Excerpted with permission of the publisher from Timber, Tourists and Temples: Conservation and Development in the Maya Forest of Belize, Guatemala and Mexico, available from Island Press or the Amazon.com website.
The Maya Forest is the largest block of humid, subtropical forest remaining in Central America. Rich in both natural and cultural resources, it is nonetheless no different from any other large natural area in the tropics in one respect: considerable pressures exist from both local people and outside economic interests to exploit the region's natural wealth. Poorly controlled, unsustainable use of the natural resource base, especially the extraction of mahogany and cedar, has done much to degrade the standing forest. With its perceived value diminished, the forest has been viewed as nothing more than a hindrance to agriculture and ranching that completes its conversion. Slash-and-burn agriculture and unsustainable extraction of forest products are two of the few means of survival for many of the region's residents. Pressure on forest areas is compounded by an ongoing influx of people from other parts of Central America into the region looking for land and opportunities that the natural resource base may offer. The lack of economic alternatives and insufficient support for basic human needs, such as in health and education, contribute to the instability of the lives of the inhabitants of the region. Under this situation, many residents have no time to consider the long-term use of their natural resources when they have to use them immediately to ensure their daily survival.
Governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have emphasized development of protected areas as a standard conservation measure. As shown in Map 1 (see Introduction to this volume), an unusual abundance of parks and reserves exists in the Maya Forest region. Within these reserves, governments have restricted logging and other economic activities to guarantee the survival of fragile and unique ecosystems. This practice has created a debate on how to conserve nature while allowing local residents to use the natural resource base at the same time. Conflicts, unauthorized farming and logging, and the inability to successfully manage and police parks have demonstrated that the needs of local populations must be taken into consideration in order to protect natural areas. Clearly, conservation is not possible without development-yet development that is not approached with a strongly conservationist ethic will almost certainly destroy the forest resources.
How, then, can development and conservation be intertwined? Economic alternatives that increase the value of standing forests - such as natural forest management, which provides for the sustainable production of wood and nonwood products, microenterprise development, agroforestry, and ecotourism - are supported in various communities by NGOs and government projects. These sources of income combined with traditional economic activities may help to maintain an equilibrium between humans and nature. However, the communities must be actively involved in these enterprises if they are to succeed. Key steps include the following: assure that communities and their leaders actively participate in programs and realize economic benefits; develop environmental education programs to reinforce the linkage between conservation and development; and integrate programs to complement one another and generate the greatest economic benefits while conserving natural resources. These integrated programs must be promoted by the most charismatic members of each community, who will continue to involve their communities in a resource-conserving overall development strategy.
Background: The Maya Forest
The Maya Forest has been occupied by humans for millennia. Ancient Maya cities dating as far back as 1200 b.c.e. are found throughout the forest. Those dating to the Classic Period, ca. 200 b.c.e. to ca. a.d. 900, testify to an astonishing density of human population - by some estimates, almost 4 million people at the height of Classic Maya civilization (Culbert 1973). Maya ruins represent one of the primary attractions for tourists visiting the region. They also may represent an ominous warning to modern residents, as some experts have speculated that overintensive use of natural resources in the region led to famine, warfare, and ultimately the disintegration of Classic Maya civilization (Culbert 1973). Though the modern population of the Maya Forest is nowhere near as large as the ancient population at its height, twentieth-century technology permits a much more rapid and thorough extraction of resources, which means that conversion and degradation of the Maya Forest is occurring far more rapidly than in ancient times. The biological and cultural richness of the Maya Forest is threatened by a variety of forces, including but not limited to the conversion of forests to agriculture; the plundering of archaeological sites; legal and illegal trade in wildlife, wildlife products, and cultural artifacts; logging; and extraction of other renewable and nonrenewable resources, including oil and mineral wealth.
