Treading lightly

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.

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."

Many ecopeople wish just that. "Conventional wisdom now being applied to the conservation of tropical nature is misguided and doomed to failure," concludes Duke University biologist John Terborgh in a book published last year, "Requiem to Nature" (Shearwater Books). Even in places where people try to tread lightly, poverty, corruption, greed, and other forces gradually degrade the environment, he argues.

The figures are hard to ignore. Since 1950, an area the combined size of India and China has become an abandoned wasteland thanks to deforestation, Dr. Terborgh points out. At present rates, the world's last primary rainforest would disappear around 2045.

To stop the destruction, he wants to put huge chunks of territory off-limits to people. More radically, he wants to relocate the indigenous people already living in the world's jungles, let preserves be managed internationally instead of by national governments, and if necessary protected by an armed United Nations nature-preserve force, much like today's peacekeeping forces.

Such preservation ideas might appeal biologically, but politically they're unpalatable, critics argue. "Whether you like it or not, we are a major species on earth," says Mr. Coates of the Smithsonian. "You've got to get some kind of modus operandi between humans and the rest of the natural world."

One way to stand up to big mining, oil, and timber industries, he argues, is to recruit the world's largest industry, tourism, to the environmental cause. A $400 billion industry, employing an estimated 1 in 15 of the world's workers, tourism has increasingly gone "green" in search of new markets.

How "green" is a matter of some debate. Because definitions vary, figures on ecotourism are hard to come by.

"You walk around the streets and you see eco-this and eco-that," complains Mr. Walker, the tour operator in Cusco, Peru. Of all that city's trekking outfits, less than 10 percent really fit the bill, he adds.

Nevertheless, realizing its growth and potential, the World Tourism Organization is holding a series of regional seminars on the subject, beginning with Maputo, Mozambique, in March. The UN has designated 2002 the International Year of Ecotourism.

For a time, Panama sported one of the boldest plans for ecotourism, Coates says. During the late 1990s, the government backed a plan to combine tourism, conservation, and research by attracting investors to build a series of lodges and education centers that would draw tourists by the millions. The Smithsonian signed on to train guides and make its tropical research available. Researchers came from all over the world to attend a conference. But when a new government took over, the plan was scaled down and lost momentum.

Too much success is a handicap

Costa Rica, on the other hand, suffers the opposite problem. It has developed tourism so much, its green areas are overrun by tourists, Coates says. Without effective government regulation to stand up to commercial interests, preservation efforts will fail, environmentalists stress.

"If we let the market drive the future of conservation ... I think we are going to lose a lot of it," says Jorge Caillaux, president of the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law, an environmental group based in Lima. "There's a lack of education, a lack of conservation, and a very individualistic approach to nature in general."

Government support, or at least acquiescence, is also key to getting local ecotourism off the ground, adds Tim Boyle, Asia-Pacific coordinator for the global environment facility of the UN Development Program. In Nepal, for example, the UNDP took advantage of a little-used law that allowed groups in a local area to keep a significant portion of the money they earned off tourism. The year-old project, in Nepal's striking and biodiverse Upper Mustang region, is using money to fix up various cultural sites.

When the UNDP tried to develop a similar program in Papua New Guinea, local communities opted instead for a richer contract from loggers. And not all communities have the natural beauty to attract thousands of visitors a year. (In those places, the UNDP emphasizes broadening the market for environment-friendly farm produce.)

"We're going in the right direction," says Mr. Boyle. "If you go back 20 years, there was a widespread belief that the only path to economic development was developed by Western nations. Today, there is a recognition that there are alternatives.... You don't have to rape and pillage your natural resources to secure economic development."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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