sexta-feira, 28 de janeiro de 2011

Community-Based Tourism in the Brazilian Amazon: Missing Leg in a Tripod of Tour Products

For most people the Amazon cannot be done in a day. For as long as I can remember tourism depended on an exterior market, mostly affluent foreigners with time, money and an interest in the region’s biodiversity and geo-political importance. And they weren’t going to come all this way and spend all that money just for one canoe trip, or one rainforest walk. As in other tropical countries a collection of jungle lodges was developed in the 1980s to receive a growing tourist clientele. In the 1990’s a new means of exploring the region was developed- something more authentic and unique to a region full of rivers, flooded forests and fluvial island chains- riverboat tourism.
During the last decade however growth in the Amazon tourism sector of Brazil has inexplicably stagnated despite its obvious appeal and recognized importance. Neighboring countries such as Peru and Ecuador have, despite their obvious limitations, done remarkably well in comparison. Numbers have seldom topped 400,000 tourists a year in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, largest and most affluent of the region, and best known for the fabulous 19th century Opera House which still dominates the skyline of its booming 2 million person capital, Manaus. The state invests millions every year in promotion and marketing and has little to show for it all. One mistake has certainly been the lack of integration with the local tourism trade, the majority of whom are small operators and family-run businesses who truly represent the potential of tourism in the country.
There are signs of resuscitation and spurts of new energy, due mostly to the stabilizing factor of recent two-term president, Lula Ignacio de Souza. The Brazilian economy is stronger than ever and should continue to grow under the command of Lula’s hand-picker successor, Dilma Rouseff, the country’s first woman president. Brazil is poised to become the 5th largest producer of oil in the world, and the “green” superpower of the future. A more robust economy and stronger currency has resulted in more Brazilians travelling than ever before. Many are visiting the Amazon for the first time though most are taking advantage of the weak dollar and euro to travel outside the country.  Local Amazon tour operators are adapting their products in response to this growing national market. They are also developing tourism products for a new local market, adventure activities and daytrips at prices accessible by all.
The fact that Manaus will host a number of football (soccer) games during the 2014 World Cup has prompted a construction explosion unparalleled since the “Paris of the Tropics” was conceived by Governor Eduardo Ribeiro in the late 1900s. The capital is enjoying an unprecedented boom, good and bad. As the city, and state, prepare for the near future the number of tourists, foreign and national, will naturally increase. Yet will the numbers grow expressively and put Manaus on the international list of top destinations like Paris, London and New York or will it never surpass the numbers of a Niagara Falls, Timbuktu or Havana? Time will certainly tell, but one thing seems obvious to this observer…that unless a tourism that reflects the philosophy of the moment, that of sustainability and local participation, is quickly developed then all will be for nothing.
A broader offering of community-based tourism services and products is desperately needed if Brazilian culture is to truly express itself as tourism, a natural enough vocation for this Latin country of 200 million blessed with sun, surf and all combination of cultural festivities and natural wonders. Business-as-usual is not good enough anymore, no matter what older operators want. Local populations, government agencies and the market itself demand something new, something more inclusive, something more authentic and rewarding for all.
For too long tourism in the Brazilian Amazon has been dominated and run by a small group of 25+ year old tour operators known as the “G-7”. Despite the growth of Manaus, the capital, and a steady increase in the number of travel agencies and small operators these companies have been able to maintain control of the increasing numbers of tourists that visit the region. Like old stock rubber plants in the Far East the tourism product in Manaus has not changed much over the years and certainly has not accompanied global trends. While the rest of the world worries itself about the fate of the Amazon rainforest the very people who have the ability to show off its beauty best, and insure its value as something other than chopped wood and cow patties, haven’t responded to the call.
One reason is a certain gringo-phobia, sadly discernable in much of modern Brazilian society. Brazilians welcome tourists of all types, and are happy to trade smiles and other favors for hard cash. But foreigners are treated differently once they decide to stay. Simply because they are foreigners their input is often shunned or, worse, ignored. Even when it is obvious that a foreigner’s contribution would benefit all it is often belittled and neglected.
In Manaus there are a good numbers of foreigners working in tourism. And unnoticed by the local Brazilians these foreigners have for the most part attempted to integrate themselves into the local culture rather than establish the sort of polarizing expat communities found in so many other foreign capitals. New blood brings with it new ideas. New alliances being with them new powers. But rather then welcome the new blood and ideas of these “wash-ashores” they have been ignored and marginalized by the very people they mean to help. Brazilians seem to still see foreigners as colonial exploiters of the 19th century.
With the local tourism trade in disarray the established operators of Amazonas state have been able to take advantage of this lack of union and maintain the status quo. And there is no trickle-down effect. Without a unified voice the greater part of the local tourism trade has also been ignored by local, state and federal authorities. Instead of working in harmony the private and public sectors have carved out independent niches and followed contradictory paths. Development of a broad-base of diverse tourism products has been impossible under these conditions. To complicate things even further the conservation sector represented by a whole gammet of NGOs and coordinated by public sector institutions such as IBAMA (federal) and SDS (state) has pursued a policy of establishing conservation units that all but exclude tourism as a viable means towards sustainable development. Vast tracts of the Amazon are thankfully being preserved at long last through access to these resources by Brazilians and foreigners alike is being restricted. As time passes the gulf between private and public interests will only widen and animosities only deepen. At a time when opportunity knocks the Brazilian tourism sector appeals unable to respond because it has not found it’s voice yet.
Only as a result of pressure from below, from smaller tourism operators who make up the majority in most places, and from above, from a more enlightened political generation emergent in the wake of Brazil’s flirtation with militarism, have things finally begun to change; though not as fast as most would like. Examples are springing up here and there of local tourism projects designed to meet new market demands and reflect the new political thinking. But the march is slow.
From below the ABETA organization represents a grassroots effort by the tourism trade itself to organize and express itself as a contributor to the vigorous, new Brazilian economy as well as a promoter of a growing socio-environmental philosophy. Business for business sake is no longer acceptable but must be grounded in fiscal responsibility, solid ethics and an active promotion of social and environmental needs of the nation. 
And from above the Brazilian government struggles to realize itself as either the United States of South America in all it’s consumerist and oil-guzzling glory or as the world’s first truly green nation complete with a humanitarian and environmental agenda second to none. 
On the lower Negro River where this writer operates the signs of community-based tourism are, sadly, far and few between. While a series of municipal, state and national parks have been created across the state- today 97% of the state is protected by law as conservation land- what have local operators done to turn these biologically and culturally diverse building blocks into sustainable reserves for the indigenous populations who live there? The answer is, very little. I have already observed that a lack of cooperation and consultation has excluded the tourism trade from the bargaining table. Individual families benefit from the tour companies they have formed alliances with over the years. Many communities have however been exploited by the owners of larger jungle lodges. Resentment, suspicion and, above all, abandonment are evident wherever you go.
Only recently has the tourism trade begun to make itself heard and demand its right to participate in the economic development of the Amazon interior. And the public sector has responded well, if not enthusiastically, to the trade’s offer of logistical coordination. What the government has been unable to do, namely, turn physical relationships with the locals into business relationships, local operators are able to do as many of them come from these distant riberine communities or have been working with these people for years. What local operators are able to do is put into place locally the web of education and self-empowerment the distant government wishes for but is unable to do.
It is precisely this role of intermediary that has been missing from the entanglement that is Amazonian tourism today. Unless well-intentioned persons at all levels of society are invited as equals to the bargaining table no amount of good will by anyone will amount to much good. Only as a melting pot of peoples and ideas will Brazil resolve its economic differences and be able to understand and develop its social and environmental agenda which is only now being hinted at. If the people can honestly find their voice within the halls of power Brazil might escape the consumerist fate that threatens so much of the developed world at present. The time has come to bring the actors together and raise the curtain over a new Brazil.  