The two most notable problems in the Maya Forest region are its diminishing forest areas and poverty. These problems occur in varying degrees from country to country. In Mexico, degradation of forest lands is so severe in places that loggers have been known to cross into Guatemala and Belize to steal trees of the valuable species, such as mahogany and cedar. Satellite photography of the border between Mexico and Guatemala's Petén region shows a perfectly straight delineation between deforested Mexican territory and forested Guatemalan lands (Garrett 1989). However, the rate of deforestation in Guatemala has been accelerating as farmers from the Guatemalan highlands, forced to leave by overcrowding, poverty, or political unrest, have moved into the Maya Forest seeking farmland. In Belize, the rate of deforestation has been somewhat slower because Belize historically has had a small population and low industrial development. In recent years, however, expansion of farms, sugar plantations, and cattle ranches - industries requiring open land - as well as population growth related to immigration from other parts of Central America, have taken a toll on Belizean forests.
The economies of all three countries composing the Maya Forest rely to some extent on extractive industries, but tourism is a strong source of income for each one. In Guatemala, tourism is the second-largest source of foreign exchange and employs over 45,000 people. Mexico also has a strong tourist industry, nearly half of which is devoted to visitors to protected areas and archaeological remains. Tourism in Belize is not as strong as in the other two countries, but this partly reflects the fact that the industry has begun to develop only recently. Once the secret haven of bird-watchers and diving enthusiasts (Belize has the second-largest barrier reef in the world), in the past decade Belize has begun to popularize its natural attractions to a much greater extent. As a consequence, tourism is now the largest sector in the economy, yet it is still among the most rapidly growing industries.
Ecotourism may prove to be a particularly promising opportunity in the Maya Forest because of the unique combination of natural and cultural attractions in the region. Natural attractions are contained primarily within protected areas such as the Calakmul and Montes Azules Biosphere Reserves in Mexico (723,000 ha and 331,000 ha, respectively); the Río Bravo Conservation Area (228,000 ha) and the Maya Mountains (about 405,000 ha of protected areas) in Belize; and the Maya Biosphere Reserve (1.6 million ha) in Guatemala. Ancient Maya ruins such as Tikal, Dos Pilas, Bonampak, Yaxchilán, Calakmul, and Caracol attract tourists from all over the world. Well-preserved tracts of forest, most of which surround ancient ruins, contain flora and fauna that are threatened or extinct in other parts of Central America. These include animals such as the jaguar, tapir, and cayman; birds such as the quetzal, toucan, and macaw; and numerous rare plants and trees, many of which may not even have been described yet by scientists. The region is also home to indigenous Maya cultures such as the Lacandónes, Choles, Tzeltales, Yucatecs, Itzás, Kekchis, and Mopans. Traditional crafts produced by these cultures, particularly weaving and pottery, are sold worldwide. The increasing popularity of these attractions contributes to the continued prominence and growth of tourism in the region.
Ecotourism for Conservation: Concepts, Possibilities, and Pitfalls
Nature-based tourism, or "ecotourism," does not have one clear definition and may have different meanings for different people. Western (1993) proposes one definition that fits into the context of how ecotourism could be developed in the Maya Forest region: "Ecotourism is about creating and satisfying a hunger for nature, about exploiting tourism's potential for conservation and development, and about averting its negative impact on ecology, culture, and aesthetics." This definition includes two points that are important in the effort to promote economic development in the Maya Forest region while trying to conserve its natural resources: (1) ecotourism is a style of tourism that can be used as a tool for conservation of natural areas, and (2) ecotourism is a development tool that can be ecologically, economically, and socially sustainable. theory behind it is simple: because most of the destruction of forests and other habitats is driven by people's need to grow crops or earn income to support their families, such destruction can best be prevented if continuing sources of employment and income are created that depend upon keeping the resource intact. Tourism is an excellent means of fostering this circumstance: a campesino who captures a bird to sell to the pet trade will earn money once, but a person or organization that protects local nesting areas and provides food, lodging, and guide services to bird-watchers can earn income many times over. However, for the effects to be felt in communities, local residents must become involved in the tourism market. This aspect further defines one type of tourism addressed in this chapter: "community-based" ecotourism, which refers to ecotourism developed and managed by local people for their own benefit.
