Last Word: Tomorrow's Travellers

Posted: 12 July 2001

A new form of ecotourism in which volunteers help in cultural and environmental conservation and research is gaining ground. Mark Cherrington reports.

It was in a sacred cave on a hillside in the hot centre of Australia that I heard the oldest secrets in the world. They were told to me by an ageing Aboriginal tribal leader just as he was told and as his ancestors had been told for some 40,000 years, elder to boy, father to son.

The knowledge that the Aboriginal man told me dealt with the creation of the world, the meaning of the stars, birth, life, and death. And there were worlds more of knowledge, layers of secrets in the man's eyes as he looked out over his strange red world. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life. I had to swear that I wouldn't tell anyone what I heard or saw, so unfortunately I can't tell you anything more specific about what he told me.

On the other hand, you can buy these secrets for US$5.

You see, this experience is part of an ecotourism operation being run by Herman and Mavis Malbunka. Below the cave they have a very tidy trailer park and tent sites with lovely, incongruous green grass and shade trees and neat little white-painted rocks. There are ranch buildings, showers, and a little food market. Aboriginal traditions are fast disappearing, and the Malbunkas hope through this effort to preserve them even as they generate income for their tribe.

Ethical issues

On the surface, ecotourism like this seems a good thing. After all, tourist dollars can save habitats, animals, and cultures that would otherwise disappear. But those same dollars represent a fundamental problem with ecotourism: fragile cultures and habitats are just that - fragile. To bring in enough people to make the business work, one must risk undermining the very resource that attracts them. Self-regulation is the key, but when profit is the goal, there is little incentive to be conservative.

And then there is the basic ethical issue: The fact is that there is no excuse for me or anyone else to hear Herman Malbunka's secrets. How sacred will they be once they're packaged and sold by the dozen to tourists? How meaningful? On the other hand, without that income, what hope will Herman or his family have to preserve their traditions?

But what if the people who visited there didn't contribute money? What if they contributed themselves? That is the premise behind Earthwatch expeditions. These are scientific research projects led by prominent scientists to collect data on endangered species, threatened habitats, ancient civilizations, public health, changing climate, sustainable development, and, yes, cultural survival. Earthwatch invites members of the general public to join these scientists, to participate as full-fledged expedition members, and to share the costs of the research among them.

Participatory tourism

In this kind of participatory research, people do, indeed, visit remote cultures and learn ancient secrets (among other things), but they do so in the service of the culture, not in the interest of voyeurism. In fact, several Earthwatch projects in Australia have helped Aboriginal people to locate and document their prehistoric rock art and to preserve ancient rituals directly. They've protected fragile sites and made videotapes that can be shown to the younger members of tribes to help them appreciate and participate in their own traditions.

Of course, I have a vested interest in saying this; I work for Earthwatch. But I really believe that this model is the key to the future of tourism. I've seen too many new national parks and museums, too many children made healthy and communities made whole by this approach to be persuaded that mere money could ever be the answer.

That's not to say that ecotourism is inherently bad. Some of it can be very beneficial if it's done carefully, and several Earthwatch expeditions are geared to collect the data that can help make ecotours appropriate enterprises.

Earthwatch volunteers help Dr Frank Paladino to scanendangered leatherback sea turtles for eggs© Peter Tyson/EarthwatchBut for the volunteers in participatory research there is an element that really sets it apart from standard ecotourism. In this kind of travel people learn more than a lifetime of ecotours could teach them. They experience a place and a people with a depth of understanding that no visitor will ever know. But most importantly, they have the knowledge that they made a difference with their hands, not their wallets.

And there's this: even at its best, standard ecotourism is, in the end, simply rich people giving poor people charity, to give them an incentive to save a culture or a habitat - noble, but hardly desirable or sustainable in the long term.

Participatory research, on the other hand, involves people giving themselves - their time, their ideas, their labour - to find constructive ways to save a culture of a habitat in perpetuity.

I think that's what the future is made of. But don't take my word for it. Ask Herman Malbunka which of those options he would prefer.

Mark Cherrington is Editor of Earthwatch magazine in Boston, and a freelance writer, photographer and lecturer.