Ecotourism Is Growing And Getting Greener Along the Trail

Ecuador has a model of how this popular adventure should be

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

If saving the world's tropical forests sounds like an impossible task, take a look at how they're doing it at Maquipucuna in Ecuador.

In a country where tourism has long been a leading - yet not always nature-friendly industry - Maquipucuna is emerging as a model of what ecotourism in its purist sense is meant to be.

What makes Maquipucuna's program so strong, according to Henry Tepper, director of the New Hampshire Office of the Nature Conservancy, is that it employs local people, is generating income and building support for conservation, and is done with minimal environmental impact.

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Located in the northwestern mountains of Ecuador, Maquipucuna is a nature reserve of more than 10,000 acres of cloud forest - an elevated, often cloud-covered tropical forest.

Rich in a wide variety of animals and plants - particularly epiphytes (plants which grow on other plants) - this forest is connected to a region considered one of the 10 most biologically diverse "hot spots" in the world.

But it is also one of the world's most endangered regions. All around Maquipucuna, timber cutting, farming, cattle grazing, and charcoal production are causing the forest to disappear rapidly.

Last year, in an effort to strengthen protection for this cloud forest, Maquipucuna, which is managed by the nonprofit Maquipucuna Foundation, opened to tourists. Since then, according to reserve director Abigail Rome, Maquipucuna has welcomed hundreds of students, scientists, and vacationers from around the world.

Last spring, Brian Brown, an entomologist and assistant curator of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles Country, spent four days at Maquipucuna doing what he loves - searching for undiscovered species of flies that are parasites of ants.

While Mr. Brown used to travel to other sites in Ecuador, he and his colleagues now go to Maquipucuna, since it has the large forest necessary for successful research. "There is so much we still don't know about tropical forests," Brown says.

But is ecotourism a good way to protect them? "Absolutely," he responds.

Though nature-oriented tourism is far from new, ecotourism is a concept born and defined in only the past five years.

More and more countries are looking at ecotourism - acknowledged as the hottest part of the tourism industry, (which in the last decade has become the largest industry in the world) - as a means of both resource conservation and economic development. This is particularly true in cash-poor countries such as Ecuador where tropical forests and other natural areas are threatened.

While Ecuador is probably best known for places such as the Galapagos Islands, which many people say have been overwhelmed by unmanageable tourism, this may be changing.

According to Megan Epler Wood, executive director of the Ecotourism Society, groups such as the Ecuadorean Ecotourism Association have begun taking a strong stand in ensuring that ecotourism operations remain truly friendly to the environment.

To ecotravelers and conservationists such as Harold Janeway, this is very important. What impressed him so much about his recent Maquipucuna trip, was the feeling after he had left, that he had "had not done any harm."

Mr. Janeway tells of savoring Ecuadorean cuisine while sitting by a rushing river, looking at rare hummingbirds and 50-foot ferns, and hiking with a local guide who tracked forest creatures.

Traditionally, residents of villages surrounding Maquipucuna have worked as farmers, woodcutters, and miners, all of which contributed to deforestation.

Now, a number of these people earn good salaries working as guides, cooks, research assistants, and maintenance people at the reserve. All employees receive special training and environmental education (something which has been introduced only recently in many other areas) and, Ms. Rome points out, often share their new knowledge with family members and others in the community.

People who don't work directly at the reserve benefit by participating in education programs and selling goods such as baskets and hats made from local plants and other materials.

Because of their involvement, many locals are beginning to see the forest as an area worth protecting - rather than cutting.

"Ecotourism demands natural beauty," says Chris Wille, Director of the Rainforest Alliance in Costa Rica and an ecotourism consultant for projects throughout Central America. "We have talked to many peasants who now believe that trees are worth more as ecotourism capital than dead wood on a logging truck." People have to make a living off the land, he says, and ecotourism is one of the least destructive ways to do that.

Even so, Mr. Wille and others stress, ecotourism is no panacea. Says Katrina Brandon, who recently wrote a report on ecotourism and conservation for the World Bank, "ecotourism is not the perfect solution. There are places where it shouldn't be done, either from a social or biological standpoint."

And at Maquipucuna, ecotourism has yet to reach its full potential. It is impossible, Rome emphasizes, to employ or reach everyone with the conservation message, and there are still madereros, or woodcutters, and hunters near the reserve.

Though the Maquipucuna Foundation would like to see ecotourism generate enough income to support the scientific research and other programs important to long term protection of the cloud forest, that is not happening yet.

Rome is also quick to acknowledge the downside of attracting too many tourists. In the Galapagos Islands, for example, where visitors have come in overwhelming numbers, the booming and poorly managed industry has caused populations in area towns to rise dramatically. This has changed the social and political structure of the region, says Hugo Amal, Ecuador Program for The Nature Conservatory. It is these indirect impacts which have caused the most harm.

But Maquipucuna, Mr. Amal says, is different. The managers are setting conservation goals and objectives first, then deciding how many visitors - and what activities - the area can support.

So far all the buildings - visitors' lodge, scientific laboratory, and research station - are made from local materials such as wood, bamboo, and palm leaves and designed to fit in with the environment. Septic systems, nearly unheard of locally, have been installed, and kitchen waste is used to make compost for organic gardens, which in turn feed visitors.

Intensively traveled trails are kept to a minimum. Visitors learn about forest ecology and conservation, and - perhaps, most significantly - 90 percent of the reserve is not open to tourists at all.

As ecotourism at the reserve grows, Rome says, its managers will continue to monitor the effects on resources and adjust their plan accordingly. In this way, she says, they expect to keep from crossing the line between tourism that protects nature and that which overwhelms it.

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