Cutting edge

November 20, 1998

Amanda Stronza ...reports from Hell, or Infierno in Peru, on the effect of ecotourism on the rain forest, its people and the rich wildlife.

I wanted to test some of our assumptions about the impact of ecotourism on people and forests. We often say that ecotourism will give people economic incentives to protect wildlife and forests. The hope is that, through tourism revenues, local residents can begin to gain tangible benefits from managing wildlife populations and protecting forests.

But most studies on ecotourism have been based only on anecdotal information or on assumptions. I am gathering empirical data about what happens to people once they start working in ecotourism. Without such data we cannot explain the effect of ecotourism on people or on nature.

The point of my research is to measure differences between participants and non-participants in ecotourism, specifically by carrying out comparative research looking at community members of Infierno who work in Posada Amazonas and others who do not. What happens to the people who start earning income from the lodge because they are working as guides or boat drivers? What changes do they experience in their lives? And what are the changes for their families?

One hypothesis is that people who begin to work in tourism will dedicate less time to their traditional subsistence activities, such as farming, hunting or foraging. They may begin to clear fewer acres of rain forest each year, or hunt fewer peccaries, pacas and other game animals, or harvest fewer fruits and plants.

If this happens, then our hopes about the impact of ecotourism will have been well-founded. But perhaps people who begin to work in ecotourism will use their new income to hire labourers to clear even more forest than they used to be able to clear, or to buy shotguns to hunt more game than they used to, or to buy chainsaws.

I am looking at these problems via fieldwork, which means visiting the community's 80 families. They are spread over the 10,000 acres of the community, to which I have been returning for more than three years. Despite its size, everyone knows my whereabouts and doings at any given moment. Sometimes I do not know whether they are observing me or I am observing them. I am sure they could write an interesting thesis about me.

As well as the economic side of my research, I'm interested in how ecotourism changes people's values about nature. I will try to measure how people who work in ecotourism start to value particular resources over others. I expect that they will begin to value more resources that may or may not have had special economic or spiritual value before, but that are attractive to tourists, such as Harpy eagles or Giant River Otters.

Although the land at Infierno is commun-ally owned by an officially titled "native community", each family has rights to individual plots of land for farming. Infierno is a native community, belonging to the Ese'eja Indians, but many of its members are migrants who moved to the area from other regions of Peru.

Yes, the real name of the community is Infierno, or Hell. Many years ago missionaries visited the site, climbed the steep river banks and were attacked by swarms of mosquitos. As they wiped the sweat from their brows, they declared, "Este es un Infierno!" The name has stuck. The Catholic Church in Puerto Maldonado has tried to change the name to Santa Rosa, but the people of Infierno like the name and resisted. Their soccer team is called "Los Angeles de Infierno" (the Angels of Hell).

Amanda Stronza is working on her PhD at the University of Florida and was previously with Conservation International in Washington DC.

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