Forest tourism: 2. Can computers save a rainforest?

Posted: 10 July 2001

In theory, all that is needed to save an indigenous people, living in harmony with its rainforest home, is to get them involved in showing high-paying tourists around. It doesn't often happen in the way it is supposed to do, but once in a while it does, as Randy Borman reports.

Off in the north eastern corner of Ecuador there is a tiny community of Cofan indigenous people who have developed a thriving ecotourism programme and have been using it as the base for both defending their forests and culture in the scary atmosphere of a world where forests and their cultures hardly get a second thought. So what went right?

Getting to the Cofan community of Zabalo is something of an adventure but it can be accomplished in a day if all goes well. Air travel gets you from Ecuador's capital city, Quito, to Agrio in less than an hour. A rickety bus or pick-up truck then proceeds to demonstrate the negative side of colonization, oil exploitation and forest destruction in general as it runs to the river port of Chiritza. From there, it's canoe or speed boat time. The visitor notices the river getting wilder and less populated, and by the time Zabalo is reached late in the afternoon primary forest is only occasionally broken by tiny homes, with small fields of plantain and manioc.

Children with baby anteaterChildren with baby anteater© Stephen Corry/SurvivalThe village of Zabalo does not look much bigger as the boat docks, but travellers are immediately surrounded by a mob of laughing, curious children, chattering in the Cofan language. One of the older Cofan men will meet the tourists and show them to well laid out and comfortable leafed-roofed cabins built from beautiful local hardwoods. There is time for a quick shower in the separate bathrooms or a dip in the stream. Supper is a combination of local and imported foods, served in a lofty dining hall. Afterwards, the guide explains the itinerary. This will vary according to the weather but always during the time spent in the forest the guides, cooks, cabin crew, porters, motor boat drivers and companions will be the Cofan people.

Educating visitors

Visitors are introduced to the forest through the eyes of a people and a culture which has existed here for many centuries. A favourite demonstration by the guides is to ask the visitor to say "stop" somewhere during the walk. The guides will then proceed to identify and show the use of all the plants and animals in the immediate vicinity. The confusing mass of greenery suddenly takes on all the qualities of a combined supermarket, pharmacy and hardware store.

The chances of spotting wildlife are excellent. A tropical rainforest is not the Serrengeti, yet with forest people as guides it is amazing how many animals can be found. Because the area is protected by the community from any form of exploitation the animal populations, including large mammals such as jaguars and tapirs are intact. It is an incredible experience to see a tapir bathing in a jungle stream at dawn, or come upon the tracks of a jaguar that was following you curiously only minutes earlier.

Sometime during their stay, visitors will be introduced to Zabalo's various conservation projects. Funded largely by interested visitors and the community itself, Zabalo's turtle project has already re-introduced over 4,000 endangered river turtles to the river. Other projects include fish farming, medicinal plant growing, monitoring of hunting and fishing, and a pond full of caimans - all part of a strong commitment to preserving the forest and keeping it healthy.

Long battle

This utopian situation has been hard-won. The community spent over eight years gaining legal recognition. Incursions by lumber men, colonists and neighbouring indigenous groups are a constant source of concern. In 1991, oil company invasions into Cofan territory sparked a three-year long battle, pitting a tiny indigenous community against government-owned oil interests. After a series of actions at local and government levels, the oil company was forced to abandon its plans: a landmark victory in a world where big business usually takes precedence over conservation. Even today, the war is far from over.

Looking at this success story two things become apparent. The first is that this did not happen overnight with some conservation entity sinking huge amounts of money in an 'ecotourism project'. Members of the community became involved in what is now known and ecotourism as early as 1978. The slow evolution of skills, infrastructure and administrative ability has coincided with an increasing awareness of the value of the intact environment. As hunters and gatherers, it took people a while to get used to watching monkeys instead of eating them. But over the years, conservation values evolved. The fact that Zabalo has never received any form of support from outside has been frustrating at times, but community members feel a tremendous pride in their achievements both at the business and conservation levels.

The second ingredient is that Zabalo already had the basic knowledge of its Cofan cultural heritage of interaction with the environment. The fact that the community was able to use that heritage to enter the world economy at a competitive level has been of primary importance in maintaining its cultural values.

Digital future

Drawbacks are few when compared to the alternatives available. The cultural changes implicit in showing groups of outsiders your environment seem unimportant when compared to the demands of any other available economic model. However, to continue relying on ecotourism as a community's principal source of income Zabalo is faced with difficult problems of legalization as a travel agency to comply with Ecuadorian law, marketing trips to outside agencies, and establishing a reliable communication system. At the moment, all this means is that people have to leave their forest and culture and learn to live in the very foreign outside world.

A possible solution is the increasing availability of satellite communications combined with electronic mail and computer systems. The irony of trying to maintain our cultural heritage and its forests with 21st century technology is certainly not wasted on us. Yet ultimately, we are people of our times, and if we are able to harness the best of the outside world to defend the best of our heritage we feel we are heading the right direction.

Randy Borman has devoted himself to conservation and ecotourism among the Cofan people.