Eco–tourism: Do we need it?

Eco–tourism: Do we need it?
anita cheria and edwin

Eco–tourism was the panacea for the tourism industry of the early 1990s, which aggressively marketed eco–tourism as ecologically friendly, economically viable, tourism—the least polluting industry—that gives the most return to a community with the least investment and no damage to the environment. It is therefore the best possible thing to have happened. Unfortunately, the truth is somewhat different from this rose tinted utopia marketed by the tourism industry. In its underlying assumptions, and ultimate effects, eco–tourism is no different from any other tourism: voyeuristic in its outlook, pornographic in its motives and exploitative in its effects. Let us consider these assumptions and how they fit in with reality.

The controls
The developed countries control tourism, because their citizens have greater disposable incomes. That is the reason why the government of India went into a tizzy when the western governments issued ‘travel advisories’ discouraging their citizens from travelling to India or Pakistan. This shows the power of the tourism dollar even in a country like India which attracts a relatively small percentage of international tourists. Even this small dollar amount could contribute to stopping war and otherwise influencing the policy of a ‘sovereign’ state! The share of Europe and the US in international tourists has decreased from 60% in 1995 to 55% today. The World Tourism Organisation (WTO–OMT) expects it to fall to 45.9% by 2020. This shift means more tourists and tourist dollars for developing countries. It means more economic advantage to external players and consequently an erosion of national sovereignty.

The recent economic turmoil caused by questionable corporate accounting practices has brought into focus the real cost of any trade and the profits. Even assuming that leakages are individual aberrations rather than systemic—a rather questionable assumption in itself—the systemic nature of leakages of the tourism industry is rather high, the proportion incredible, and the cost—benefit ratios alarming. When taking on board repatriated profits, repayment of foreign loans, import of equipment, material and consumer goods to cater to the international tourist, just over half the turnover stays in the destination country—which absorbs the bulk of the costs.

The economic costs
Eco–tourism is promoted in eco–fragile areas where the indigenous populations are excluded—often citing ecological concerns of conservation and carrying capacity. In India it is promoted in ‘national parks’— where the local population does not even have the right to life under law—and ‘protected areas’—where the local populations are in various degrees of exclusion! The consumption patterns of the indigenous populations are much more in tune with the carrying capacity of the ecosystem than the tourists. Yet, it is the tourist who has the first right—and in many cases the sole right—a clear violation of the human rights of the indigenous populations. It does not even meet the human rights standards set out in the Indian constitution over 50 years ago—let alone international human rights standards of today.

Per capita, the tourists have been known for centuries to be the most polluting species, coming in after only the chemical [both pharmaceutical and fertiliser] and the war industries. One commentator has even termed them mobile waste dispensers. Tourists—specially the bulk of them who come through the tourism industry ‘service providers’—seldom take part in the life of the host community. The standardization of all meals to the American/European is now a reality in the tourism ‘circuit.’

The tourist is a ‘peeping tom’ of other cultures—never truly participating in the life of the host community: in effect a high–class voyeur. The ‘handicrafts’ that they take back with them are divorced from the cultural roots and the social purposes, effectively making these ‘artefacts’ highly pornographic in content. Tourists are on the lookout for ever more exotic places—each discarded after their novelty is worn out—making the host community vulnerable to the highly erratic tastes of the tourists. The economic costs of these swings in tourist preferences are heavy. Eco-tourism is to tourism what open cast mining is to mineral exploitation. The tourist industry can move on, but these host communities need to remain, and so need to clean up the debris.

The social costs
In the areas where the monetary economy is not developed—which means the eco–tourism areas—the costs are much higher, and irreparable. The introduction of the monetary economy into subsistence cultures by the industry is the thin end of the wedge. The subsequent swings in such an economy leaves the indigenous cultures that much more vulnerable. The new economy organises the people around it by a series of incentives [easy cash] and disincentives [prevention of access to forests]. When the ‘boom’ of the ‘virgin’ ‘exclusive’ destination dies down, the indigenous populations are left in the lurch. By now cut off from their traditional forms of livelihood, they are at the mercy of macro–economic forces they have little understanding about or control over. The vacuum left by the retreating industry is filled by less savoury means, leading to total extinction of their culture and degradation of their environment—the very culture and environment that got them attention in the first place. They become ‘service providers’ of the lowest rung.

