Ecotourism - 'a cover for biopiracy'

Posted: 3 October 2002

The International Year of Ecotourism (2002) has come under fire from a group of NGOs in the North and South.

In the Philippines, Environment Secretary, Antonio Cerilles, has criticised the way in which ecotourism has become a front for biopiracy. In 2000, three French scientists were caught illegally obtaining plant specimens believed to contain medicinal properties.

"At least one tree with cancer curing potential, four native vegetables, one snail which produces the most effective painkiller, an antibiotic soil fungus, one fruit tree and several rice varieties, have been stolen and are now owned by foreign pharmaceuticals firms," said the Minister.

Cerilles was explaining his order to the country's parks boards to enforce a "no permit, no collection" policy.

Through biopiracy "firms and foreign governments secretly work with scientists within victim nations. They patent and map chromosomes of genetic resources without informing, consulting and duly compensating the sources."

Cerilles also claims that researchers from the University of Massachusetts uprooted the Philippine Yew (Taxus matrana) from Mount Pulag national park, Benguet, and patented it for its cancer-curing properties.

According to British environmentalist, Chris Lang, the line between biopiracy and ecotourism is becoming increasingly blurred.

In an interview with Anita Pleumarom of Third World Network, Lang described how he participated in a conservation research tour programme to Vietnam in 1993, organized by the UK based non-profit organisation, Society for Environmental Exploration (SEE).

During the 10-week expedition operating under the name Frontier, Lang said he observed volunteers collecting a wide range of plant and insect samples in the forests of Tam Dao Nature Reserve and Ba Be National Park, without permission from park officials. The specimens were later taken out of the country.

Frontier bills itself as an initiative that "brings ordinary people to the forefront of conservation research, enabling them to become involved in vital scientific work."

"Governments and other concerned parties should be alerted and seriously ponder the question whether it is wise to indiscriminately promote tourism forms that facilitate the stealing and smuggling of local biological resources and traditional knowledge, before necessary legal frameworks and administrative mechanisms are in place to effectively combat abuses and exploitation," writes Pleumarom.

Pleumarom doubts the world needs the International Year of Ecotourism and a coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGO) agree with her. In October 2000 environmental, human rights and indigenous peoples groups called for a fundamental reassessment of the UN Ecotourism Year.

Deborah McLaren, co-ordinator of the US-based Rethinking Tourism Project that works for protection and preservation of indigenous lands and cultures worries, "that much of what passes as ecotourism is designed to benefit investors, empower managerial specialists, and delight tourists, not enhance the economic, social and ecological health of the host communities."

UNEP claims the IYE is raising awareness of the ways in which ecotourism can promote conservation, disseminate good practice and market ecotourist destinations.

Links:International Year of EcotourismThird World Network

Source: Environment News Service, November 2000.