From Albuquerque, highway 25 sprawls northeast to Santa Fe and Taos, alongside vast mountain ranges, beside pastel-red adobe homes and flashing casino lights, past cholla cacti and ranching supply stores and tribal reservations. The Rio Grande River Gorge cuts through the landscape, quietly winding south under a brilliant blue sky.
New Mexico is a place of converging cultures, a state where ranch lands border Native American reservations; where filmmakers, skiers, and artists flock; where Hispanics and descendants of Spanish conquistadors live together, along with 19 sovereign Native American nations. The topography is just as diverse, from sprawling deserts to high mountain ranges and pine forests.
I was in New Mexico with Green Living Project, a media production and marketing company that showcases sustainability initiatives around the globe, to check out the state’s ecotourism initiative.
Ecotourism is a bit of a nebulous concept — sort of like green living — but it encompasses “responsible travel” in its many forms, from educational programs to community building to protecting the environment. New Mexico’s tourism initiative is the first statewide program launched in the country — the first to have funding dedicated solely to creating an ecotourism network.
EcoNewMexico, a safari-outfitting company owned by husband and wife Charles and Sandy Cunningham, received the $250,000 state contract to launch the initiative and carve out the ecotourism niche in New Mexico. They’re working with an array of outfitters, hotels, and restaurants to bring together the state’s many disparate ecotourism efforts to not only create an ecotourism network, but also to define what it means, exactly, to be an ecotourism provider.
“We’re harnessing stuff that’s already here,” said Jennifer Hobson, the Deputy Cabinet Secretary of New Mexico Tourism. “Communities are already doing this stuff, and have been for decades. We’re just helping to direct them.”
Taos, a ski town nestled in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, is one of EcoNewMexico’s pilot projects — destinations that already have the capacity, or desire, to accommodate this new type of tourist, one who stays longer and spends money in local communities.
But, ecotourism isn’t just about giving back while on vacation, said Stuart Wild, guide of Wild Earth Adventures, an adventure outfitter known for llama trekking. “If ecotourism isn’t inspiring people to go back to their communities and get involved, then its not working,” he said. “When people feel a connection to the natural world, that translates to their backyard.”
The cultural heart of Taos is the Taos Pueblo, the active community and historical home of the Taos Pueblo Indians, one of 19 (of an original 76) pueblos still intact in New Mexico.
Though about fifty members of Taos Pueblo live year-round in the 1,000-year-old town of adobe buildings — considered the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States — many members of the 2,800-person tribe split their time between adobe and cinder block, living part of the year in the pueblo and part of the year in the town of Taos. This physical transition is only one example of the convergence between traditional and modern that seems to characterize every aspect of the Taos Pueblo way of life.
Religion guides daily life, but it is a hybrid religion, combining aspects of the nature-based religion of the Pueblo — Mother Earth, for example — with Catholicism — the Virgin Mary, her parallel — which was introduced to (or forced upon) the Pueblo in the 1500s.
Every member of Taos Pueblo has an Indian name used within the community as well as a modern, Spanish surname used for legal documents and life outside the pueblo. Food is still gathered in the mountains above the pueblo, and bread is still baked in free-standing adobe ovens outside, but many members buy their food staples at groceries in town.
April Winters, a guide at Taos Pueblo, hopes ecotourism will introduce the community’s cultural heritage about ecological responsibility to a modern audience, to educate them about her culture’s tradition of living in connection with the natural world — and about what it means to live sustainably, as they’ve been doing for thousands of years.
While Taos Pueblo represents the cultural heritage, the natural heritage of the West is inextricable from the Rio Grande — the great river, the lifeblood of the land and so many of its inhabitants.
“The Rio Grande is the mater of the landscape,” said Steven Harris, an ardent conservationist and owner of Far Flung Adventures, a river-rafting outfitter. “Everything in landscape has the signature of the water on it.”
Like so many areas in the southwest, water in New Mexico is paramount — how much of it there is, who controls it, who uses it.
“Western rivers have all been overdeveloped. You go below the threshold of the river’s flow, and all these natural systems begin to unravel,” said Harris.
For outfitters like Harris, river rafting is more than just an opportunity for fun or recreation. When visitors interact with the river on such an intimate level — when they camp under stars and gather around a campfire — they gain a connection to the land.
“On the third day of a wilderness trek, something happens to people, to their time sense,” said Harris. “They begin to internalize what’s sacred here.”
On our last day in New Mexico, we visited Puye Cliffs, where in the 900s, the Pueblo Indians had built their winter homes — directly into the sheer rock face of the cliffs, open to the winter sun. We clambered up ladders traversing the cliffs to the broad mesa top overlooking the Pajarito Plateau.
