Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Gender, Culture, and Ecotourism: Development Policies and Practices in the Guyanese Rain Forest

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Gender, Culture, and Ecotourism: Development Policies and Practices in the Guyanese Rain Forest

Article excerpt

Ecotourism and the Meeting of Gender, Local Culture, and Development

The gendered effects of neoliberal development policies and practices upon indigenous tropical rain forest communities are evident in the expanding ecotourism industry. Ecotourism is an economic development strategy that, in developing countries, often replaces intensification of horticulture and offers an alternative to manufacturing or extractive industries (Boo 1990, 2). Ecotourism, like many other forms of tourism, is a form of economic, social, and cultural exchange between "host" cultures, often depicted as "exotic" and "primitive," and "guests," typically affluent consumers from "sterile," developed cultural environments who are seeking "authentic" cultural experiences in "pristine" environments.

This essay addresses the dynamics among gender, economics, and politics that emerged from the creation and implementation of an ecotourism development program among the indigenous Makushi people of the Guyanese rain forest. Drawing on ethnographic data and my own fieldwork, I identify three anthropological concerns regarding women and the development of ecotourism. First, rain forest ecotourism provides economic opportunities for women to develop a nonextractive, nonindustrial, and nonagrarian industry-often without the need for capital, the labor resources of men, a large consumer base, or proximity to markets. The cultural viability and sustainability of economic development projects that directly benefit women but do not also integrate men, however, are questionable. Second, in concert with many of the anthropologists who evaluate neoliberal global development policies and programs, I argue that the empowerment of indigenous communities should be central to development processes (O'Rouke 2002, 14). Further, I assert, the effectiveness of specific local ecotourism programs must be evaluated in terms of local gender relations, as well as potential for economic gain, and should further the rights of both men and women. Third, development agencies must acknowledge that the adaptation of culture to development programs is a gendered process. Men and women experience opportunities differently.

In this essay, I discuss how development policies and programs directed toward women will be more economically successful, more individually empowering, and more culturally authentic when the process of cultural adaptation to development programs considers both male and female roles and supports positive gender relations. And while cultural change is certain to occur with new forms of economic development focused on the needs of women, I argue that some forms of cultural continuity, in terms of gender relations, are necessary for stable development. Local gender relations-even though they will be transformed through processes of cultural adaptation to development programs, and perhaps often should be-are significant dimensions of local cultures, which should not themselves be the primary targets of change. This is particularly true when local gender relations have been egalitarian for generations, and have only recently been transformed by externalities that marginalized women. The development problems that affect women, then, should not be seen in terms of problems inherent in the local culture or in the recent shifts in gender relations that have marginalized women, but in terms of the externalities that marginalize both men and women.

My work explores these dynamics within a specific, local context: it traces the experience of the Makushi people of the Surama community, just outside and to the south of the Guyanese international rain forest preserve Iwokrama.1 Drawing on ethnographic field data, I assess the roles and relationships of men and women as they negotiate among several development opportunities. I also explore the practical implications of ecotourism as a means for sustaining Makushi cultural autonomy and identities, as well as the egalitarian gender roles they value but have not recently fully enjoyed. …

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