Indigenous people speak out at Ecotourism Summit

Posted: 5 June 2002

Author: Sue Wheat

Author Info: Sue Wheat is editor of Tourism Concern's magazine, In Focus. For a copy of its lateast edition on ecotourism (£4), call +44 (0)20 7753 3330 or email info@tourismconcern.org.uk. Visa accepted. For information on the World Ecotourism Summit and the declaration see: www.ecotourism2002.org

The first World Ecotourism Summit, held in Quebec City, Canada, in May 2002, proved to be a lively forum for indigenous people from Ecuador, Mexico, the Arctic, US, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. Among the 1000 delegates who attended this summit get together to mark the UN-designated International Year of Ecotourism, they certainly made their voices heard.

"Historically, Europeans devastated aboriginal cultures. In recent decades however, there has been a resurgence in traditional ways and the emergence of economic opportunities for communities that have come to grips with the social problems they have had to face. One of those opportunities is tourism" said Dwayne Hounsell, Chair of the Aboriginal Tourism Team Canada.

There are now around 1,500 aboriginal businesses in Canada, mainly small and nature based. Ecotourism is a natural fit for Aboriginals, he said.

"Of course, it also has the potential to commercialise, to disturb sacred sites, to disrupt close-knit communities, but those are things we have to control. The elders and others have to determine which part of their culture they should reveal to tourists and which they won't. Visitors have to understand that there are cultural limits they have to respect. With aboriginal population increasing, tourism may be a means of meeting the challenge of providing employment for the population."

Sceptical voices

Other Indigenous people sounded stronger words of caution. Those who had attended one of the preparatory conferences for the World Ecotourism Summit in Oaxaca, Mexico, brought with them the Oaxaca Declaration expressing great concern about ecotourism development which has objectified Indigenous Peoples, evicted them from their lands and ignored their rights of self-determination and effective participation.

They were also extremely sceptical about the potential results from the World Ecotourism Summit's final declaration which they said "is aimed at governments, conservation and ecotourism NGOs, academics, the tourism industry and others who seek to 'develop' us and our lands for tourism.

Summit organisers insisted however, that the central aims of the World Ecotourism Summit was to put forward recommendations to policy makers and the tourism industry which would make sure that ecotourism works for the benefit of all and is not corrupted in this way. What ensued was four days of discussion, argument, exchange, and finally, a carefully worded and extensive declaration on ecotourism to be taken to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

As Klaus Topfer, executive director of UNEP which co-hosted the Summit with the World Tourisem Organisation (WTO), explained: "Ecotourism can be a powerful force for the good of local people and environments, as well as profit. We must use this year as a year of critical dialogue on ecotourism - and learn to make full use of nature for the advantage of the environment and people living in the region. We also have to realise that there's a high risk of destroying the destinations. We need to ask for real responsibility - not greenwashing - to bring about real change in the perverse consumption patterns that aren't in line with long-term use."

Plastic bottles

How to reduce in relation to over-consumption was tackled in various sessions focusing on environmental management in lodges and hotels. "A new approach to architecture and physical facilities planning is needed, in tourism as well as everyday life, if we are really going to stop the irreversible damage to the environment, further pollution and depletion of energy resources," pointed out Hector Ceballos Lacurain, director general of the Programme of International Consultancy in Ecotourism in Mexico.

Ironically, however the links to the organisation of the Ecotourism Summit had not been made. "I felt that the conference should have led by example and held the Summit in a conference centre that was implementing the environmental management policies that we were saying were so important," said Michael Meyer, of Ecological Tourism in Europe. Instead, delegates talked for days about how hotels should implement environmental management policies for waste, water and energy while getting through hundreds of non-recyclable plastic water bottles every day and not venturing out from what was in effect, an all-inclusive, airconditioned complex.

Similarly, the thorny issue of air travel was raised a few times at the Summit, and whether promoting ecotourism to far-flung places when global warming is such a serious issue, is appropriate. Various participants stated that an opportunity had also been lost by not making the World Ecotourism Summit a 'zero emissions' summit by offsetting CO2 emissions from delegates flights through a suitable scheme such as Climate Care or Future Forests.

Social issues

The social aspects of ecotourism featured strongly in the Summit - the effects of wildlife management areas on communities in Tanzania, of an anti-poaching programme in India which has turned poachers into ecotourist guides, and of community-based ecotourism programmes in Nepal. New concepts, such as 'urban ecotourism' was also covered. For instance Sao Paolo City Green Belt Biosphere reserve is regenerating areas of environmental value within the city through ecotourism, with the particular involvement of Brazilian young people.

The resulting Quebec Declaration on Ecotourism is a well-rounded declaration that incorporates a wide range of views from participants. It's not a traveller-friendly document but it does make thoughtful reading for anyone interested in the subject.

Forty one recommendations are made, including that governments 'should formulate national, regional and local ecotourism policies...consistent with the overall objectives of sustainable development'.

It's something of a 'wish list' for ecotourism but having the guidelines to act as a foundation for the future is a step forward. How practical it is, is the big challenge, particularly for operators. "We want to do the right thing," said one operator from the United States, "but to tell you the truth, we don't have the time or the money to implement all these criteria that communities and NGOs want."