Ecotourism is an alternative industry that many conservation organizations consider promising. Tourism is the largest industry in the world, and it continues to grow. By the year 2005, it will have doubled its present size if it continues to grow at current rates (World Travel and Tourism Council 1992). Yet even tourism is potentially an enormous threat to the Maya Forest, if the number of visitors exceeds the carrying capacity of the area, if visitors knowingly or unknowingly engage in habitat destruction or illegal trade, or if the infrastructure developed to attract and serve the tourist trade is created at the expense of delicate habitats. Ecotourism, which emphasizes natural and cultural attractions as the basis for tourism development, thus promoting a less destructive brand of tourism, may be a force to slow or stop such destruction. By its very nature, ecotourism depends upon maintaining biological and cultural integrity; in promoting the industry, ecotourism projects of necessity must promote conservation of pristine natural and cultural sites. One example of this is the Mundo Maya project, a five-country effort by Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to develop the tourism potential of the region by creating linked areas in which the conservation of natural and cultural attractions is paramount. Ecotourism is not, however, a panacea, but must become a valuable element in a diversified, stable development program.
Ecotourism in the Maya Forest
Ecotourism represents a direct link between conservation and economic development. Although it can have a profound impact upon community development, an aspect that will be further discussed below, ecotourism can also be a source of funding to protect natural resources. Nongovernmental organizations in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize regularly support their conservation programs by selling tours, guide services, maps, publications, and souvenirs to tourists. Many tourists voluntarily contribute amounts above and beyond the actual costs of their trips to support conservation programs in the areas they visit. However, in order to successfully safeguard natural resources, ecotourism must necessarily adhere to certain rules. All tourism has an impact upon the natural environment; ecotourist outfits cannot eliminate that impact, but they can minimize it by instructing tourists and enforcing fairly strict codes of conduct. These may include asking tourists to stay on trails and other designated areas away from particularly sensitive habitats such as nesting grounds; keeping groups small in size; avoiding disturbances such as feeding wildlife or loud noises; and discouraging littering or souvenir collecting, particularly of sensitive or rare species.
Tourism is one of the largest industries in the respective economies of Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico - the three nations that compose the Maya Forest - in terms of the level of income generated. In Guatemala, tourism ranks second behind coffee export in the generation of foreign exchange (INGUAT 1993). Tourism accounts for 25% of the Gross Domestic Product of Belize (Lindberg and Enriquez 1994), and in Mexico it accounts for about 25% of all nonpetroleum foreign income (Boo 1990). Because it has such a positive economic impact on their national economies, all three countries composing the Maya Forest region are placing greater emphasis on tourism by investing in the development and promotion of their attractions, particularly ecological and archaeological features. The government of Guatemala, for example, has adopted a Plan for the Development of Sustainable Tourism to the year 2005, including as part of its general policies the development of basic infrastructure, tourist products, and facilities standards, particularly in the Petén, where the majority of the intact forest is located. The plan explicitly requires that expansion of facilities for tourism be done in proportion to the carrying capacity of the local environment, and it also proposes increased conservation of natural and cultural heritage. In Mexico, reserves and protected areas attract almost half of all foreign visitors. Famous archaeological sites such as Bonampak, Yaxchilán, and Calakmul lie within or near biosphere reserves, yet are within relatively easy reach of major urban centers such as Chetumal, Campeche, and San Cristóbal de las Casas. A well-established infrastructure (airports, roads, hotels, guide services, etc.) already exists for many of the principal attractions in Mexico. Belize, on the other hand, lacks many infrastructural elements, but is highly competitive in specialized services such as guides for natural history and diving. Though much of the current tourist development is concentrated on the coastal islands, the Belize Tourism Bureau and Ministry of the Environment and Tourism are developing policies to promote "eco-cultural" tourism, defined as "tourism with an environmental conciousness, which respects local cultures and traditions, and which provides economic benefits for both rural and urban communities." Conservation and tourism in Belize are directly related; nearly 35% of the country's land has been designated as protected areas, and these sanctuaries represent a significant potential tourist draw.
