Two models of eco-tourism
The past ten days have been extremely educational for many reasons, one of them being in increasing my understanding of eco-tourism. I traveled to Ecuador and witnessed first-hand two models of eco-tourism that are markedly different, but offer incredible insights into how this form of tourism can aid in development as well as finding a balance between growth, sustainable community development and cultural preservation.
The tension in this region as well as others, that deal with pressures of development versus conservation are quite visible. The central question that is present before people is this: If conservation efforts are an obstruction to people making a livelihood, how can that be managed?
Consider two areas of Ecuador: Yunguilla, a small village about two hours outside of Quito, the capital and Macquipucuna reserve.
As we witnessed and other scholars and observers have pointed out, Yunguilla is a very impressive model that combines reforestation, community development, ecotourism (involving visits by tourists to live and work in the village) of about 200 people, small scale cottage industries of jam, cheese making and a community store.
We stayed in the village for three nights and four days and partook in almost all communal activities: jam making, cheese making, planting seeds in the community garden, playing with kids as well as hiking. The total experience was one that will remain with us for a while, especially the warmth with which we were received.
The community members shared that in the 1970s, and earlier, they were impoverished and relied mainly on burning of trees to make charcoal, which they sold, to survive. Through an intervention of a Private Foundation, they were able to learn skills in jam making, cheese making and also in organizing themselves, to better serve their own needs and that of their community.
They have come a long way, by their own telling of the narrative, with a seemingly thriving community that hosts thousands of tourists each year.
Forest conservation efforts are in place and the community seems healthy and tightly bound together, both socially and economically.
There is even an Orchid nursery, run by a botanist who has a PhD in Botany.
This project seems to have succeeded not because of, but despite government support.
We visited Maquipucuna reserve, another unique model of conservation founded by two Ecuadorians, Rebeca Justicia and Rodrigo Ontaneda in the 1980s. Today, this reserve is a thriving biosphere that tries to maintain the balance between nature and human needs.
The reserve has lodges where locals and tourists can stay for a few days and enjoy activities like bird-watching, hiking and learning about the Choco-Andino region.
“The tensions between making a livelihood and conservation are here, even today,” pointed out our guide, who took us around and pointed out the main challenges that people in this region face.
Agriculture and farming are also activities that impinge on the forest areas and create a tension that is hard to reconcile.
“The cloud forests were more protected as they were not as accessible. The group here immediately saw that the rate of deforestation was so high, that there was not going to be any forest land. So, they immediately bought as much forest land as possible in the 1980s, to create this reserve,” our guide added.
The initial land was 600 hectares and had untouched primary forest, from 3000 to 9000 ft high. Logging, hunting and pastures for tree tomato plantations are all issues that impacted this region. Government policy has always favored doing this that were “productive,” added our guide, Holger Beck. “The leadership at Maquipucuna was key in making a case for environmental conservation”, he added, thus making this a protected forest.
The leadership here also sought to provide alternatives for communities that were dependent on the forest land. They offered help, trainings and projects, to help set up businesses. The biggest success story is Yunguilla. The community there is quite serious and has also built eco-tourism models, other sources of income, that keeps the community going.
There’s a lot that can be said about both these projects, but suffice it to say that these are incredible sites for any visitor to visit, learn from and reflect.
For scholars and students interested in learning about how development can be managed, curtailed and yet advanced, these two projects offer slightly differing, but relevant examples.