day. And, usually, they add, at the expense of the environment.

A wide swath of litter forms a paper chase along the jungle highways, and pollution from plastic containers to sanitary napkins, deface the serene surface of nearly every lake in the central state of Mato Grosso. Snack bars and lodgings, scattered along roads, hundreds of miles from the nearest building or health codes, are run without consideration or concern for the environment.

There are no provisions for garbage collection or sewers. High water carries waste down the millions of miles of tributaries into the Amazon river, through which flows one fifth of the world's fresh water.

Unregulated fishing is so extensive that many districts are reported nearly deplete of some species, the Forestry Department says. And local operators confirm that explosives have been fired into rookeries to frighten birds into the air and provide tourists with video footage.

The impact upon wildlife has been devastating. One of the largest rookeries in the Pantanal province has been abandoned, and the young left to hawks. Wildlife has become more sparse over the past three years in the southern sections of the Amazon region, as visitors routinely throw stones to make the wild animals react.

Dr. Lee Harper, a biology professor at St. Lawrence University in New York, comments that ``those developing tourism in Brazil haven't realized that people would rather see a live caiman than a dead one.''

Hunting, which is illegal in Brazil and carries severe penalties, can nonetheless be booked easily, either locally or from the US. Carlos Quintela of the Nature Conservancy, a private conservationist agency based in the US says the proportions of poaching is out of control. are enormous. ``Between the sportsmen and the poachers, hunting is so big for some species that it is not just killing or harvesting, it is comparable to strip mining,'' he said, ``and little game is left for the Indians' subsistence.''

To make matters worse, free-lance jungle guides openly solicit travelers at ports and airports, luring them with inexpensive trips into the Amazon's Stone Age villages, and bush pilots offer flights to restricted Indian reservations.

Jesus Delgado, professor of preservation management at the University of Sao Paulo, says that the cultural effects are even worse than the environmental impact. President Sarney has banned all visits to primitive Indians, except for authorized scientific purpose, but, here also enforcement is sparse and ineffective.

A Brazilian TV news reporter was recently shown interviewing a federal guard in Araguaia National Park when a large boat roared past loaded with illegal tourists. The guard shrugged and said he stood powerless, being one man in a territory the size of Belgium. Prof. Delgado, who says the entire forestry agency has only 500 employees, calls the reserves ``paper parks.''

The Brazilian Interior Ministry responds that the government is buying up private land as fast as possible. The Ministry says the Ecological Tourism Program will inspire local governments to assist in tourism management as they realize that their communities will benefit from tourism income.

The hope, Fonseca says, is that the tourism industry has the potential to be the least damaging form of development. He sees in the President's programs ``a hope of a growing governmental awareness of ecology.'' ``Brazil is changing its tune,'' Fonseca says, ``and is listening to what the developed world has learned instead'' of repeating its mistakes.

Delgado feels it is the tourists themselves who will have the final say about whether the controls work. He views them as both the problem and the solution. ``No matter how complete the controls and tourism management,'' he warns, ``preservation measures will not be effective until travelers themselves learn not to throw rocks, and stop encroaching upon restricted Indian reservations, no matter how alluring.''

He adds, ``Tourism can no longer be separated from other man-made disruptions of the ecology, such as mining and deforestation.''

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