Responsible tourism in the Amazon Rainforest

Rainforest deforestation

It's a small world and we're all connected. You may not know but, every year, the same amount of soil nutrients washed away by the heavy rains of the Amazon is replaced by the dust blown across the ocean from the Sahara. In fact, the Amazon is so big that not only does it make its own rain, it provides rain for countries as far away as Paraguay and Argentina. 
It's not news that we're destroying the Amazon – after all, many of us have been surrounded by save the rainforest campaigns since school. But we've now reached a tipping point where, if we don't stop, experts believe the natural systems that support this enormous rainforest will be broken. Deforestation is directly linked to a reduction in rainfall in the Amazon, generally thought to be the most powerful mitigator against rising temperatures. We're messing with naturally regulated Earth systems, and not for the first time. A recent UCL study shows that human activity in the Amazon had an impact on climate change long before the Industrial Revolution.
Guy Marks, from our Amazon holiday specialists Tribes Travel, says:
“The biggest issue in Brazil is that they’re cutting down the rainforest faster than you can blink. It’s just a massive environmental issue. If you fly into Manaus during the daytime, you get to the edge of the forest and you just see hundreds of miles of forest burning. There’s a very distinct line between the soya fields and the forest – and the line is moving on a daily basis. So it’s fairly staggering.”

The problem is as much about politics as it is about poverty. In Brazil, deforestation of the Amazon dropped by 70 percent between 2004 and 2014 when the government cracked down on illegal activities. Following the election of Jair Bolsanaro, a president keen to exploit huge areas of rainforest land, land loss has increased by 20 percent in just the last year.  

Brazil has repeatedly called on richer countries to pay for the protection of the Amazon, a solution we've not yet taken seriously. A $20m pledge from G7 was rejected as ‘chump change’, but many detractors also criticised the amount, comparing it with the $1 billion pledged to save the Notre Dame, the similar annual salary of several American sports stars and the $40 million cost of hosting the G7 meeting itself. Following the 2019 forest fires, both Germany and Norway responded by halting contributions to the Amazon Fund, which promotes the preservation and sustainable use of the Amazon. Consequently, Bolsonaro’s government closed the fund’s steering committee.

If the government could come round to thinking that the Amazon is worth more whole, in the long run, than its unsustainable exploitation, we may be able to protect it. Responsible tourism is a growing market both in Brazil and worldwide and, in the Peruvian rainforest, it has already proved to be more profitable over time than any other use of the land.

Kathy Jarvis, owner of our Amazon holiday specialists Andean Trails, talks about the ecolodges protecting the rainforest: “There are lodges which have been set up in conjunction with the community like Posada Amazonas, a Tambopata Research Centre which is also a scientific research centre. They have local people from the communities working there, they help train guides, they then have international scientists working on the survival of the macaws and breeding programmes. There's fantastic wildlife there and you know that you're contributing to the scientific research, you're contributing to the community, and you're definitely contributing at all the lodges to maintaining the rainforest.”

Amazon people

Poverty is fuelling much of the deforestation of the Amazon, but it’s not all caused by companies profiting from its resource-rich forests. Currently, at least 22 percent of Brazil’s population is thought to be living in slums. The first of these makeshift settlements was established in 1800, but it was in the 1950s that they really began to spread, following mass migration to the cities. Proper housing is scarce and expensive, leaving occupants with little choice but to clear land for informal dwellings. Many of these shantytowns are being built on the outskirts of cities like Manaus, and its suburbs are steadily eating into Amazon.
On the other side of the coin, in tiny isolated pockets of a huge area, the Amazon’s indigenous population is hanging on by a thread. Over centuries, the continent’s native people have been impoverished by the continued theft and decimation of their lands in the name of development. An estimated 11-50 million native inhabitants lived in the rainforest in 1500. In Brazil, only 900,000 remain, making up just 0.4 percent of the population. In some cases, only a handful of members of some tribes are still living. 
Ever since the arrival of Europeans in the 1500s, Amazonian people have suffered discrimination, persecution and mass genocide. Alongside the threat of colonial-brought disease, against which they have little immunity, intensive farming is the greatest danger to the livelihoods of most indigenous people today. Traditional tribal cultures have been eroded and indigenous languages are being forgotten, some are down to just single speakers. 
Faced with extinction, some tribes have turned to tourism. Ecolodges that are part-founded and run by indigenous communities benefit both locals and the environment they live in. They have also helped rekindle interest in preserving traditional ways of life, as demonstrating ancestral customs to strangers motivates younger generations to practice them.

They’re examples of how tourism can offer an economic solution to poorer inhabitants of the Amazon, providing not just jobs but, as proven by Uakari Lodge, higher incomes than the average local wage. Uakari Lodge in particular is a great success story when it comes to providing sustainable, alternative economic activities for local communities and has brought in R$2.8 million to a single region which, according to manager Gustavo Pinto, is high by any Brazilian standards. 

Amazon River cruises 

If the thought of a cruise conjures up confusing images of huge floating hotels barging through the rainforest, you wouldn’t be far out. Some of the most popular Amazon river tours are run by some of the largest cruise line companies in the world, transporting up to 1,000 passengers at a time. These boats are simply too big to venture beyond the massive main artery of the Amazon and there’s not much chance of spotting wildlife out here. Filled with gyms, spas, Jacuzzis and buffets, they consume enormous amounts of energy and contribute little to the local economies. 

Some of the same cruise lines found guilty of dumping dirty wastewater along coasts and discharging oil into the sea also sail up the Amazon. Most have a poor record when it comes to air pollution. Smaller, more sustainable boats built specifically for river cruises have a lower environmental impact. They’re not luxury cruises and consume less energy, so can rely on more renewable sources, and they regularly turn their engines off to conserve fuel. They’re also quieter and their size makes them less damaging to their surroundings, so you’re more likely to see wildlife.  

Captive wild animals

The Amazon is well known for its astonishing amount of biodiversity, but often seeing it can prove problematic. In 2017, a six-month investigation into animal cruelty by World Animal Protection revealed the deadly impact that irresponsible animal tourism was having on the Amazon’s wildlife. River towns, including Manaus, were found to be attracting visitors and their money with the promise of photos with parrots, sloths and giant anteaters. Kept on a diet of pink yoghurt, their jaws clamped shut, these caged wild creatures bring in vital income to the poorer parts of the rainforest, but are suffering. Meanwhile, tourists are taking advantage of the chance to pack more sights into shorter, cheaper holidays. 
There are several Amazonian islands and serpentarios (reptile parks) masquerading as animal rescue centres, some also going by the name ‘Monkey Island’. These are actually illegal operations that exploit both wildlife and tourists. Boat owners are bribed to bring in visitors expecting to visit the real thing, but end up being charged inflated entry rates to see caged and ill animals. By travelling with a responsible tour operator, you can be sure that all the wildlife you see is wild, or homed at a reputable rehabilitation centre.
Written by Bryony Cottam
Photo credits: [Page banner: Christian Vinces] [Deforestation: Alexander Gerst] [People : Ben Sutherland] [Captive wild animals: Dallas Krentzel]