Ancestral Homes: Indigenous Peoples Are Pushing for Tourism Alternatives That Respect Community, Culture and the Land

By Vivanco, Luis A. | Alternatives Journal, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Ancestral Homes: Indigenous Peoples Are Pushing for Tourism Alternatives That Respect Community, Culture and the Land


Vivanco, Luis A., Alternatives Journal


With the UN's declaration of 2002 as the International Year of Ecotourism (IYE), debates over the role of tourism as a tool for "sustainable development" have gained new urgency. Often described as a novel method to unite nature conservation and economic development in poor communities of the global South, the clarion call of ecotourism has been widely accepted by multilateral development and environmental agencies, lending banks, and the tourism industry. But, concerned about the far-reaching consequences that tourism development can have on their cultural integrity, land rights, and self-determination, indigenous peoples have been particularly vocal in their calls for a fundamental review of conventional and so-called "alternative" forms of tourism like ecotourism.

As a profit-driven industry, tourism tends to view landscapes and people as consumer products to be bought and sold. Especially when imposed from outside the community, tourism's negative impacts can include disrupted lifestyles and ecosystems, poorly distributed or inconsistent profits, the pressure to turn cultural traditions into products, greenwashing, and unequal participation in the planning of projects dominated by foreign or government interests. With ecotourism in particular, indigenous peoples have experienced eviction from traditional lands, overuse of habitat related to increased tourist demand, and the destruction of habitat to create tourism infrastructure. (1)

Coinciding with the IYE, but self-consciously independent of it, indigenous activists and community representatives have been organizing regional encounters--from Penang and Chiang Rai in Southeast Asia to Oaxaca, Mexico--to deliberate on the opportunities and dilemmas of tourism development. As participants in the "International Forum on Indigenous Tourism" held during March 2002 in Oaxaca assert in the declaration resulting from their meeting, "Indigenous peoples are not objects of tourism development. We are active subjects with the rights and responsibilities to our territories and the processes of tourism planning, implementation, and evaluation that happen in them." (2) The purpose of these gatherings has not been to promote the wholesale rejection of tourism, but to call into question "ecotourism" as a sustainable alternative for the tourism industry and to strengthen coalitions of indigenous peoples arguing for forms of tourism based on community self-determination. (3)

Such gatherings also provide an important venue for indigenous communities and their representatives to share information on proactive solutions to problems associated with tourism development. For example, during the Oaxaca forum, some 200 participants from 13 countries reviewed case studies from indigenous communities all over the Americas. A central theme was the inherent right of local people to accept, reject and control tourism development through community mechanisms.

Although participants reported great diversity in their experiences, one example, that of Yavesia, a small Zapotec village in the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca, demonstrates the broader lessons shared by many indigenous communities. The community decided early on that it would resist creating "attractions" simply to bring tourists. Instead they view their involvement in tourism as an opportunity to share with visitors their culture's long history of sustainable involvement with the landscape. This project, where locals guide tourists through community-owned forested land, is integrated into the community's other productive uses of the forest, including a spring water bottling plant and the collection of non-timber forest products. In this respect, tourism provides an important avenue of economic diversification without displacing other productive activities. …

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