Author: Jennifer Sutherland-Miller

Ecotourism: Does it Matter?

July 8

Inotawa Lodge
Somewhere upriver from Puerto Maldonado, Peru

“To say that it’s beautiful here would be about as creative as calling the sky, simply, blue. There is more life here than I can even describe to you, and yet almost none of it is human. In the first 24 hours we’ve seen:

  • white caiman
  • turtles
  • capybara (seven of them in a family group… they are like an enormous guinea pig… the size of a pig)
  • butterflies of a dozen sorts, and birds too numerous to name
  • flocks of parrots and red macaws
  • squirrel monkeys
  • brown capuchin monkeys
  • saddle back monkeys
  • wild pigs… I didn’t actually see these but we heard them very close!
  • giant cecropia moth

It is quiet in ways that only the truly remote places on the planet are. And at the same time, it’s the loudest place I’ve ever been. Life is screaming in every direction, bugs, birds, monkeys, it’s a constant cacophony of sound.

By day the river is the colour of Thai milk tea:
a ruddy orange mixed with sickly sweet condensed milk that swirls and flows in a glass in slow whorls of cream and rust, bending around ice cubes with effort in the tropical heat. The river is much the same, snaking through the jungle in long, languorous curves that are, at once, creeping and rushing through the forest.

By night she is carved of black opal: polished to a high gloss shine and laid like a ribbon through the ghost of the ebony green banks, reflecting the fire in the firmament. We drifted, long and slow, through the silence, suspended somewhere between earth and sky. Craning my neck as far back and out of the banana boat as possible I watched as the southern cross danced across the mirrored surface of god’s own ballroom rippling in ancient reels with Mercury and Venus for her partners. A firefly flashed to life within arms reach, or perhaps it was a star dipped a little two low at the end of a cosmic tango.

“One of the most ancient creatures on the planet; had he been waiting his whole life for this one moment? Had we?”

We watched the caiman as the caiman watched us. Yellow eyes reflected in the torch light, hanging at the surface, almost within arms reach of the boat. Time stood still. One of the most ancient creatures on the planet; had he been waiting his whole life for this one moment? Had we?

I am sitting now, by candle light, at a table all alone in the dining room. An open air structure, like everything else, with a thatched room and long tables, of hand hewn ceiba wood. Earlier today I sat here and watched tiny, precocious brown saddle back monkeys creep towards the fruit bowls, one eye on the staff, one eye on the prize. When the young man who sets tables in the evening and lights the chandeliers full of candles leapt after them with a broom I laughed and asked him in Spanish, “You chase the monkeys often?” He rolled his eyes and answered, “Siempre,” Always.

I am lucky to be in this place…”

On ecotoursim

It’s fast become a buzz word in the travel world, and a phrase to be bandied about like a badge of honor. Of course, like other buzz words that have come and gone in ecologically sensitive circles, “organic,” “fair trade,” and “sustainable” come to mind, it’s definition is somewhat fluid, which leaves room for a lot of artistic license where marketing is concerned. Where that leaves the consumer is, often, confused.

“Let me be clear in coming out on the side of ecologically sensitive travel.”

Let me be clear in coming out on the side of ecologically sensitive travel. In fact, I’d push it quite a bit further than ecotourism and suggest that eco-living is what we really need more of. It hardly matters how you choose to travel if your carbon footprint is Sasquatch sized at home, does it?

It’s also worth noting that mindful folks have been “eco-touring” for as long as travel has been a thing. It’s possible to walk lightly on this planet, at home and abroad, without the ecotourism seal of approval. It’s a matter of reducing consumption, increasing what we give back, and conserving the limited resources within the communities in which we find ourselves.

“It’s possible to walk lightly on this planet, at home and abroad, without the ecotourism seal of approval.”

In short, being labeled “eco” doesn’t mean a lodge actually is doing all it can. And lacking the trendy label doesn’t preclude a high degree of ecological sensitivity. As with most buzz words, what is necessary is to dig deeper, understand more of what’s behind the movement, and make choices based on the best information we have.