Impact of Ecotourism on Environment and Society
Tourism has the potential to create both positive and negative impacts for the Maya Forest. Because of the natural and archaeological richness of the area, a high volume of tourism may be created that could have a significant positive economic impact on local economies. However, both the natural areas and the archaeological sites are fragile and may be damaged by too many visitors. The presence of foreign tourists can also have a strong negative impact on local cultures, which in turn can lessen the attraction of an area, thus making tourism a short-term boom that does not contribute to long-term economic development. In order to use ecotourism as an effective conservation strategy, a balance must be found among tourism, development, and nature. Such a balance, though difficult to achieve, may be possible. Many people are interested in visiting natural areas such as the Maya Forest through tourism that permits visitors to enjoy nature while minimizing the negative impacts that their presence may cause. Likewise, local people in businesses associated with tourism and recreation-hotels, restaurants, diving outfitters, etc. - realize that knowledge of local flora, fauna, and archaeological sites can be helpful in promoting their businesses. By emphasizing the educational aspects of tourism, many businesses and organizations actively promote a less damaging brand of tourism and recreation. In Belize, for instance, conservation education goes hand in hand with recreation: signs, pamphlets, posters, and T-shirts advise visitors to the Belize Zoo against disturbance and destruction of wild species and habitat, while visitors to the barrier reef are enjoined by local divemasters to avoid harming the delicate coral formations that are a significant source of income for the Belizean tourist industry.
Conservation organizations and government agencies have begun to encourage initiatives focusing on ecotourism. For instance, a small grants program created by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), in conjunction with the MAYAFOR project sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), has received a strong response from groups seeking to establish ecotourism initiatives (Wilber 1995). Of the 18 projects financed by TNC, nine are ecotourism related. A survey undertaken in 1995 that examined existing ecotourism projects funded by TNC showed that many such ventures are too new to have reached full self-sufficiency (Beavers 1995). Most ecotourism projects in this survey still rely on aid and support from outside of their communities. The survey, which was conducted in the form of a mobile seminar, was also intended to provide an opportunity to community representatives from Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize to witness firsthand different examples of community-based ecotourism projects in the Peten in Guatemala and in Belize. The primary value of the study tour was that it enabled the participants to determine whether ecotourism might be a viable option for their own communities and to exchange information, experiences, and ideas with their peers in neighboring countries. The majority of the projects visited, described in general terms in Table 22.1, were at a critical stage at the time of the survey in which they had to establish themselves and compete in the market. The exceptions to this rule were the Community Baboon Sanctuary (CBS) and the Toledo Ecotourism Association (TEA), both of which have five or more years of ecotourism experience and are located in Belize.
It should be noted that some so-called ecotourism projects in the Maya Forest are not solely or even principally focused upon either nature or tourism. Most groups interested in developing tourism as a source of income for the community seek to use all of the potential attractions in the area, which allows them to appeal to as diversified an audience as possible. As shown in Table 22.1, many groups in the TNC survey complemented the natural attractions by promoting archaeology and indigenous culture; in some instances, however, cultural attractions were the initial focus of the tourism business, but natural features were included in order to broaden the project's appeal. Three projects - the Guatemalan Bio-Itzá Reserve, the Ixchel ethnobotanical preserve in Belize, and the Community Baboon Sanctuary (CBS), also in Belize - began as conservation-based projects and later developed ecotourism as a sideline to subsidize their conservation activities. In turn, the original natural features that prompted the conservation projects became part of the tourist attraction. Other initiatives - the Ixlú Eco-artisan Project in Guatemala and the Maya Centre in Belize - promoted crafts as their principal attraction, but included aspects relating to conservation and thus became "ecotourist" programs.
Ecotourism As a Community Development Strategy
Although tourism is growing rapidly in the region, communities will not have an opportunity to participate in the market without sufficient backing. In order to participate in ecotourism and compete in the market, communities need financial and technical assistance. Infrastructure, training, and other types of support are critical if communities are to successfully run ecotourism enterprises. Support from governments and NGOs is required to ensure that these projects develop to their potential and have the chance to survive over the long term. Without this support, the potential positive impact on local economies and the natural resource base that ecotourism could bring may be lost. The majority of the communities involved in ecotourism in the Maya Forest region are just initiating their activities (Beavers 1995).