It seemed like this view was the goal of ecotourism: beginning to understand the cultural heritage and rich history of Native Americans held in ruins like Puye Cliffs and in living communities like Taos Pueblo, and forging a connection to the land in a place where so many cultures, histories, and peoples converge.
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If you could help save wildlife and their habitats from destruction, would you do it? What if it involved traveling to a far-off location to live in relatively primitive conditions, work long hours, and complete difficult, sometimes dangerous, tasks? Oh, and you might have to pay to do it.
Is that your idea of a good time? Then Ecotourists Save the World is a book you’ll want to read.
In partnership with the National Wildlife Federation, writer Pamela Brodowsky has compiled an extensive resource of volunteer opportunities to protect wildlife around the world. You’ll find, as the subtitle says, “More Than 300 International Adventures to Conserve, Preserve, and Rehabilitate Wildlife and Habitats.”
In the introduction, Brodowsky writes,
Did you know … one in three amphibians, nearly half of all turtles and tortoises, one in four mammals, one in five sharks and rays, and one in eight bird species are now considered at risk of extinction? Habitat destruction, exploitation, pollution, and climate change are taking their toll on our world’s species and the places that they inhabit.
The cool thing is, you can do something about it. (We all can.) In Ecotourists Save the World, you’ll learn about opportunities to volunteer doing a host of interesting tasks in amazing places, like Brazil, Bolivia, Scotland, Thailand, Fiji, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Greece, Peru… And, in North America, you can serve in British Columbia, Manitoba, California, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Alaska, Puerto Rico, and more.
A Fee for Your Service
In all locations, you have to provide your own transportation to get there.
Some groups charge no fee participation at all. In exchange for your service, you may get accommodations (though these are not described in detail, so be sure to ask if comfort and amenities matter to you), meals, ground transfers, and sometimes “in-country emergency support” — and let’s not forget training.
At other sites, you’ll pay significant fees in addition to volunteering your time. But if you were planning a vacation, you’d have to budget for food and accommodations, anyway.
If you’re wondering why someone would pay for the privilege of volunteering, consider this: There are significant costs associated with training, feeding, and housing people. For every dollar a refuge or wilderness program has to allocate to support volunteers, that’s a dollar taken away from the work they could be doing to help the animals.
Choosing a Project
Take a quick flip through Ecotourists Save the World, and you’ll find volunteer opportunities galore. But it will take much more than a quick flip to decide on the one that’s right for you. Each entry provides the following details to help you make a considered decision:
- Category (conservation, preservation, or rehabilitation)
- Dates & Duration
- To Apply
- Field Notes
The Field Notes section is especially useful, as you’ll learn “whether the project is suitable for families, groups, and/or solo travelers; any age restrictions; special skills or other requirements needed to participate; cautions or warnings for safety and comfort; and, in some instances, recommendations of local sites to visit and activities to enjoy while in service.”
Just a Sampling
Following are a few of the 300 projects you can choose from. If any of these whet your appetite, pick up the book to learn the details. (It sells for US$18.95/$23.50 CAN.) But before you make any plans, read the warning on the copyright page. In essence, the message is: There are potential hazards; for the best experience, be prepared and be careful.
Saving Kenya’s Black Rhinos: “Volunteers manage the local vegetation — the main food source of the black rhino — and observe the animals to improve further conservation efforts…. Location: Nairobi, Kenya…. Cost: US#2,850 for 15 days. Fee includes accommodations, meals, and training…. Field Notes: Participants must be at least 18 years old…. in good physical condition and be able to walk long distances.”
Lost World Expedition: “Participants assist scientists with fieldwork, conducting observational surveys to determine [the jaguar’s and the puma’s] distribution patterns in one of earth’s most threatened ecosystems… [and] conduct interviews in local communities… Location: Curitiba, Brazil…. Cost: US$1,690 for 12 nights. Fee includes accommodations, meals, training, and in-country emergency support…. Field Notes: No specific skills are required. The program is open to all ages. Participants must feel comfortable hiking through mountainous terrain. Positions are suitable for families, groups, and solo travelers.”
Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge: “Volunteers help with research projects focused on endangered animals, conduct surveys of local bird populations, and help with sea turtle recovery projects (including nest relocation efforts and species inventories)…. Location: Rio Hondo, TX [USA]…. Cost: Free in exchange for service. Full RV hookups are provided…. Field Notes: Positions are suitable for families, groups, and solo travelers. All ages are welcome.”
Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge: “Volunteers help replant and maintain native coastal plants, and work on public educational campaigns that focus on wildlife conservation. Participants may also lead tours…. Location: Kilauea, HI [USA]…. Cost: Free in exchange for service. Accommodation is provided…. Field Notes: This project is suitable for families, groups, and solo travelers.”
