Ecotourism is a distinctly private-sector approach to environmental protection, especially in the Amazon
Every three months, Luis de la Cruz heads out into the thick Amazon rainforest and begins hacking away. In his wake, he leaves a clearing four meters wide and many miles long. Every so often, he and his crew plant a painted post.Skip to next paragraph
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One more example of rainforest destruction?
Hardly. Mr. de la Cruz and his men are maintaining the jungle equivalent of a giant Keep Out sign. By patrolling and maintaining a border, they aim to keep poachers and loggers out of a large tract of forest here in northern Peru. Surprisingly, de la Cruz doesn't work for a government. He's on the payroll of a five-star resort.
It's a distinctly private-sector approach to environmental protection. But eco-tourism, many believe, may represent the world's best hope for saving fragile ecosystems.
By setting up shop to give tourists a look-see at some of the last truly wild places on earth, the most environmentally sensitive tour companies and lodges are preserving bits of wilderness. And they're convincing natives and governments that they should do the same. Tourist dollars, rather than lectures on the environmental importance of saving the rainforest, speak volumes in many of the developing world's parliaments and presidential palaces.
But ecotourism faces its own challenges. It has become so popular it's losing its meaning. (Note to travel agents: going to the beach is not ecotourism.) And it involves, inevitably, concessions to the marketplace that outrage preservationists and give even the best ecotour operators pause. By tramping through the world's wild areas, even the most sensitive tourist leaves behind a footprint that changes that wilderness. And commercial greed, government corruption, and native poverty only make things worse.
"There's no easy answer to this," says Barry Walker, director of Manu Expeditions, a well-regarded tour operator in Cusco, Peru.
"We're to some extent fighting a rearguard action," adds Tony Coates, director of scientific research programs at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. But "unless you can make wildlife the asset that the businessman is going to milk for profit, you're not going to preserve it."
A few hours after dawn, Luis Chanchari leads a couple of tourists on a 45-minute jaunt through the Amazon jungle. It's raining. And the rain-soaked path has turned a dark, moldering brown.
Suddenly, Mr. Chanchari jumps back and begins throwing rocks and branches at something invisible on the ground. Finally, he finds his mark. A two-foot-long snake, colored exactly like the trail, in a final writhing motion turns over and reveals a yellow underbelly. It's a fer-de-lance, he points out, one of the area's more venomous snakes.
"Most snakes we let go," Chanchari says cheerfully. "But the ones with the triangular heads are poisonous. We kill all we can find."
Minimizing the impact
A guide for the Explorama Lodges, he escorts tourists from all over the world through this piece of the Peruvian tropics, which has only two seasons: high water and low water. The company, which also employs de la Cruz and his men to protect the 250,000-acre reserve, goes to great lengths to preserve its environment. It maintains a laboratory for working scientists, using special construction techniques to avoid damaging the trees. It has built a special walkway for tourists to ascend into the forest canopy. Most of its lodges have minimal environmental impact.
Here at the ExplorNapo Lodge, for example, there's no running water or electrical outlets. Outhouses serve as bathrooms. Propane tanks run the camp's stove and three refrigerators. Solar panels and kerosene lamps do the rest.
But the company has discovered that ecotourists come in different flavors. While many, particularly younger, guests savor the rugged experience of ExplorNapo, others prefer more creature comforts. So the company's latest resort sports cold and hot running water, air-conditioning, and a pool with a hydra-massage station. It "goes against all our previous rules," says Jaime Acevedo, public-relations manager for the Explorama Lodges here in northern Peru, outside Iquitos.
For example, instead of using native materials, the company imported cement for the resort's pool and walkways. On one hand, it's a compromise; on the other hand, it helps tourists, who otherwise might not come, appreciate the Amazon and the rainforest, Mr. Acevedo says. These compromises are a matter of degree anyway.
"The minute you go down into the jungle to build a lodge, you are changing it," he adds. "Anybody who wants to come here has to fly. If you were really an eco-person, you would let it be and not come."