Confessions of an Eco-Tourist

Confessions of an Eco-Tourist:

I arrived on a tight schedule in Banos, a town on the eastern side of the Ecuadorean Andes where the mountains descend into the Amazon basin. Banos is one of the gateways to the Amazon and a popular departure point for tourists heading into the jungle. My goal of an in-depth excursion into the Amazon, which required three or four days, would elude me because my flight departing Quito didn’t leave me with suffi cient time. My only option appeared to be a set daytrip along the edge of the jungle.

It began with a stop at the Zoo Refugio Tarqui, where the environmental police bring animals that have been rescued from traffickers or whose habitats have been otherwise threatened. After the zoo we would visit the Cotococha jungle Kichwa community and then hike a short distance into the Amazon to a waterfall.

I’ve never been fond of zoos. Seeing large cats, on the verge of madness, pacing in their cages doesn’t appeal to me. For me the bigger and more complicated dilemma was the visit to the Kichwa community. The prospect of visiting a zoo of captive animals followed by a visit to an indigenous community left me ambivalent about the moral implications. It harkened to a colonial view of American Indians as part of nature, noble savages living within a pristine myth. Such romanticized perceptions of indigenous peoples as exotic protectors of the environment, living in harmony with nature, are still common today. This fanciful impression is one reason why visits to indigenous communities have been lumped into the category of eco-tourism.

Viewpoints like this deny indigenous people any agency or self-determination about their participation in the evolving world. They maintain the expectation that native cultures are static and deny the reality that they, like all cultures, are evolving. In turn, fictitious or altered realities of indigenous life, such as ayahuasca ceremonies, are delivered and commodified to satiate the expectations of tourists. This phenomenon is not new. It was common long before Buffalo Bill Cody made his name touring the world with his troupe of “noble savages.”

I was also concerned about the socioeconomic ramifications of tourist visits to native communities. Until the late 1980s, most indigenous communities in the Ecuadorean Amazon resisted tourism as infringement on their lands and way of life. But by the 1990s some communities began to see eco-tourism as a means to legitimize their claims on the land, as well as a way to enter the global economy and erect a bulwark against transnational resource-extraction activities in their vicinity. This entrance into the eco-tourism industry has come with some pitfalls. It has engendered competition between neighboring communities as well as with non-indigenous tour operators. In many cases tour and hotel operators have used indigenous people as props to fulfill the curiosity and expectations of tourists. In these cases, the communities are at the economic mercy of tour operators, and they have little influence over the way their culture is presented, or misrepresented.

As indigenous communities have become increasingly savvy they have organized and created networks such as the Napo RICANCIE, a group of Kichwa communities on the Napo River that operate collective eco-tourism activities. The Napo RICANCIE is in turn a member of the Plurinational Federation of Community Tourism of Ecuador, which represents community initiatives throughout Ecuador. Better organizational practices, and networks like Napo-RICANCIE eventually allow many indigenous communities greater self-determination, both economically and in the way they choose to present their culture, but tourism still presents problems.

Justin Mugits is a public programs assistant at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, George Gustave Heye Center. He is a returned Peace Corps volunteer (Mongolia) and has previously worked as an archeological field technician, teacher and bagel baker.