Elusive and Unknown Cat Project: “Participants help record leopard sightings and collect data on the distribution of leopards and their prey throughout the region. Volunteers also help document interspecies interactions among the leopard, wolf, and striped hyena…. Location: Dhofar, Oman…. Cost: US $1,950 for 12 nights. Fee includes accommodations, meals, ground transfers, project orientation, training, and support…. Field Notes: There are no specific skills or age requirements that need to be met for participation int this project, but volunteers must be able to walk great lengths and over mountainous terrain. Positions are suitable for adult groups and solo travelers.”
Elephant Orphanage: “Participants assist with daily elephant bathing duties, cleaning and maintaining enclosures, and hand-feeding of the extremely young. The Elephant Orphanage is home to many young elephants that are lost or abandoned by their mothers. Here the elephants are fed, nursed, and taken care of by professional handlers and volunteers. This project is a rare opportunity for those interested in working with elephants….. Location: Kegalle, Sri Lanka…. Cost: US$650–$953 for 1–3 weeks; extended stays are available for an additional fee. Fee includes accommodations and three meals per day. Airport pickup and transfers are additional…Field Notes: No special skills are required to participate. Positions are suitable for adult groups and solo travelers.”
Dolphin Conservation Project: “Participants … work alongside marine biologists in teh Ionian Sea. Volunteers contribute to a research study of the behavioral patterns, ecology, and conservation status of the aresa’s dolphin population… learn and contribute to all aspects of fieldwork, including observation techniques and photo identification procedures….. Location: Greece…. Cost: US$850–$1,000 for 1 week. Fee includes accommodations, meals, ground transfers, orientation, training,and in-country emergency support…. Field Notes: Participants must be at least 18 years old…. in good physical condition and have the ability to speak English. This project uses inflatable boats for observation needs and sun exposure is at a maximum. Positions are suitable for adult groups and solo travelers.”
Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge: Volunteers help collect native seeds for replanting in an effort to recreate the pre-1800s prairie ecosystem. Participants also work to maintain the park’s hiking trails and assist with general refuge maintenance projects…. Location: Prairie City, IA [USA]… Cost: Free in exchange for service. Housing is provided…. Field Notes: Training is provided on-site. Positions are suitable for families, groups, and solo travelers.”
If you do head off to an ecotourist, volunteer adventure — whether one described in this book or another you’ve found on your own — please write and let us know.
The Small Print
Blue Planet Green Living received a complimentary copy of Ecotourists Save the World. Other than the review copy, we received no compensation or incentive for reviewing the book. No one influences the content of any of our reviews other than the writer. The opinions expressed are entirely my own.
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Perhaps you’ve dreamed of vacationing at a resort on a tropical island, surrounded by a luxury hotel with every convenience you could desire: Food and drink served in abundance in any number of dining locations. Beach chairs and umbrellas on the pristine sands of an exclusive beach. A swim bar in the middle of a sparkling pool for guests only. Nightclubs with live entertainment right on the property. Sophisticated staff from countries around the world. And a direct shuttle to carry you safely between the airport and the hotel.
Why would you care to venture out and see the island, with everything you need right here? And why would you want to meet the local people, when their extreme poverty would put a damper on your luxury vacation?
Then again, perhaps your idea of a vacation is a bit more about getting in touch with the earth and the local people. If so, the more authentic experience of ecotourism may appeal to you. The real point of ecotourism, according to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), is to help “protect the natural and cultural heritage of our beautiful planet” — and, of course, to give you an adventure you’ll never forget.
Ecotour destinations are, by definition, places with exceptional beauty, unusual flora and fauna, rare ecosystems, unique traditional cultures, or some combination of these interesting and attractive drawing points. Theoretically, a quality ecotour provides an opportunity to experience and learn about our natural world, while appreciating and protecting these wild treasures. At the same time, the ecotourist’s travel budget provides local communities with a reliable source of economic support without disrupting or harming their traditional culture. That is a tall order.
In practice, some ecotour companies are careless or even exploitative on both counts. If you’re considering an ecotour adventure, do the research necessary to find a destination through a tour company that lives up to its pledge to protect the local culture and the environment.
Even well-intentioned ecotourism can be severely damaging, if the providers don’t take into account the area’s ability to support additional people. As environmental scientist Jagdish Poudel warned earlier this year in a post about his home country, Nepal, “Before starting to increase the number of tourists, we must do research on the balance of supply and demand of natural resources in the area. In order to improve the economic status of rural people, we should not degrade the [natural resources] and wildlife habitat, as that is not sustainable development.”
Examine Your Options
Ecotourism opportunities exist all over the world. In Europe, ecotourism tends to center on a farm or a house that functions as a kind of ecology-focused bed and breakfast. In Italy, ecotourism is likely to be called agriturismo, an acknowledgment of the agricultural focus of many destinations. In France, ecotourism is also called tourisme vert (green tourism). Ecotourism in the Americas is generally more concerned with outdoor adventuring, such as mountain climbing, hiking, or kayaking.