One matter complicating the establishment of community-based ecotourism is the issue of user rights governing the natural resource base, especially with regard to protected areas. As shown in Table 22.2, all of the ecotourism projects surveyed were located inside or near protected areas. This factor can be both an advantage and a disadvantage for communities because protected areas imply restrictions in the use of natural resources that may limit their economic development. However, protected areas may provide an opportunity for communities to generate income from nature because nature attracts tourists. Tourism income in turn may have positive implications for communities' economic development and the conservation of the protected areas. These issues can directly affect the manner in which ecotourism projects operate. Many ecotourism projects' installations (such as accommodations, etc.) are located on owned or rented property, whereas the majority of the natural attractions (forests, rivers, lakes, caves, etc.) and/or archaeological sites are located on government property. Therefore, access to the resources/attractions depends on the rights granted to communities by the government, some of which are listed in Table 22.2 for specific cases. In the case of the CBS, the people of the community were the owners of the sanctuary and were protecting it directly. Other projects must lease the land; for instance, the Bio-Itzá Reserve has a 50-year lease, and the Ixchel ethnobotanical reserve a 30-year lease, enabling them to directly protect these lands, but for a limited time. Other projects surveyed by TNC did not own or lease the surrounding natural resources; tourists were entering and leaving protected areas according to the regulations governing the reserves. In some areas, the entities in charge of the resource recognized the needs of the communities and were working with them (Maya Centre, Amigos de El Pilar). In other cases the communities were still trying to define their rights and relationships with the areas (Uaxactún, Zocotzal, TEA).
A final and important characteristic concerning the development of ecotourism in communities is the organizational aspect. Organization and investment in ecotourism in the communities visited was accomplished through groups and committees that represented the tourism interests of the population, or at least a sector of the population (Beavers 1995). Because the communities did not have the resources - mainly financial - for individual investment and development of ecotourism, they received support from NGOs or governments. This circumstance promoted the idea that development should be group-based in order to impact as many people as possible. Therefore, these initiatives had to take into account communities as a whole in the development of their projects. This fact meant that these groups had to focus upon community relations and community opinion, something about which private organizations do not have to be as concerned.
Strategies for Success in Community-Based Ecotourism
Put simply, the difference between community-based ecotourism and ecotourism sponsored by private conservation organizations is this: privately sponsored ecotourism seeks to preserve the resource by benefiting the local people, whereas community-based ecotourism seeks to benefit the local people by preserving the resource. Communities are willing to conserve nature, but only in a manner that permits them to continue to develop and improve their quality of life. This perspective is clearly seen in the Uaxactún and Maya Centre projects, where protected areas and communities attempt to coexist and work together so that conservation and development can coincide. Local people generally are aware of the fact that ecotourism will not replace their traditional economic activities. However, they often feel that it has the potential to generate additional income for them, so they frequently approach conservation projects from an entrepreneurial perspective. From their point of view, the first and most important step toward conservation is to ensure that community-based ecotourism initiatives are competitive and profitable. This distinction does not mean that community groups are any less concerned with conservation of resources than outside, private organizations; it simply means that their priorities are slightly different from those of private organizations.
Objectives of Community-Based Ecotourism
Ideally, ecotourism operated by communities should both satisfy tourists' desire for adventure and comfort and contribute toward satisfying the basic economic needs of the community by employing natural and cultural resources in local development. The standard of living should improve, and the value attributed to natural and cultural resources should likewise increase. Specifically, ecotourism should motivate local people to value and conserve resources - including not only natural resources but also local culture and language. It should also encourage participation in community groups, create opportunities for training and technical assistance, develop communities' ability to manage financial resources or establish community development funds, and lead the establishment of well-managed reserves, educational facilities (such as museums or botanical gardens), and other attractions.
In general, communication, group image, relationships with the community, and the efficient operation of groups and their activities are the key elements required to manage and administer these community-based ecotourism businesses. However, one disadvantage of businesses managed by groups is that no single person retains ultimate authority or responsibility. Groups generally must come to an agreement in order to make decisions, a process that often takes more time. This manner of functioning can be inefficient in comparison with private ecotourism enterprises; thus, ensuring efficient and cohesive organization of the group becomes an important part of the foundation of a project. This strategy requires that all group members be involved, take some initiative, and accept responsibilities-a goal more easily achieved when all involved perceive that they will benefit from their association with the group, particularly once the project is functioning.