The social costs of eco–tourism are no less than the ‘regular’ tourism industry, and in some cases are actually more. Free from peer control and cultural restraints, the tourist is the most irresponsible individual. They have no responsibility to the host community, and represent the epitome of the use and dispose mind–set. They are the single largest distributors of sexually transmitted diseases. With society on the verge of a HIV/AIDS pandemic, the eco–tourist plays an important link in its spread to the host populations. Only the law enforcement agencies and other government servants pose a greater health risk in spreading new diseases to isolated communities. Host communities report higher incidence of prostitution, including paedophilia. Even pilgrim tourism—let alone eco–tourism—is not exempt. The search for ‘virgin forests’ and ‘exotic locales’ is closely followed by the search for younger and younger virgins, from exotic communities.

Other social costs include serious weakening of traditional communities, their life and livelihood systems and infrastructure, impoverishment of cultural traditions, and standardization of craft output. This is apart from the environmental costs of additional infrastructure and carrying capacity—a cost so self–evident now that the United Nations Commission on Sustainable development has adopted an international programme of work on tourism and sustainable development since April 1999.

Policy issues
A major contribution of the eco–tourist towards the erosion of national sovereignty is the issue of intellectual property rights and bio diversity. The well documented cases of American bio–pirates in the garb of eco–tourists gaining control over certain species during their ‘holiday visits’ to South and Central American forests is but one instance. However, the plans are a little more specific and detailed than just isolated instances.

The World Bank supported eco–development plan is a pilot project to conserve biodiversity in seven protected areas in India, initially, and to prepare a plan to cover a further 200. The ecodevelopment project is ostensibly ‘to conserve biodiversity addressing both the impact of local people on the protected areas, [PAs], and the impact of the PAs on the local people. The project's human beneficiaries, tribal peoples and forest fringe villagers, belong to the poorest sections of society. Tribal development concerns are central to the project.’

The reality is a little different. This innocuous project is far more diabolic that its innocent sounding—or even lofty—objectives. In the Rio summit, India was almost a lone voice that asserted that national forests are not global sinks; and that the biodiversity therein belongs to the nations concerned. However, the eco–development project is to explicitly open up India's biodiversity to western, and specifically US, exploitation. Just US$67 million could ensure that the Indian laws could be nullified by a pliant bureaucracy bypassing the parliament. The project notes with satisfaction that India is one of the 12 mega–diversity areas of the world, and that India is ‘expected to conserve biodiversity not just for India but for the Earth as a whole.’ This innocuous clause is not an innocent insertion. Repeated clarifications requested were met with evasive responses lending credence to fears that internet connectivity and the communications revolution will ensure bio piracy. This will lead to a plunder of genetic wealth by the West. Not a bit of the benefits—economic or social—of the biotechnology that results from this will ever reach the community. The new international regimes for the protection of intellectual property rights are tailor–made for this.

Tourism’s adverse impact on bio diversity is also a significant area of deliberations in the Convention on Biological Diversity [CBD], which has been ratified by 175 countries. Since the fourth meeting of the Conference of Parties in May 1998 efforts have intensified at the international level to develop tourism programmes that are in agreement with the three objectives of the CBD:
• Conservation of biodiversity.
• Sustainable use of its components.
• Fair and equitable sharing of the benefits, in particular encourage the knowledge and practices of indigenous people.

A key factor in meeting these obligations is that the carrying capacity of the ecosystem be respected. But what is given in one hand is taken away by another. A major danger to these provisions comes from the market access provisions (Article XVI) of the General Agreement on Trade in Services [GATS]. They forbid countries from limiting the number of service providers, domestic or foreign. At one stroke they negate all environmental laws and the preferences of the local population—and make the 73rd and 74th amendment to the constitution void for all practical purposes.

Implications for indigenous populations and host countries
The declaration of the year for eco–tourism is to promote western agendas. It is to push the use and dispose culture right to the hinterland—when even the well–informed Indian middle class is ill equipped to handle the pressures of globalisation. The rush into the global economy has led to the longest recession in Indian history. The rush to the WTO has led to severe weakening of national sovereignty. The rush into eco–tourism could well be a disaster—ecologic and economic. The experience of Keralam, regarding Kovalam, and Goa need to be studied well before opening up new areas for tourism. Do we need to sell the people and culture of the most vulnerable sections of our society for a few miserable dollars—dollars that the finance minister assures us that we don’t need?

It will be a cruel joke on the people of Nagarhole and Kudremukh if they are evicted from their homelands, barred access to their life and livelihood systems—which are ecologically sustainable—only to permanently destroy them by opening up these same spaces for the momentary leisure of a few. They will literally die laughing.

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