Extreme nature ecotours take adventurers to places like Antarctica, Galapagos Islands, or Patagonia. At some destinations, visitors are free to experience nature up close without much concern for minimizing their environmental impact. If you are looking into a tour of this sort, be sure that it truly is eco-friendly, and isn’t simply being greenwashed for marketing purposes.
Yet on other tours, such as those visiting Galapagos, tourists must follow strict guidelines about where they are allowed to walk and what they can touch, in order to protect the very fragile ecology. Carefully regulated excursions to Galapagos provide a model for ecologically conscious tourism in sensitive areas.
Ideally, ecotour companies should focus on both protecting the environment and providing a memorable experience. Each destination will be different, and the wise ecotourist will thoroughly examine the options before signing on for the journey.
Consider Your Impact
We believe that true ecotourism protects local cultures and empowers local and Indigenous peoples — while providing visitors with unique opportunities to learn about the community they visit and contribute to its success.
— Kores Ole Musuni, Maasai Cross Cultural and Ecotourism Programs, quoted on the TIES home page
In addition to the “leave nothing but footprints” (and, hopefully, good will) philosophy associated with ecotourism, comes a host of politically charged issues. Responsible travelers avoid giving their tourist dollars to countries that abuse human rights and disregard conservation. Ecotourism organizations ask travelers to consider the impact on the local economy when purchasing products, tours or other services. The goal is to choose the options of most benefit to the local people — not to huge corporations.
Organizations such as TIES and the Eco Club can be helpful in identifying which destinations and ecotour companies provide truly sustainable travel. You also can find a wealth of resources from the Nature Conservancy. So, start dreaming. Then do your homework, and take an eco-vacation that will give you memories you can cherish and a travel experience you can be proud of.
Have you taken an eco-vacation? We’d love to hear about it.
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Blue Planet Green Living is grateful to Jagdish Poudel, a contributing writer from Nepal, whose commitment and efforts on behalf of the environment are inspirational. Here, Poudel shares his observations of a small village which is engaged in the same struggle as are found in many other developing countries: economics and development vs. sustainability and preservation of the natural world.
His recommendations are prudent and will, hopefully, result in economic progress that respects the concerns of biodiversity and sustainability in the village. This small village mirrors for us the challenges we face globally, in every country. As Jared Diamond warns in Collapse: Why Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, societies engage in deforestation at their peril. — Miriam Kashia, International Editor
Ghale Gaun is an inviting village of about 200-300 people. The village sits 2,075 meters above sea level in the remote mountains of Nepal inside the Annapurna Conservation Area. It is becoming an increasingly popular ecotourism and village-tourism destination, attracting many national and international visitors. Previously, the major source of income of the village people was from international sources, as most of the young boys were involved in the armies of the United Kingdom and India. Because it is a very poor village, the prospect of creating a new income source is highly appealing to the residents.
Six months ago, I read an article about the village. Because I would be traveling to Annapurna Conservation Area to give a presentation to the local people about climate change, I decided to go to Ghale Gaun to see the village for myself. Ghale Gaun is the perfect spot to view the range of the Annapurna Himal [mountain] and Lamjung Himal, both of which can be seen beautifully early in the morning. Because of its spectacular landscape and the hospitality of the local people, the Conservation Area Management Committee and the local residents decided to actively encourage tourism in Ghale Gaun.
In the planning process, the team decided to allow only two guests in each house in the village, which contains around 50-60 households. The major source of energy in the village is wood for fuel, which is obtained from the nearby forest areas. So far, there have been no obvious signs of major loss of forest cover, since the supply of fuel wood meets the current demand. But that threatens to change.
Following the decisions of some travel agencies and local residents, the tourism committee is now planning to attract at least 50 tourist guests per day in the village. This raises a serious concern about the use of fuel wood, and will certainly increase the demand for forest products at the village. A radical increase in wood consumption can be dangerous for creating deforestation, which directly impacts the habitat destruction of wildlife.
There is no doubt that village tourism is an impressive way to enhance the economic development of the local people. The problem arises because the rural village people do not have electricity, and their major source of energy is fuel wood. Increased tourism may well accelerate the loss of biodiversity as the consumption of wood increases.
Concerned groups and individuals in Ghale Gaun must take a close look at the supply and demand of the fuel wood consumption that leads to harmful impacts on biodiversity conservation. Before starting to increase the number of tourists, we must do research on the balance of supply and demand of natural resources in the area. In order to improve the economic status of rural people, we should not degrade the forest resource and wildlife habitat, as that is not sustainable development.
We must evaluate the level of sustainable use of natural resources, even if we have to reduce the number of tourist guests, because sustainable development cannot be achieved only by bringing money into the community. Sustainable development also needs to protect natural resources and biodiversity.
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