Golden rays set on the verdant canopy of the Amazon--a sea of green stretching across the horizon. But it is a beautiful scene that is increasingly under threat. Deforestation, mining, and agriculture destroy over 78 million acres of forest each year. Although the most destructive and the most visible, they are not the only threats to nature's remaining sanctuaries. Tourism, the product of Western consumerism and Western capitalism, just as hungrily consumes the wildlife that sustains it.
A concept growing out of the environmental movement during the 1980s, ecotourism rapidly rose to the fore of the sustainable development debate. By minimizing the environmental and cultural impacts of tourism and reinvesting tourism dollars into the local community, it appeared to be a panacea to developing countries' ills. Each ecotourism development seeks to accomplish two basic goals: to alter the relationship between local peoples and their natural resources and to simultaneously improve the socioeconomic well being of those local people. To accomplish both goals, ecotourism must alter the relationship between local peoples and their natural resources. In traditional economic development, resource extraction and use provides the fastest--and most widely utilized--approach to improving the socio-economic welfare of a people. In ecotourism, that relationship is reversed, with preservation of natural resources providing an effective avenue for development, making the opening of a sustainable hotel within a nature reserve more financially advantageous than leasing land to a lumber company.
When managed correctly, ecotourism works. Rainforest Expeditions, a for-profit company dedicated to conservation, leads the way for sustainable business. By sharing both management and 60 percent of the profits with the local Ese-eja people of the inner Amazon, the company carved out a consistent source of dedicated labor and a consistent profit margin. As the money flowed in, the local community's socioeconomic status experienced a rapid transformation. Literacy rates skyrocketed, health improved, economic output increased--all while maintaining the environmental and cultural integrity of the local people.
Success stories like that of Rainforest Expeditions are no stranger to the conservation community. Each year, thousands of enterprising, socially conscious companies seek to make a profit through responsible capitalism, making ecotourism the most rapidly growing sector of the tourism industry. But outside appearances are often misleading. Ecotourism carries significant hidden costs for both the environment and the indigenous peoples it claims to protect. The industry's rapid growth challenges policy makers to standardize the industry and control the hordes of tourists tramping through wilderness reserves. The West's demand for "eco-friendly" products, hotels and tour companies promotes the rampant spread of capitalism, often threatening the survival of local culture. …