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Ecotourism: Good, bad, or just plain ugly?

Plenty of people are swapping package holidays for ecotourism, but can travel really aid positive change for people and the planet? Meet a Lush Spring Prize 2019 winner that’s on the cusp of finding out

Most people remember the story of Cecil the lion. The American dentist who killed the well-known animal paid thousands of dollars for the hunt, which took place in Zimbabwe. There was both local and global outrage. But Cecil’s story was by no means unique, and big game hunting continues to this day - highlighting just one example of the impact tourism can have on the natural world and its inhabitants.

However, there are plenty of other ways that tourism wreaks havoc on the planet. The famous Lascaux Cave in France is decorated with herds of animals, painted on the walls by humans around 17,000 years ago. When tourism came knocking, the delicate paintings started to degrade due to carbon dioxide, heat, and humidity. But a solution was created - a replica cave. Tourists can now experience the cave paintings, while allowing the invaluable historical artefact to be preserved.

These examples are on the extreme end of the scale, but can tourism ever have a positive impact on the world? Is ‘ecotourism’ really achievable? One Lush Spring Prize 2019 winner believes it is, and plans to use ecotourism as a tactic to protect Indigenous culture and fight against oil extraction.

The Sapara People versus the oil industry

Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, and yet natural resources are under threat from human destruction. For the Indigenous Sapara people, the destruction of their land in the Amazon could mean the loss of their culture, and so there is a desperate need to protect the territory. This is how an ecotourism project, Ripanu, was born.

Rubén Darío Díaz Chávez, a coordinator from the Lush Spring Prize winning group, says: “A while ago I visited the jungle, and tourists had left rubbish there, without realising that a dustman wouldn’t come and pick it up.”

But it’s not just tourists destroying the jungle. There’s also the threat of oil extraction. Aside from the deforestation caused by extraction, Rubén explains that for the Sapara people, oil is considered a spirit that regulates the temperature of the planet. They believe that when oil is extracted, the Earth no longer has a spirit, and eventually, all humankind will die.

“By keeping the oil underground we’re taking a political action for the wellbeing of the planet and mankind,” Rubén says.

For the Sapara people, he explains, a good day would be the day that oil companies leave the Amazon, and let Indigenous communities manage the land for themselves.

To bring this day closer, Ripanu is building an ecotourism centre on Sapara land, focussed on the conservation of the rainforest. People from all over the world will be invited to heal, rejuvenate, and learn to dream in the midst of the rainforest, where they’ll be able to experience both physical and spiritual healing through natural medicine. Ripanu is using this version of ecotourism to defend Indigenous land, and fight against global oil industries in a peaceful way.

“What we’re trying to do is bring together this regeneration through conscious and culturall- based tourism,” Rubén says, explaining how the group wants to counter the exploitative nature of the tourism industry.

Defending land is not the only aim of the project, and Ripanu wants to be conscious of the environment in other ways, like not wasting resources. The group plans to reuse everything they can, and create compost for kitchen gardens.

“One of the problems before was the huge scale of tourism. We’re building tourism that’s really based in ecology,” he explains.

Rubén himself is not a Sapara person, but was approached by the community for his support in getting the project off the ground. Unlike many tourism projects, this is one that fully engages the community and is co-organised by an Indigenous elder, putting local people at the centre.

Would eco by any other name be as green?

Cecil the lion was killed on land very close to where Lush Spring Prize judge Precious Phiri lives, and the lion was an important symbol in the community. She, like many other Lush Spring Prize judges and winners, believes that involving local communities in tourism projects is essential, rather than big companies making all the decisions.

Precious wants to bring tourism and regeneration together, so that local people become guardians of ecosystems, and have a say in how their land is managed.

“My dream has always been to bring safari operators to the table with the community,” she says. That’s exactly what she’s doing now, and has already started having meetings.

Juan José Consejo, the coordinator of another Lush Spring Prize winning group, INSO, says that most ecotourism projects are not really as they seem: “They’re mostly business as usual with a very thin layer of green paint.”

Juan says that most projects are managed from the outside, with local people disregarded. Unpicking how ‘eco’ ecotourism projects really are, is not straightforward. But Juan does believe that some positive examples of ecotourism, like Ripanu, give a good proportion of control to local communities. 

As Ripanu puts its project into action, it will soon find out whether tourism can have a truly positive impact. If the group succeeds - and manages to protect Sapara land and culture - the project could even act as an example to other threatened communities around the world. 

For the Sapara people, ecotourism is less a buzzword, and more a necessity.

Explore more stories from the Lush Spring Prize 2019.

Regeneration illustration by David McMillan

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