Week of 08/10/2008

Dear EarthTalk: What is "community based tourism" and how does it purport to safeguard pristine places?

—Erin O"Neill, Tukwila, WA

Community based tourism refers to situations in which local people—usually those that are poor or economically marginalized in very rural parts of the world—open up their homes and communities to visitors seeking sustainably achieved cultural, educational or recreational travel experiences.

Under a community-based tourism arrangement, unique benefits accrue to both the traveler and the hosts: Travelers usually accustomed to chain hotels and beachfront resorts discover local habitats and wildlife and learn about traditional cultures and the economic realities of life in developing countries. And the host communities are able to generate lucrative revenues that can replace income previously earned from destructive resource extraction operations or other unsustainable forms of economic support.

Locals earn income as land managers, entrepreneurs or food and service providers—and at least part of the tourist income is set aside for projects which provide benefits to the community as a whole. And just as important, says ResponsibleTravel.com, which promotes community based tourism in a partnership with Conservation International, the communities become "aware of the commercial and social value placed on their natural and cultural heritage through tourism," thus fostering a commitment to resource conservation.

Community-based tourism generates lucrative revenues for poor or native communities in developing countries while enabling travelers usually accustomed to chain hotels and beachfront resorts to learn about traditional cultures. Pictured: A room at the Posada Amazonas lodge in Peru"s Esé-eja community of Infierno.© Doug&Robyn, courtesy Flickr

Travelers indulging in a community based tourism trip might follow a local guide deep into his tribe’s forest to spot otherworldly wildlife, eat exotic regional delicacies around rough-hewn tables, watch and even take part in celebrations of local culture, and sleep on straw mats at the homes of local families.

In many cases, local communities partner with private companies and nonprofits that provide money, marketing, clients, tourist accommodations and expertise for opening up lands to visitors. In 1997, eco-travel operator Rainforest Expeditions wanted international visitors to learn about threats to the rainforest. Natives in Peru’s Esé-eja community of Infierno wanted to generate income without destroying their rainforest home, central to their subsistence lifestyle. So the two joined forces and the resulting Posada Amazonas lodge to this day offers visitors an exotic way to learn about rainforest ecology directly from English-speaking Esé-eja staff, who in-turn earn a living sharing their local knowledge and traditions.

Another example is the partnerships that the nonprofit Projeto Bagagem (Project Baggage) has forged with several Brazilian communities to bring in tourist dollars to support sustainable choices. A third of the cost of every Projeto Bagagem trip goes to the villagers and another third to a local nonprofit. Last year the group won a Seed Award from the United Nations and the non-profit World Conservation Union for its efforts to translate "the ideals of sustainable development into action on the ground."

Extreme poverty coupled with abundant natural resources makes the Amazon basin an ideal place for such programs to thrive, but community based tourism can be experienced anywhere. To find qualifying, pre-vetted trips that contribute to local economies all over the world, visit ResponsibleTravel.com.

CONTACTS: ResponsibleTravel.com; Rainforest Expeditions; Projeto Bagagem.

Dear EarthTalk: How often do I really need to change my car’s oil? Conventional wisdom has always put it at every 3,000 miles to prevent engine wear, but isn’t changing oil that frequently wasteful and unnecessary? Also, what is the “greenest” and longest-lasting oil I should use?

—Vic Roberts, Lincoln, MA

Quick-lube centers usually recommend changing your car's oil every 3,000 miles, but many mechanics say that's overkill. Most car owner
s manuals recommend changing out the oil less frequently, usually after 5,000 or 7,500 miles.© Dystopos, Courtesy Flickr

There is much debate in the automotive world over how often drivers of typical passenger cars or light trucks should change their oil. The quick-lube chains usually recommend it be done every three months or 3,000 miles, but many mechanics would tell you that such frequent changes are overkill. Indeed, most car owner’s manuals recommend changing out the oil less frequently, usually after 5,000 or 7,500 miles.

According to the automotive website Edmunds.com, the answer depends more on driving patterns than anything else. Those who rarely drive more than 10 miles at a time (which doesn’t get the oil hot enough to boil off moisture condensation) or who start their car frequently when the oil isn’t hot (when most engine wear occurs) should change their oil more often—at least twice a year, even if that’s every 1,000 miles, according to Edmunds. But commuters who drive more than 20 miles a day on mostly flat freeway can go as far as their owner’s manual recommends, if not longer, between changes. As a car ages, more frequent changes might be in order, but that’s for a qualified mechanic to decide on a case-by-case basis.

"The necessity of 3,000 mile oil changes is a myth that has been handed down for decades," writes Austin Davis, proprietor of the website TrustMyMechanic.com. He says that the economics of the oil change industry demand pushing customers to get their oil changed more frequently—purportedly as "cheap insurance" against problems cropping up—whether they need it or not. One of the largest oil change chains, Jiffy Lube, for instance, is owned by Pennzoil-Quaker State, and as such has an incentive to sell as much of the company’s traditional petroleum-based oil as possible.

One way to reduce trips to and money spent unnecessarily on quick-lube outlets is to switch to synthetic oils, which last longer and perform better than their traditional petroleum-based counterparts. Davis says that educated drivers should opt for longer lasting, better performing synthetic oils, which are "most likely good for 10,000 to 15,000 miles or six months" whether or not their manufacturers recommend more frequent changes or not. Some synthetic motor oils, like Amsoil, NEO and Red Line, to name a few, are created specifically to last 25,000 miles or one year before needing a change.

While neither conventional nor synthetic motor oils are good for the environment if disposed of improperly or spilled, most environmentalists would opt for the latter since it lasts three or more times longer and thus reduces waste (or energy use if recycled). Researchers have been experimenting with producing greener motor oils—one pilot project out of Purdue University has produced high-quality, carbon-neutral motor oil from canola crops—but consumers should not expect to see such products on store or garage shelves anytime soon, as the costs of production are high and the availability of cropland is limited. But the very existence of such alternatives—no doubt more are in the offing—bodes well for the future as oil becomes more scarce and expensive.

CONTACTS: Edmunds.com; TrustMyMechanic.com.