Monday, January 20, 2014

Ecotourism, Green Tourism, and the Myth Thereof

article from April 4, 2011
by Jamie Douglas

First off, let me state unequivocally that I consider both the terms “ecotourism” and “green tourism” to be oxymorons in the league with “military intelligence.”

I am proud to say that I have never paid the extra 50% to the organizers of an eco-tour to make me feel better. Your feel-good ecotourism adventure likely starts out with a trip to the airport in a motor vehicle, and then it’s onto a jet plane, which deposits tons of carbon in the upper atmosphere, to be followed by a stinking diesel bus ride to your final destination, with a stay in a comfortable, air conditioned room topping off the orgy of carbon emissions your green vacation requires to get you there to supposedly make a positive impact on the local environment.

So now that you are in the neighborhood, there are all these wonderful side excursions you can take, powered by diesel bus or van, outboard motors, large diesel ship engines, helicopters and small planes contributing more than your share of carbon to the free and formerly unspoiled locales you have come to admire. Whether in the Central American rainforests or cloud forests like Costa Rica’s Monteverde, where enthusiastic entrepreneurs have constructed their platforms and strung steel cables through the jungle canopy so that people can go zipping through the treetops, building more and more roads and infrastructure in order to give more and more tourists access to delicate environmental regions is a strange way of protecting them. In Monteverde alone, there are dozens of companies that draw people to this remote location and operate with very little oversight from the Costa Rican government, as the almighty tourist dollar is the green currency.

A similarly sad situation exists in Manuel Antonio National Park in Quepos, along the central Pacific coast of Costa Rica. And on the Caribbean coast, as well as many other interesting locations in the world, you will find natural settings that are being exploited as “green tourism.”

Costa Rica has carefully created and groomed this eco-tourism myth by having a large percentage of its national territory designated as national parks, nature preserves and “Indian” reservations. The myth about it is that they have long looked the other way when it comes to gold mines, rare tropical wood harvesting and the neglect of the indigenous population. When it comes to enforcing regulations that give the appearance that the government is environmentally aware, it very often just doesn’t happen.

Back in 1975, I stayed with the Boruca people in the southern mountains of Costa Rica, collecting oral histories and taking many a photograph for a presentation when I had to leave suddenly due to a medical emergency. I did not return to the area until 1995, when I announced to my two traveling companions that once we reached the edge of the ridge and had a view into the valley where the reservation is, they would be astonished at the amount of pristine rainforest that they would see.

Well, what a difference 20 years made. Virtually all the old-growth trees were gone, replaced by banana plantations and mining scars. The formerly majestic river running through the valley had been reduced to a trickle, and the population of the village was a fraction of what it once was. Most of the youth had left to become maids, gardeners and, sadly, prostitutes in the growing tourist towns along the Pacific coast, which had also undergone an incredible transformation. The then-new coastal highway was allowing developers access to formerly isolated areas where they had begun building without regulation or regard, also bringing in an influx of drug traffickers that facilitated the transport of cocaine from Colombia to the USA and Europe.

The Osa Peninsula, home to Central America’s largest protected area of tropical wet forests, suffered from the continued looting of valuable timber resources while Canadian, Australian, and US mining interests had established themselves with impunity by paying the necessary officials off – those same officials who were also paid large sums of cash to look the other way when airplanes and ships came in for refueling. In the mean time, the local population of the Osa Peninsula was left behind as one of the most poverty-stricken regions in Costa Rica.

So is Costa Rica really an eco-paradise?

Costa Rica was at the vanguard of the “ecotourism” movement, which was no doubt initiated with the best of intentions. But today, with carbon trading being more of a feel-good excuse than a solution and the “green” image so easily taken advantage of by corruption and greed, we have to be honest with ourselves, thoughtful about our actions and ever more diligent about verifying claims being made if we really want to do what is best for the planet.

The better question might be, can Costa Rica actually live up to its green image?

Jamie Douglas
Patagonia

I encourage you to write me at cruzansailor [at] gmail [dot] com with any questions or suggestions you may have. Disclaimer: I am not in any travel-related business. My advice is based on my own experiences and is free of charge (Donations welcome). It is always my pleasure to act as a beneficial counselor to those who are seekers of the next adventure.