Ecotourism Will Save Us All!

This weekend, I was the future of the Huaorani nation.

The face of the future?

This may sound like a rather strong and paternalistic statement coming from a non-Huaorani, but I’m pretty sure the four Huaorani guides with which I travelled this weekend would agree.  Indeed, ask almost anyone in the Ecuadorian Amazon what they will live off of if the petroleum stays in the ground, and they will inevitably respond, “tourism”.

At least in theory, I think the idea of an economy based on eco-tourism is an appealing one.  It provides a way for Ecuadorians to value their environment through its preservation, rather than its destruction.  Tourism is redistributive: most tourists here are rich, and the people they pay to serve them are often poor.  I like tourism, also, because it is an economic activity that doesn’t involve “production” per se: it allows us to “consume” experiences, not resources, and take home photos rather than cheap plastic crap.

Tourism seems like a good bet for the Huaorani, specifically, because—at least, based on my limited experience—it seems to fit well with their culture and cosmovision.  Like most hunters and gathers, Huaoranis historically enjoyed a high standard of living with only a few hours of “work” a week.  Tourism, hypoethtically, provides for modern necessities without obligating anyone to sit behind a desk or wear a tie.  As one guide described it, “I get to walk around the forest like when I was little, except now I get paid!”

Chainsawing our way through an obstacle... just like our ancestors.

For two reasons, though, I doubt that tourism can be the saving grace of the Amazon.  First, “eco-tourism” doesn’t seem so “eco.”  The first preparation we made this weekend for our trip was to buy eighty gallons of gasoline for our canoe.  Rather ironic, given that the point of eco-tourism is intended to allow us to avoid extracting the petroleum in the Amazon.  The river was very low, so every few minutes our guides had to hop out and chainsaw our way through a fallen tree, leaving an oil slick along the way.  Despite my vigorous protestations, my guides insisted on spearing and slaughtering various animals so I could take a picture with them.  My inner Boy Scout cried at every beach we left a mess.  And so on.

The whole idea of tourism, sadly, strikes me as profoundly anti-ecological.  It’s as simple as Newton’s First Law of Motion: objects at rest stay at rest stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.  It takes energy to move people around.  By the time we’ve taken a flight half-way around the world to look at a pretty forest, the game is already up and the environmental damage is already done.  Add in long-distance trips in pick-up trucks and canoe rides, and even the most environmentally conscious guide cannot prevent a carbon emissions catastrophe.

Many guides, one tourist.

My second concern about eco-tourism is that it will never work economically.  While my guides were always good-hearted and full of laughs, their descriptions of their lives was not rosy.  Although I was paying a small fortune, they would see very little of it: most of the money tourists pay goes to food and gas and oil and equipment.  They work long and unpredictable hours and have to be ready to leave for trips on a moments notice.  One guide—age thirty-five—said that he had decided not to get married because he couldn’t put his family through the uncertainty.  There are 2,500 Huaorani, but the 25 of them that already work as guides in Coca complain that there isn’t enough work.  Sometimes they go on trips not because they think they can earn anything, but because at least the tourists provide them with something to eat.

Building a society around eco-tourism requires making economic and social sacrifices.  If I am paying a lot of money to go into the Amazon, I don’t want to see roads or factories.  In fact, I don’t even want to see clothes, much less televisions and cement houses.  Living in the “traditional” manner that tourists want to observe, though, precludes a lot of economic options.  Almost by definition, then, to make tourism work, you have to put all your eggs in one basket.

I have to wonder if the math on ecotourism ultimately works out.  How many rich backpackers are there in the world?  And how many vacation days do they have?  How many curios do they want to buy?  And how many ecolodges are vying for those tourists?  How many guides, how many communities? Ecuador is spectacular, but so are Thailand and India and Costa Rica and Kenya and any number of other places that have staked their development in part on tourism.  Not all of them can be destination number one.

As with all things, though, the key phrase is always “Show me the alternatives.” Huaorani territory isn’t going to be home to any India-style call centers anytime soon.  At the moment, it’s a stark choice between tourism and petroleum.  Young Huaorani want Western things, and for that they need money.  They don’t want to live in the traditional way–and even if they did, their population has grown too much and the forest is too contaminated to support it.  Ecotourism may not save them all, but it is also pretty much their only hope.

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