The Argument Against Ecotourism

Some people believe ecotourism is not a successful development tool because it puts public health and livelihoods at risk. As briefly touched upon in this article by the Global Alliance Against REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), bushmeat is a dominant source of protein in some communities and restricting community resource use without alternatives for the purpose of eco-tourism might have a negative impact on public health, especially in communities that are already facing hunger and malnourishment. According to the UN, most of the world’s undernourished people – 381 million – live in Asia. But the number of undernourished people in Africa – 250 million  – is rising faster than anywhere else in the world. This is important because the same regions facing hunger often host the large, endangered, and charismatic creatures and wilderness that draw high end tourists. Ecotourism in these areas and consequential restrictions on hunting would therefore have conflicting outcomes with the second Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) created by the United Nations titled, “Zero Hunger”. Meeting the immediate food needs of vulnerable populations would become a more difficult task when their land use is restricted.

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Based on these facts and the life experiences of others, restricting land use access for adaptation of ecotourism is not a successful development tool and can actually have the reverse effect. Communities are also excluded from the development process, as described in “They Call It Shangri-La: Sustainable Conservation, or African Enclosures?” by Katherine M. Homewood.

As discussed in the book chapter, tourism attracts many conservation and development initiatives because it is seen as a triple win, providing economic growth, social equity, and environmental protection. However, households can have little to no benefit from wildlife tourism, such as Enduimet Wildlife Management Area alongside Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, which provided only about 1% of mean annual household income. Residents of this management area are not able to create or change rules for a problematic tourism company. One problematic tourism company did not have a contract with the wildlife management area, did not pay fees, and had many visitors, but due to political backing there was nothing that the village could do other than protest. Permits are required for many activities inside the management area, including cutting poles or thatching grass. This contradicts the point made by Regmi that ecotourism can help protect traditional environmental knowledge.

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Contrary to evidence that Indigenous knowledge will persist and even grow due to ecotourism, the points made in the article by Homewood suggest that some projects result in land confiscation and land use restriction, which would promote or even accelerate the loss of traditional environmental knowledge. 

The death of a young child out herding with a group in Namba (mentioned in the article) caused by a large mammal clearly demonstrates the potential risk of ecotourism to public health and safety. Things are no different in the wildlife management area of Makame, Tanzania. Antelopes and hyenas eat the local’s maize, while other wildlife bring disease. People have died from predator attacks. A counterpoint to this may be that people should keep a distance from wild animals, however when livelihoods are at risk and ecotourism is the only form of income, or communal land is converted to a large wildlife park for tourists, these encounters could become more common because of proximity.

Although police presence in protected areas and the threat of jail time may scare off poachers, there can be unintended consequences. In August of 2017, a father and son were shot inside Kahuzi-Biéga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo while gathering medicinal herbs. The son, Mbone Christian Nakulire, died. The father barely escaped. Unfortunately, there are more instances of children or adults being mistaken for poachers and being shot in a case of what scholars call “fortress conservation”. 

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The fact that ecotourism can become this serious demonstrates the risk of allowing states to independently interpret the meaning behind vague SDGs. Not only this, but also the targets and indicators do not appear to be flexible according to nation or city. It is through this vagueness and inflexibility that Indigenous or Afro-descendant land, or lands used for subsistence agriculture by the world’s poor, are confiscated and repurposed for ecotourism.

It is no wonder local residents have come to resent land use restrictions in Tanzania, a country where more than forty percent of land surface is protected, and local people cannot access or use the natural resources. Deception is rife between conservation groups, government, local people, and the public. A community education video showed half of economic benefits going to the village, despite village people not receiving anything. Although management is supposedly participatory, conservation nonprofits retain all of the power and local committee members censure or remove peers who do not meet expected standards amongst coercion, harassment, and extraction of payments from members of the community with a lower economic status. According to the case study of Enduimet and contrary to the points made in the PlanetForward article, the enforcement of rules benefited the conservation organizations but not local people, as the conservation organization had police but there were none for the outside community.

The use of ecotourism as a development tool also risks the confiscation of Indigenous and Afro-descendant lands by powerful entities for purposes that can be masked as “conservation”, even if there are monetary incentives. I have shared many instances of this issue, called “green-grabbing”, and related topics on my blog in “Green Grabbing: The Modern-Day Colonization” and “The History of Sapelo Island”. I have also written about the value of land resources to economically disadvantaged people in “Kabartal Wetland”. Land use restriction for ecotourism is especially concerning in light of increasing environmental pressures due to climate change. Insect outbreaks, drought, and flash flooding make farming for subsistence even more difficult than before. 

This post is the second in a series of four about ecotourism. Follow the blog to be notified when the other articles are posted and to discover my viewpoint and share yours at the end!

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