Seeing the People through the Trees: Conservation, Communities and Ethno-Ecotourism in the Bolivian Amazon Basin
McDonough, Roger John
<bold>SEEING THE PEOPLE THROUGH THE TREES: CONSERVATION, COMMUNITIES AND ETHNO-ECOTOURISM IN THE BOLIVIAN AMAZON BASIN</bold>Roger McDonough B.A.,Thesis Advisor: Alicia LissidiniAbstractEcotourism, generally defined as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well being of local people, " is one of the fastest-growing tourism markets; has been tied to the sustainable development strategies of several nations and is linked to biodiversity protection initiatives worldwide. Still, the track record for ecotourism is mixed. While responsible and effective ventures exist, the term is frequently hijacked to disguise socially and environmentally unsound tourist activities.In the Bolivian Amazon, one form of ecotourism in particular is being promoted by conservation actors as an alternative to extractive and environmentally damaging activities and as means for promoting sustainable development in the area surrounding two national protected areas. "Ethno-ecotourism," that is tourism to areas with natural and indigenous components, has flourished as a response to the perceived need to preserve indigenous culture and customs, while providing market structures to try to tackle the extreme poverty from which indigenous groups frequently suffer. This phenomenon is by no means isolated. Indeed, in Latin America, thousands of indigenous groups have chosen ecotourism as their preferred development alternative. Many conservationists in Bolivia endorse these efforts, saying that ethno-ecotourism's substitutive economic role encourages sustainable development. With the support of international donors, several ventures that link communities, tourism and conservation together have been launched in the Bolivian Amazon basin.This thesis analyzes three ethno-ecotourism projects inside or near two of Bolivia's protected areas: the Madidi National Park and the Pilón-Lajas Biosphere Reserve. An analysis of findings from participant interviews, observations and secondary data gathered during fieldwork, suggests that ethno-ecotourism in the area has had some limited effects in promoting environmentally-sustainable socioeconomic development. Immediate benefits have been documented in each of the cases, but these benefits are generally limited to an already privileged population segment. In terms of functioning economic substitution, that is how far ethno-ecotourism has gone in replacing detrimental extractive activities (in conjunction with coordinated conservation efforts) - generally a fair amount has been accomplished. An overwhelming number of those interviewed indicate involvement in the commercialization of extractive forest resources prior to national park influence and the arrival of ecotourism to the communities.It should be noted that ethno-ecotourism in the region is closely monitored by donor agencies, international NGO's and other development players. Hefty sums have been spent on project development and on training programs for indigenous guides, managers, cooks, etc. But while these endeavors are succeeding, to some extent, in their mission to provide a quality and sustainable product, no form of tourism is without impact, nor is it immune from market fluctuations, political instability, corruption or natural limiting factors. Furthermore, conventional tourism in the region is by far the biggest player, and is having a noticeable, though under-documented impact on unique, ecologically fragile terrain.Finally, Bolivia is facing unsteady times. Fulfilling an historic cultural struggle, governors from Bolivia's so called medialuna provinces have tried to secure some degree of autonomy from a central government that is currently enacting an enormous constitutional transformation of the country. Rampant political instability has been the result, and at the time of writing seems unlikely to subside in the near future. This further underscores the volatility of the tourism market as well as the need for a unified resource management planning at both the local and national levels. As it stands today, ethno-ecotourism as a proposed solution to social and environmental problems in the country is threatened by unpredictable political will, regional insecurity, world economic turmoil and longstanding internal conflicts.I owe my gratitude to the following people for their support and advice during the elaboration of this thesis: Alicia Lissidini, Mario Francisco Navarro, Eusebio Mujal-León, Shelton H. Davis, Rodrigo Mariaca, Victoria Ballerini, Brett Tate, Tim and Pam Gallivan, my sister Molly McDonough Murray and my parents, Gerald and Ronni McDonough. Your guidance and assistance were invaluable during this period. Thank you all.This thesis is dedicated to Lauren Colucci, for her invaluable support and encouragement. Thank you.
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