Friday, October 10, 2008

Ecotourism can buffer the effects of poverty

a wild Vervet Monkey, common in South Africa (photo by Sally Kneidel)
Travelers from the United States spend 12 billion dollars each year in Africa. Some of that money goes to foreign owners of hotel chains and safari lodges. But not all of it. When destinations are chosen mindfully, travel dollars can go directly into the pockets of villagers who desperately need the money to support their families. Supporting impoverished families also reduces the overharvesting of natural resources such as trees and endangered wildlife. When families are struggling to find food just for today, they can't afford to think about the long-term environmental consequences of their actions.

So what can we do? What can Americans do who don't have big bucks to spend abroad?

My husband Ken and I have a modest income; we've both been educators our whole adult lives, and I make a tiny bit writing (2 cents an hour, to be exact). As a rule, we don't buy anything we don't absolutely have to have. When we do buy, we almost always buy secondhand. But our one area of "splurging" is green and culturally-sensitive travel.

We plan all of our trips from scratch, by ourselves. No packages, no big hotels, no cruises. We cut out the middleman and as much as possible, we avoid foreign-owned lodging. We do our best to funnel our dollars directly to local people.

In South Africa, we visited the village of Welverdiend, just outside the Orpen Gate of Kruger National Park. The villagers here rely heavily on natural resources to provide their basic needs: fuel, housing, food. They use wood from local trees for home-construction, cooking, fencing, livestock corrals, furniture, etc.

a Welverdiend family's kitchen made of local wood (photo by Sally Kneidel)

The Welverdiend villagers also harvest local plants, insects, and wildlife for food. They make bricks for some of their housing, using sand from the nearby river. Their relationship with these resources was the fascinating focus of the tour. But all of these resources are diminishing rapidly due to earlier population growth, unsustainable harvesting by "outsiders" who sell the resources, and climate change. For example, the area gets less rain now due to climate change, so river volume is reduced, less sand is deposited on the banks, and the villagers don't have enough sand to make bricks. Also vegetation patterns are changing due to changing rainfall. Consequently, villages across Africa are looking for new ways to provide their families' basic needs of housing, food, and fuel. The villagers of Welverdiend are trying to generate income by offering village tours, and they're doing a good job of it. When we visited there, all of our payment went directly into the villagers' pockets. Supporting their tours helps the villagers in the short run, and also gives them an incentive to preserve their culture and to preserve a sustainable relationship with their natural resources.

We went to Peru this past summer, and stayed in a remote research facility on a tributary of the Amazon River owned by a nonprofit, Project Amazonas. The mission of Project Amazonas is to promote conservation, conservation education, and the health of impoverished villages in remote areas of Amazonia. Project Amazonas has just gotten funding for a medical boat that will move from village to village providing basic health care for impoverished families. All the money we spent along the Amazon went directly to support the projects of Project Amazonas, or directly into the hands of remote villages we visited along the Rio Orosa: Santa Ursula, Comandancia, Santa Thomas. We donated money also to ACDA-Peru, a nonprofit working along a different tributary of the Amazon, for their September health fair to provide medical services and family planning options to families along the river (organized by Rosa Vasquez of Hospedaje La Pascana). When families have access to medical care, family planning, and education, birth rates go down, which in turn helps families use rainforest products (including trees and wildlife) at a more sustainable rate. All of the support people we employed on the trip - our cook, our boatman, our driver, our guide on the desert coast and in the Amazon - were all native Peruvians.

My son Alan, our excellent bird guide Edgardo Aguilar (, and husband Ken on the coast of Peru

With one exception, all of the hostels where we stayed, in the Andes and elsewhere, were owned and operated 100% by local people. Our only exception was Llanganuco Lodge, a Mount Huascaran eco-lodge owned by a transplanted Brit, who donates money to support the local Quechua community and employs local Quechuans.

A Quechuan family cooking lunch to sell to tourists in Huascaran National Park in the Peruvian Andes (photo by Sally Kneidel)

My family (Sadie, Alan, and Ken) birding at Llanganuco Lodge in the Cordillera Blanca of the Peruvian Andes

A trip to Thailand and Viet Nam is in the works. I'm going with two friends this time, not my family. I'm booking places right now via the internet. I'm trying to choose places that promote conservation and that are owned by local people. It takes a lot more time to do the research required to screen providers and to book places myself, rather than through a travel agency. But it's fun. When I get back from trips, I try to maintain contact with villagers, with local providers, and with conservation groups we've met during the trip. I post their contact info on my blog, and promote their fundraisers on my blog. My goal is to get American travel dollars into the hands of people in developing nations who are struggling toward sustainable livelihoods. By doing so, I hope to help them live more comfortably, to give them additional incentive to maintain their rich traditions and way of life, and to reduce the overharvesting of natural resources. When I get back, I'll post contact info for the local providers and organizations we met in Asia.

Text & photos by Sally Kneidel, PhD

Keywords:: green travel ecotravel Thailand Asia Viet Nam Peru South Africa Welverdiend Edgardo Aguilar Rosa Vasquez Project Amazonas


Guillaume Foutry said...

Good article, really complete and well argumented viewpoint. What else??
Keep going

Matthew Tripp said...
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