Does it matter?

ecotourism matters
Call me an idealist, but I believe it does matter. Every single effort on behalf of conservation matters, even the small ones. The concern I have is that by labeling a lodging, or an experience, “ecotoursim” it oversimplifies the matter and allows us to abdicate our responsibility by buying our way out of personal accountability.

“While voting with our dollars and spending our travel money responsibly matters immensely, it’s not the sum total of our responsibility.”

If we simply “buy” our eco-holiday, we might be tempted to believe that that’s enough. That we’ve done our part. While voting with our dollars and spending our travel money responsibly matters immensely, it’s not the sum total of our responsibility. Every single one of us could up our game, and we need to. The fate of our planet depends upon us.

The obvious way that ecotourism matters is in preserving the biodiversity in sensitive regions and reducing the ecological impact on a particular community. If we’re going to safari in Africa, it should be in a way that preserves the local animal populations. If we’re going to hike the Amazon, it should be in a way that protects the rainforest for the next generation. We can do better than simply doing no harm, we can give back.

It’s just a tree… or a turtle

ecotourism turtle

July 14, 2015

“This morning we filled small bags with soil for future tree planting, about two hundred bags. We then sifted through giant boxes of sand to remove all of the twigs and leathery remains of last year’s egg shells. They use the boxes to curate the turtle eggs that they dig up from the beaches along the riverbank in August.

Apparently the turtles are at risk from people who poach the eggs to sell in the markets. I stapled and stapled along with Adan, a local guy who drove our boat the other day, to enclose the whole area in shade cloth to keep the small animals from getting in there and digging up the eggs. It’s fun to be working on a few projects that will carry on after I leave.”

July 15…

“We spent half an hour hunched beneath a Chihuahuaco tree… Ironwood…looking for seeds. Imagine a peach pit, now double the size and remove the pores and you’ve got an approximation. They’re tricky to find in the undergrowth and the process is complicated by the fact that the monkeys eat them too, so often what we found were half nuts; not so useful for planting.

We filled 200 bags with soil yesterday and hoped to find 200 Chihuahuaco seeds to plant in them. The ironwood trees are disappearing quickly. They take about two to three hundred years to grow to their full heights and their extraordinarily hard wood makes them a commodity for loggers who sell them into the high end furniture market. They’re important to the eco system for their role in housing the nests of macaws and the bromeliads that grow high in their branches forming habitat and water pockets for tree frogs and lizards to live and lay eggs in.”

Replacing damaging economies

ecotourism economy
Eco-toursim matters in another way, that is greater than padding our consciences as we travel the world. It became clear to me this summer, up to my knees in the mud of the Amazon rainforest, as I trudged along behind Walter, our guide who had also served for a time in the Peruvian Military. We talked a lot as we hiked, about his family and mine, his transition from soldier to guide, to curator of the forest his people have called home for generations.

“The primary driver of these tragedies is economic. People need to make a buck.”

Everyone knows that the Amazon rainforests are in extreme danger. Millions of acres of land are disappearing to agriculture and mining. People groups are threatened. Animal populations are dwindling at an alarming rate in some regions. The lungs of our planet, before long, could be gasping for breath. The primary driver of these tragedies is economic. People need to make a buck. They have kids to feed. And they’ll do just about anything to make that happens. Wouldn’t you? Their options are limited.

“Culture becomes a currency. Education becomes a commodity.”

Ecotourism provides a new way for a community to develop income streams that are dignified and sustainable and that will rebuild their wilderness instead of deplete it. Miners become guides. Girls who were previously stuck in prostitution to the mining camps have options. Culture becomes a currency. Education becomes a commodity. In sharing their world in a responsible and sustainable way, everyone wins.

By voting with our dollars for ecotourism experiences we are spending money into economies that give people options, support conservation, and perhaps even give back in small ways to the communities that host us.