Ecotourism: How do you know it when you see it?

Last month (August 2014) I had the opportunity to work as a volunteer for an ecotourism project named Estibrawpa in the Bribri village of Yorkin. The Bribri are an indigenous group in Costa Rica who live in scattered villages on indigenous reserves near the border with Panama. Estibrawpa was started by a group of women in 1992 as a way to bring money into the community, preserve their traditions, and address health issues. The women explained that before they started their ecotourism project, the men of the village were for the most part employed in wage labor on banana plantations. Due to the fact that traveling in and out of the village involved a daylong journey in a dugout canoe, the men who were working in the plantations were away from the village for long periods of time. As the women describe it, this led to much “depresion” in the village due to fractured and disrupted households. The men were also suffering from respiratory and skin ailments caused by working with chemical fertilizers and pesticides in the plantations. Reflecting on the fact that ecotourism is very popular in Costa Rica, the women decided to start their own ecotourism project.

Visitors arrive via dugout canoe
Visitors arrive via dugout canoe

From its humble beginnings, Estibrawpa has grown over the past 10 years. At first visitors had to commit to a three-day trip to the village; a one-day journey in dugout canoe to the village, a day in the village, and a day return trip out of the village. In time, the community made enough money to buy two outboard motors for their dugout canoes, enabling visitors to come for day trips, increasing the number of visitors. The women explain that now men are able to stay in the village working as guides, canoe captains, and construction workers. Women are involved in organizing the program and scheduling trips, cooking, and giving demonstrations on cacao production which is the exclusive domain of women among the Bribri. Children are taught how to be guides, construction workers, and organizers, and are educated in the stories that make up the Bribri “historia” and the native Bribri language. The women conclude that as a result of their ecotourism project, the village enjoys better mental and physical health.

Entering the village
Entering the village

I decided this situation provided an excellent opportunity to conduct my dissertation research. My first order of business was to peruse the literature on ecotourism and community-based development. I recently found an article by J.K Reimer and Pierre Walter (2012) entitled “How do you know it when you see it? Community-based ecotourism in the Cardamom Mountains of southwestern Cambodia.” Their research involved analyzing an ecotourism project by comparing its aspects to a framework devised by Martha Honey in her book “Ecotourism and sustainable development: Who owns Paradise?” (2008). Honey’s analytical framework for ecotourism includes seven components that should be present in an ecotourism project. It includes: the project involves travel to natural destinations, minimizes impact, builds environmental awareness, provides direct financial benefits for conservation, provides financial benefits and empowerment for local people, respects local culture, and supports human rights and democratic movements.

Traditional bow and arrow
Traditional bow and arrow

In my opinion, analyzing the Estibrawpa project in Yorkin according to Honey’s framework will provide a fruitful beginning to the process of describing and analyzing the community’s efforts. In addition, the collection of biomarkers including blood pressure readings and the administration of the CES-D scale for measuring depression will provide measures for health which can then be compared to similar populations throughout the world. This project will also illustrate how the interaction between biological bodies and their environment affects physical health as measured by blood pressure and mental health (and its neurological correlates) as measured by the CES-D. It is my hypothesis, that through the process of niche construction (modifying their environment and their interactions with it through their ecotourism project) the residents of Yorkin are benefiting the community and improving physical and mental health.

 

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