Confessions of an Eco-Tourist

Confessions of an Eco-Tourist:

Members of the Napo RICANCIE bemoan the impact on their culture. Youth are “trying to be like visitors in terms of clothing, expression and thought,” they say. At the same time they acknowledge that these changes are also part of the development of the community towards their goals of greater access to the education, food and housing, which eco-tourism facilitates. Similarly, in the Chichicorumi Kichwa community, many members observe the technological devices such as cellphones and cameras that tourists bear and desire those goods. But with little means to acquire them they often go into debt as they enter the global economy. Some people in the Chichicorumi community also worry about losing their traditional methods as members of the community “show the culture without really practicing it as before.”

Some communities no longer hunt, or plant and harvest their own food. Instead, they rely on money from tourism for subsistence. Communities which depend heavily on tourism as a source of income are also wed to the inconsistencies of the industry. Recent events such as the earthquake in Ecuador and the spread of the Zika virus deter tourists.

At the same time, tourism has supplied an impetus for some communities to recover and preserve some of their cultural practices. Members of the Napo RICANCIE suggest that tourism has “revalued the culture in terms of gastronomy, language and medicine” which otherwise might have diminished as the communities adopt outside influences. One example is the revival of chicha in some communities. Chicha is a slightly fermented beverage made from corn or yucca that is rich in vitamin B. In many communities this traditional beverage fell out of use when coffee and soda became available. With the advent of tourism its perceived value increased, and it eventually returned as a staple of some diets. These mixed results of tourism have complicated the dynamic between visitors and indigenous community members. What might be beneficial for one community can be harmful for another.

Ultimately I decided to go on the tour. I was convinced by my desire to hike through the jungle and my curiosity about how the Kichwa community of Cotococha would be presented. We drove to the village and our non-indigenous tour guide explained some of the cultural features of the Kichwa in the Amazon. We met the chief, who usually conducts the Spanish language tours, tasted some chicha made from yucca and were allowed to try our hands at a blowgun. I bought a wooden bead necklace from a young girl in a small thatched building that served as the community gift shop. I paid her five dollars and she put the necklace in a black plastic shopping bag for me, laughing and commenting in Spanish about the cartoon dog on my T-shirt. Our guide hustled us back to the bus and, after 40 minutes, my visit to the Cotococha Kichwa community was finished. I was off to hike through the jungle.

I am still not sure of the impact my visit had on the community, but maintaining awareness is critical in making the right decision. If we want to be responsible travelers it is imperative that we understand the impact we make when we visit other cultures. As the world becomes easier to traverse via globalization it allows us not only to consume a greater diversity of products, but it leads to a greater commodification and consumption of culture that is not always equitable. As we travel the globe in search of more “authentic” cultural experiences, it is our obligation to be aware of the effects our luxury has on the cultures we visit.

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.