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Ecotourism, Sustainable Development, and Cultural Survival: Protecting Indigenous Culture and Land through Ecotourism

As the earth approaches the next century, communities are increasingly linked through travel, communications, and the consumer culture. Globalization and environmental exploitation has left almost no part of the globe unaffected by human activity. As we invade every last corner of the planet in search of more resources to exploit, one wonders it if is possible to stop time and re-evaluate our actions.

Many environmentalists and concerned citizens of the world have turned to indigenous people to reconnect with a more traditional past, and rediscover an authentic and balanced link between human culture and the environment. Ecotourism, which is defined by The Ecotourism Society as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people, is a form of travel that seeks to facilitate this search. But many mistakes have been made, and the history of tourism is fraught with bad examples of colonialistic attitudes, which discount, or even completely overlook, indigenous rights. As author Deborah Ramer McLaren points out in this issue there is a long history of adventurers seeing open land as unexploited land. To this day the outdoor adventure press encourages the "New Age" traveler to find the last unspoiled places on earth and use these as playgrounds without the slightest mention of responsibility to local culture or environment. For these high-octane adrenaline seekers, it is all too easy to ignore that many of the most pristine locations left on earth are part of a traditional land system that has been conserved by indigenous people for centuries.

Tourism is undeniably a capitalistic enterprise. In her article on the Ese'eja of Peru who have joined a profit-making joint venture, Amanda Stronza comments that critics of the project feel that traditional societies will be irrevocably changed when integrated into the market economy. Arnaldo Rodríguez points out that the Achuar of Ecuador are being asked to accept a fragmentary and reductionistic approach that fails to recognize that the monetary economy is only one aspect of the social and ecological web. Meitamei Ole Dapash of Kenya discusses the tragic disconnect between the political system and the traditional Maasai system -- a disconnect that has driven the Maasai community into a state of confusion.

But despite these difficulties, many traditional communities are choosing ecotourism as a form of development. The fact is that Westernized, consumer society, with all of its social morés and monetary requirements, has invaded all but the most isolated traditional groups. Randy Borman gives a touching account of his own memory of the crushing physical, psychological, and spiritual impact of the invasion of the outside world. From the Amazon to Namibia, indigenous people have seen this change transpire in the last century, and their adjustment to the market economy from a sharing culture or a gift economy has been neither gentle nor fair. The global economy makes no exceptions. It forces integration and requires bending to the rules of the dominant political and financial system. While maintaining traditional values is a very clear path for many indigenous people, they are not from another time. Indigenous people want to be seen as real people, and not be excluded and therefore exploited because they cannot interpret the current system and use it for their benefit.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have played an important role in helping to facilitate a softer entry into the market economy. In Namibia, 42 communities joined an NGO initiative to help them organize community-based tourism products and reach the market. The native Ju'/hoansi, part of the famous San, or bushmen culture, are managing their own campsites and interpretive trail system. Young people are joining in and becoming involved as guides, which is helping to reinforce the local culture and will, in all likelihood, lead to a new generation of San cultural interpreters. In Nepal, an NGO is introducing innovative techniques to empower women, already long involved in the trekking economy. These programs have allowed women to emerge from smoky teahouse kitchens and run their own microenterprises, including kerosene depots that help to reduce the use of firewood.

In Australia, the government has been unusually proactive, mandating an advanced system of co-management of protected areas with public lands being returned to Aboriginal owners who are now generating revenues by leasing their lands back to the government, and from managing their own tourism enterprise and guiding public tours. In one area, Aboriginal guides have been a runaway success with park visitors, whose numbers have increased by 10 percent every school holiday period, according to author Mark Sutton, Aboriginal Sites Officer. The community enterprise Sutton writes about, Mutawintji Heritage Tours, received federal funding and, though still struggling, is clearly an enterprise with empowered local owners.

Efforts to manage tourism without intermediaries have been less successful, due to a lack of capital and understanding of the international marketplace. The Kuna of Panama, one of the most organized and sophisticated indigenous groups in the world, demands that all development come from Kuna investment, yet according to Judy Bennett's article, Kuna capital does not exist. Many tourism projects are failing, and in the face of child malnutrition and overexploitation of marine resources, the Kuna are facing the unsavory option of obfuscating their involvement with the outside world.

Clearly indigenous people need to be in charge of their land and in control of the enterprises that are dependent on their territories. Alison Johnston's article demonstrates the very real threat of removing indigenous people from the decision-making process when decisions are made about their homelands. As tourism continues to expand in the next millennium, it could well result in a whole new series of land seizures that are justified on economic grounds, where rich and powerful entrepreneurs displace indigenous people who have little say in the political system.

Defining the tools to prevent exploitation is perhaps the most important contribution any investigator can make. Some of the conclusions that emerge from this set of articles include:

- Developing guidelines as a tool to gain consensus among tourism entrepreneurs, governments, and indigenous people has helped uncover the fundamental problems with tourism development in Thailand's mountain region

- Joint ventures between indigenous people and responsible entrepreneurs are making it possible for the Achuar and the Ese'eja of the Amazon region to be genuine partners in the development of tourism enterprises in their territories

- NGO initiatives that foster community independence, such as small community matching grants and participatory learning tools, are helping rural populations in Nepal and Namibia enter the market economy with fewer social impacts

- In Australia, programs that offer federal funding for small-scale community tourism enterprises co-managed by the government and Aboriginal people have been successful.

These projects are only the beginning of a long process that also includes the involvement of indigenous people in high level policy forums that will determine the future of land-use both nationally and internationally. Without the guidance of those who remain in touch with the value and sacredness of natural places, we are likely to see the last remaining wildlands on earth snatched from those who are the best qualified to protect them.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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