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Ecotourism Not a Win-Win for Poor Kenyan Communities?

Ecotourism is frequently cited as a model of responsible development, yet a recent report found it is often a sour deal for poor communities in Kenya. According to a series of articles on Investigate West, the nonprofit Kenya Community Based Tourism Organization looked into six ecotourism ranches across the country and reported that local groups that had handed over part of their commonly held land to investors were not reaping their fair share of the profits.

Some communities gave up large swaths of land but could only collect rent for the few acres that housed tourist resorts, after investors designated the rest as non-profit animal sanctuaries. At one ranch near Mt. Kilimanjaro, locals provided 12,500 acres but only received rent for 16, the report noted. While some communities were also entitled to a percentage of revenue, they were unable to verify that they were receiving their due. The Kilimanjaro resort charged guests more than $300 a night but only paid the community an additional $1,700 a year beyond the base amount for the lease of the land, Kenyan journalist John Mbaria reported in his three-part series.

According to Mbaria, the report also identified further problems that arose when communities found themselves locked in lopsided agreements or stuck in expensive liability disputes when tourists were injured. Nor did local groups enjoy meaningful employment opportunities: Surveyed ranches employed less than eight percent of the local population, mostly in menial jobs. Meanwhile, the pastoral communities could no longer graze livestock on the forfeited land.

As Mbaria witnessed on his visits to dozens of ecotourism developments in Kenya, some resort owners have funded amenities like water taps and schools. Still, he questions: “Why did these guys feel so obliged to “donate’ projects to people they were in business with?”

It’s a bleak view of ecotourism, which has frequently been seen as a godsend for Kenya’s endangered wildlife and degraded environment, threatened by droughts, floods and tourist incursions. A study funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre in 2000 found that irresponsible tourism in the country’s prized reserves was destroying ecosystems and failing to benefit nearby communities. Ecotourism promised a win-win.

Most ecotourism takes place on lands of the Maasai people, whose traditional lifestyle has preserved wilderness and wildlife. Now, these lions, elephants and rhinos are precisely what tourists want to see—and pay big bucks for. With foreign visitors up by a third last year, according to the Kenya Tourist Board—most hailing from the United Kingdom and United States—investors have cashed in on the growing market for environmentally friendly tourism. But in agreements with local people, these investors may be the only ones seeing green.

“Much of what happens in Kenya escapes the attention of a world fascinated by the virtues of ecotourism, in general, and particularly international tourists, who form the main clientele of such facilities,” Mbaria wrote. Perhaps it’s time to take a closer look.

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