Academic journal article Ethnology

Spectacular Quetzals, Ecotourism, and Environmental Futures in Monte Verde, Costa Rica(1)

Academic journal article Ethnology

Spectacular Quetzals, Ecotourism, and Environmental Futures in Monte Verde, Costa Rica(1)

Article excerpt

Monte Verde, Costa Rica, has recently become a popular tourist destination among North American, European, and Costa Rican ecotourists desiring to experience rain and cloud forests. The resplendent quetzal, a migratory bird with colorful plumage and mythical connotations, figures as a central icon and spectacle in Monte Verde's cultural economy of tourism. This article explores how the practices of producing and consuming quetzals are embedded in and reflect contested interpretations of forest landscapes, authentic experiences, and environmental histories and futures. As spectacles around which touristic experiences are often organized, quetzals are invested with nostalgia and hopes for the future. By focusing on the various social contexts in which quetzals are produced, viewed, and explained, this article examines some of the processes by which transnational and local discursive and capitalistic formations, increasingly organized under the banner of ecotourism, claim the authority to fix the meanings, histories, and futures of Monte Verde landscapes and nature more generally. (Ecotourism, Costa Rica, environmental activism, tourist spectacles)

Several weeks after he began a new job as a maintenance worker at a small cloud-forest preserve in the Tilaran highlands of Costa Rica, Manuel Azofeifa (a pseudonym) invited me to walk with him through the forest. Located in the Monte Verde region, one of Costa Rica's most renowned sites of nature conservation and ecotourism since the 1970s, the Reserva Santa Elena where we took our walk was a relatively new reserve, opening in the early 1990s. Manuel explained that as a career cattle rancher he had paid relatively little attention to the establishment and expansion of forest preserves and the growing numbers of foreign tourists visiting this remote mountainous region in which he and his family have lived and farmed for 50 years(2) He decided to work at this preserve not so much because he wanted a change of career or to participate in the tourism economy, but out of a desire to support his son's high school, which had acquired the cloud-forest preserve in 1995 to fund its daily operations. We carried machetes and our lunch, as is typical on long walks like this, but Manuel viewed this walk differently from others he had taken, and not simply because he had not been in this forest since it was formally protected in the late 1970s, or because he now worked here as an employee. The shift in Manuel's approach to this walk was reflected in the camera he carried, a small point-and-shoot that he rarely used except for special occasions like parties or family trips. This was the first time he had taken a camera with him into a forest.

Manuel explained that he brought his camera because he wanted to take a picture of a waterfall he had heard was in a remote section of the forest to show his wife and daughters, since they would never come this far into the forest. When we found the waterfall he posed for a picture in front of it, donning my cowboy-style hat, for he said he wanted to look like he was on an aventura (adventure). Walking away, Manuel talked excitedly about waterfalls, saying that they are particularly what Costa Ricans enjoy when they visit forest preserves. Then, on hearing the call of a resplendent quetzal, he hurried ahead to see it. When I caught up to him, he was pointing his camera up a tree at the quetzal and making noises to get its attention. He snapped a photograph, turned to me, and announced, "You know, five years ago, I might have shot at this bird with a gun, probably just for the hell of it. But, you see, now I shoot it with my camera. "

ECOTOURISM AND THE CONTESTED GROUNDS OF NATURE

A characteristic act of tourism is to insist on difference and mark it by various techniques of observation, including photography (Taylor 1994:15). That Manuel judged the waterfall and the quetzal as different enough to mark with photographs suggests that for him these sights stand outside his ordinary, workaday experience (Cohen 1974; Graburn 1989; Urry 1990:3). …

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