Can Tourism Help Save the Amazon?

Responsible tourism has the potential to generate substantial environmental and economic benefits: it can generate well paid, stable jobs, often providing support and an amplified voice for marginalised communities, while preserving wildlife and its habitats.

Minimising the human and environmental costs of tourism is often seen as being at the expense of maximising profits. But what if responsible tourism didn’t have to be a trade off between profits and principles?

In the Amazon, where rainforest is right now being burned at a rate of three football pitches per minute, a preoccupation with economic growth means that environmental exploitation is often excused; in Brazil, environmental policies are being undermined as the private profits generated by hugely destructive and unsustainable agricultural, logging and mining practices are prioritised over conservation.

However, a study reported by Faunalytics in 2018 makes a clear argument that ecotourism in the Amazon is more profitable, in the long run, than any other use of rainforest land. The study also found that ecotourism can have a positive knock-on effect on the profits of other local industries. In addition, it noted that ecotourism significantly reduces the carbon emissions created by deforestation, even after taking the carbon footprint of tourists into account.

Amazon fires NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens

The politics fuelling the fires
As much as it would be wonderful to say that responsible tourism alone offers the answer to saving the Amazon, that would be over simplifying what is in fact a very large and complex problem. In the area where the study took place, the Tambopata region of the Peruvian Amazon, people have been fighting against mining operations and illegal logging for 12 years, and risking their lives in doing so. Tourism is on such a small scale here, compared to the logging and mining industries, that it can’t compete on short term profits, while violence and lawlessness goes unchecked.

And this is by no means a one-off story. Across the Amazon region, environmental defenders and indigenous people have been threatened, and killed, by the criminals driving the deforestation. They have in turn been emboldened by politicians, from Brazil’s far-right leader ‘Captain Chainsaw’ – president Jair Bolsonaro – to Bolivian president Evo Morales, who encourages slash-and-burn farming.

It’s already impossible to police an area half the size of Europe, where local indigenous communities have no legal titles to their land, without the added complication of governments and multinationals whose only concern is making a quick buck. And with such huge amounts of money at stake, there’s more than just a whiff of corruption. At a time when even protected land is under threat from the very people who should be protecting it, the Amazon is left wide open to land grabbing.

Vicki Brown, former writer and editor at Responsible Travel, works with a human rights organisation helping forest peoples in Colombia. She shares her experience of assisting responsible tourism projects in South America:

“The Amazon is an extremely complicated environment in every sense - everyone wants a piece of it. When I was travelling in northern Ecuador, a river safari was cancelled one morning because nearby explosions from oil prospectors had scared all the wildlife away. In parts of the Bolivian Amazon, tourism projects are inextricably linked with local cattle ranchers - the landowners - who host tourists at their ranches.”

Money really does grow on trees
But it’s not all bad news. There are plenty of examples where the income from tourism has enabled the protection of forest areas from would-be land grabbers, or has funded the regeneration of forests. Francesca Lewis from Crees-Manu, a pioneering ecotourism initiative based in the Peruvian Amazon, describes how their lodge in the buffer zone of the Manu Biosphere Park has achieved both.

“We’re working in the buffer zone of the national park. You need to protect areas of the buffer zone to protect the primary national park; if we encroach more within the buffer zone it has a knock on effect later on. Our reserve itself used to be a cattle ranch, an old hacienda site covering 650 hectares, where there was slash and burn farming. Since we’ve been protecting it we’ve brought it back to 87% biodiversity compared to the primary rainforest.”

Kathy Jarvis, owner of Amazon holiday specialists Andean Trails, explains that international tourism projects also pave the way for successful community-run projects.

"Chalalan Eco Lodge in Bolivia, which was founded in part by the community, is now completely in the hands of the community. And part of that same community, having learned their skills in running a hospitality business in the Amazon, has moved to open another lodge. It’s a good example of how the training provided by an international partner initially helps the local people to take a project on and run with it and keep it going."

Amazon rainforest. Photo by Neil Palmer (CIAT)

There is clear evidence that the Amazon is worth more left intact, contributing $8.2 billion to Brazil’s economy alone, but short term greed is obscuring the message that protecting the forest can actually be more lucrative. It’s essential that this message is now enforced and shouted clearly, not least to support the continued efforts of eco lodges, tourism-funded conservation schemes and the many environmental defenders and front line organisations already protecting areas of the Amazon.

On this, Vicki Brown adds: “There are definitely success stories; they are tiny compared to the scale of the Amazon rainforest, but they mean the world for the local communities. Tours that can include visits to local communities, or - better still - are run by community members, can really strengthen their chances of holding onto their land, and resisting it being taken from them by loggers, mining companies or large scale agriculture”.

Written by Bryony Cottam
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