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Ecotourism Is Not the Answer, Says Expert

An expert on the ethical side of conservation and tourism development has published a controversial new book strongly criticizing current conservation efforts. In Nature Crime: How We’re Getting Conservation Wrong Rosaleen Duffy claims that the dominating Western approach to conservation damages the environment and criminalizes local people. The current approach is based on separating people and wildlife, which Duffy argues is “fundamentally at odds with the ways local communities approach and live with the environment that surrounds them.” She finds it particularly striking that park departments and conservation NGOs prevent the poorest people in the world from using resources to make ends meet while wilderness areas are opened up to allow access to wealthy foreign tourists under the pretense of “ecotourism.”

Duffy does not believe in ecotourism as “the answer,” as many powerful global actors as the World Bank, conservation NGOs and donors have been promoting it. “Local communities are persuaded to give up access rights to resources with the promise of jobs in ecotourism,” she notes. “However, in over 15 years of research what I have found is that very few jobs are created, and those that are tend to be at the menial end of the industry: waiters, cooks, cleaners. Local people are rarely the owners and managers. This means that the major profits from ecotourism tend to go to outside operators and government agencies.” Duffy sees ecotourism first and foremost as part of the tourism business, motivated by the need for profit and perpetuating processes of marginalization and underdevelopment.

Jeff Greenwald, executive director of Ethical Traveler, agrees that this is often true but feels it is wrong to damn all such efforts. He cites the creation of the Sagarmatha National Park and the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) in Nepal, as well as no-take reef and wildlife conservation projects in Fiji, Vietnam and elsewhere. “There are certainly examples of wise conservation that protects wildlife while sustaining local communities,” Greenwald says. “In cases where indigenous people do face relocation or involuntary separation from critical resources, advocacy groups like Ethical Traveler will lodge protests.”

According to Duffy, people who want to travel in an ethical and responsible way should question their tour operators and lodges more often. Before booking a trip they should find out how exactly they work with the local community and where the profits go. “Will the safari vehicle offer a ride to local people when there are empty seats? Is the food provided sourced locally in surrounding villages rather than bought at markets in the capital city?”

Duffy does not propose that people should stop supporting conservation but that they should demand better conservation that really works with local communities and does not assume that Western conservation NGOs, tour operators and experts know best. She concludes that “wildlife survived pretty well before the Western/colonial model of separating people and wildlife.”

(Please see Ethical Traveler’s “Ten Best Ethical Destinations” report in which we list country destinations committed to creating a sustainable, community-based eco-travel infrastructure.)

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