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Wayne Mayer: Putting Community into Ecotourism

Susan Woodward

Wayne Mayer: Putting Community into Ecotourism

Susan Woodward

Human fascination with the people and ecology of faraway places has existed always. But as so-called adventure travel explodes worldwide, the need to balance tourist dollars with cultural and environmental integrity has never been more crucial.

The Amazon rainforest is one place on earth struggling to find such equilibrium. When the urge to get up close with everything from a jaguar to an Ecuadorian warrior is shared by tens of thousands of tourists, there is money to be had -- and pain, too.

"There's an image of tourists invading the home space of indigenous people, tromping in and tromping out," explains conservation biologist Wayne Mayer, who has worked with tribes in Latin and South America for 10 years. "But the positive side is that tourism is bringing a lot of attention to certain areas. The more people who are aware and care about the fragile intricacies, the more chance we have of making sure the people and biological resources of the Amazon are protected."

Mayer, 30, is describing a possible solution that has its roots in ecotourism. The term was coined in the 1980s to describe the growing passion for purposeful travel -- experiencing and understanding the culture and history of the world's natural environments, and, importantly, leaving those places relatively untouched in your wake.

Taking the philosophy one step further, community-based ecotourism implies an authentic encounter for the tourist in exchange for direct financial benefit to local people, says Mayer. The idea is starting to take off in countries such as Peru and Ecuador.

"In its ideal, it provides tourists with an educational experience and locals with an alternative source of income that may ease pressures on the environment they want to protect," Mayer says.

Small ship cruises along the coasts and rivers can be great examples of ecotourism at work in the massive jungles and waterways of South America, he adds. Because the ships are self-contained, most travelers do not need much more than a visitors' center, a nature trail, and perhaps a craft fair when they go ashore.

For instance, the company Abercrombie & Kent, which offers small-ship cruises on the m/s Explorer in Spring from Belem, Brazil to Iquitos, Peru, has spent 10 years establishing respectful relationships with local villagers. International Expeditions, based in Helena, Alabama, takes parties of only 8 to 29 passengers along the tributaries of the Amazon River in traditional style, luxury riverboats, has contributed thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars to the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research and it also supports a local medical project.

Whatever the consequences, tourism is here to stay. Drawn by macaws and anacondas, elusive big cats and medicinal plants, visitors will continue to flock to the Amazon. Management of the region requires delicate co-operation between community leaders, scientists, conservationists, the travel industry, and all levels of government, Mayer warns. But he believes it can be achieved.

"The Amazon is enchanting, an overwhelming primeval forest that inspires all sorts of adventure fantasies," he says. "Tourists can help by reading and beginning to question the way they will affect it before they go.

The jungle, and the indigenous communities who feel the strain of tourism on the fabric of their daily lives, may well depend on it.

Footnote: Wayne Mayer is a conservation biologist who has primarily worked in the American Tropics, consulting, coordinating and designing conservation, environmental education and ecotourism projects. He has lectured on Expedition Ships in Central and South America. Wayne is an accomplished freelance writer whose credits included Mountain Living, National Geographic Adventure Magazines and Wildlife Conservation.