From the Summit

Progress and Protest

QUEBEC CITY—"Ecotourism operates in a fragile environment," said Klaus Topfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). For the delegates from 132 countries gathered for the World Ecotourism Summit in the lovely capital of Quebec City, Topfer’s words carried considerable understatement, as well as several meanings. The conference touched on many things, but none more deeply than the fragile environment that still exists around the very concept of ecotourism.

For some participants, green travel represents the great hope of saving what’s known as "protected areas" and providing economic benefits to the often very poor people who live in and around them. For others, including some of the Third World delegates, it can come across as a prime example of western arrogance, exploiting resources without much benefit to the local population. The irony, of course, is that the whole idea of ecotourism is to prevent that kind of exploitation.

"We have to ensure that the goose that lays the golden eggs does not turn out to be a trojan horse," says Tan Chi Kiong of the Ecumenical Coalition for Third World Tourism.

Much of the criticism occurred around the edges of the conference. Presentations from the podium, many featuring government ministers, tended to idealize the individual countries" ecotourism operations. All offered assurances that the rights of indigenous peoples were being respected as part of the process. Many offered evidence—in the form of exhaustive meeting processes—that such consultation had indeed occurred. But some indigenous groups continue to have grievances.

Randy Kapeshesit is one of the operators of the Cree Village Ecolodge on James Bay in northern Ontario, and he was upset that some of the native peoples" concerns were not being reflected in the conference documents. For the Cree, he said, ecotourism is more than just a business. "It’s a community effort," he said. Indigenous people, he added, don’t want to be seen as mere "stakeholders"; they want to be leaders.

Despite all of this, the conference was inspiring on many different levels. Brett Jenks of the RARE Center showed how its guide training programs are helping to preserve wilderness areas, reduce wildlife poaching and boost local economies. Bruce Poon Tip of GAP Adventures pointed out that profitable ecotourism and strong ethical standards can co-exist. And Sheba Hanyurwa of Uganda, a UNEP delegate, sang a song in his native language about man and nature that he translated this way: "Your house is given to you, and you must share your house with others." He added, "The world is watching us." And indeed it was.