Keys to Success
Many factors that can impede the success of newly operational ecotourist services are simple, avoidable problems: latrines that are not properly maintained (i.e., those with odors, nonfunctional doors, etc.), inadequate or poorly maintained bathing facilities (e.g, poor drainage, poor design, and lack of cleanliness), and menus that lack variety, are not well prepared, and are overpriced. Other problems include guide services that employ guides who do not know enough about archaeological sites, local flora and fauna, or local customs, or whose knowledge is poorly presented. The attractions available to community groups and the development and promotion of these attractions are important considerations that can contribute to or impede the success of a tourism operation (Table 22.3). Communities that are just beginning to develop an ecotourism industry are often unsure how to promote themselves in order to create a niche in the tourist market. Marketing tools such as pamphlets and advertisements in local hotels and other establishments and promotion by word of mouth are commonly the means of publicity that new projects utilize. In some cases, the project may begin operation with too little planning or forethought. Projects located at a distance from principal attractions and that lack sufficient transportation for visitors, for instance, will be unlikely to succeed in promoting those attractions.
To be successful in promoting ecotourism projects, a community should have certain characteristics. These include:
According to the experiences of participants in the TNC survey of ecotourism projects, organization and the involvement of the community in their initiatives appeared to be the foundation for building successful community enterprises (Beavers 1995). Good organization in this sense refers to coordination, communication, management, and administration to help ensure the business aspects of ecotourism are strong enough to compete in the market. Issues of leadership, lack of active and complete participation by group members (including the lack of delegation of functions and authority), and poor relationships or communication between these initiatives and their respective communities were mentioned as problems that could be barriers for the success of the projects.
An important observation of some survey participants who had dealt with organizational problems was that the objectives, benefits, and distribution of the benefits from the project should be clearly defined in order to avoid misunderstandings and problems. The community group involved in a project must ensure that the community in general understands and accepts the effort that the group is making in order to minimize conflicts that impede the success of community ecotourism projects. Groups must take care not to create false expectations, and must therefore be more sensitive to community relations than private businesses typically are. It was noted in the survey that some groups were not very large in relation to the size of the community, or that they were not inclusive of all sectors of the community (i.e., they excluded women, youth, etc.). However, some projects appeared to have the potential to affect much wider sectors of the community than others (see Table 22.2 for group sizes). Many of the projects attempt to reach beyond the membership of the groups in terms of providing benefits to the communities. For example, the TEA set up a system of rotations between service providers so that everyone had a chance to participate and gain income. Also, with some of the income generated by ecotourism, a fund was established in order to provide money for health care and education in the TEA communities. Likewise, Uaxactún rotated its visitors among the restaurants in the village to guarantee that a greater proportion of community members received the benefits from tourism. The Maya Centre women's group represented almost all of the families in the community, and the crafts business they had established at the entrance to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary appeared to be providing a level of benefit for all of them. Other projects were more focused on immediate members, but even these had plans to either expand membership or to provide greater distribution of the benefits from ecotourism within the community.
The Maya Forest has an abundance of wildlife, scenic areas, and archaeological ruins that are attracting an increasing number of tourists. The income from these ecotourists can provide the financial justification for protecting the biological communities. Yet ecotourism presents two challenges to the conservation of the region. First, the activities of the tourists and the facilities that they use must not accelerate the damage to the forest. The number of tourists and their wealth have the potential to strongly influence the local environment. Second, the tourist industry must provide benefits to rural communities so that they can become advocates for conservation. Many communities are accepting this opportunity and are developing ecotourist facilities and programs. The best outcome of this approach is that communities preserve both their environment and their own culture in the process. Finding the right balance between development that is profitable and long-term conservation represents a challenge for the ecotourism industry.
This chapter represents a synthesis of draft papers submitted on the topic of ecotourism at a workshop in Chetumal, Mexico in November 1995, drawing extensively on an unpublished paper by John Beavers. Elizabeth Platt was responsible for the editing and reworking.
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Excerpted with permission of the publisher from Timber, Tourists and Temples: Conservation and Development in the Maya Forest of Belize, Guatemala and Mexico,
available from Island Press or the
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