quinta-feira, 13 de janeiro de 2011

Brazil: Future Green Superpower or just the United States of South America?

Two things have captured, and held, my attention the past few months: the Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and this year’s drought in Amazonia. The oil spill is a direct result of human recklessness, greed and loss of control over our own actions. The Amazon drought is quite conceivably an indirect result of the same behavior even if it does appear the more natural of the two disasters. It is truly sad that a hundred years of greed and growth have put our planet on a crash course with environmental self-annihilation. But allowing our greatest technologies to falter and result in huge environmental accidents of our own making is simply unacceptable. Ï can’t seem to shake the cry of, what were they thinking, from my mind!
Not surprisingly oil is also an issue in the scorched Amazon, and scorched now not by forest fires but by global warming caused by excessive burning of fossil fuels, resultant climate change and a simple lack of rain. The drought of 2010 was the worst ever recorded in the Brazilian Amazon.
Only 25% of the electricity produced in Brazil’s Amazonas state for its 4 million person population comes from hydroelectricity in the form of the Balbina Hydroelectric dam 100 kilometers or so north of the capital city of Manaus. The rest comes from a collection of different sized generators fueled by petroleum transported from the Brazilian south. Despite a its own refinery, gasoline in Manaus still costs about 15% more than anywhere else in the country. Electricity in the north costs 30% more than any other region in Brazil.
In 2010 the 700km Urucu-Manaus gas pipeline was finally completed and it is claimed this will provide the region with another 25% of its energy. Natural gas may be the cleanest of the traditional fossil fuels available on our planet, but that’s as far as the good news goes. Natural gas is still a non-renewable source of energy and its commercial use results in unacceptable amounts of carbon released into our atmosphere.  As such we still remain as dependent as ever on dwindling supplies of fossil fuels and the accompanying ever-rising prices.
The Amazon is blessed with excessive amounts of strong, direct sunlight and clean, running water. This has resulted in the greatest abundance of green plant life on the planet. In the recent past Brazil has developed simple technologies that result in a clean and potentially abundant form of energy. Ethanol is a biodiesel produced from sugar cane. Yet Brazil, like the United States, cannot shake its lust for oil and other fossil fuels, and seems as obsessed as ever with the prospect of becoming the “united states” of South America. When we have just witnessed the largest oil spill in history, in the Gulf of Mexico, Brazil is patting itself on the back after discovering deep, deep undersea oil deposits that may make it the fifth largest oil producer in the world.
There are numerous indications that the future of the planet is being decided in emergent countries such as China, India and Brazil. And in Brazil it should come as no surprise that the epicenter of activity is once again Amazonia. Yet if the Amazon- with its enormous organic and mineral wealth- cannot provide for its own energy needs what hope is there for any other part of the world? If Brazil should fail in its efforts towards sustainability in the Amazon this would only provide fodder for the conservative forces of big oil and big government that threaten us all.
A huge opportunity exists in Brazil for the country to become the world’s first truly green superpower. And thankfully this ascension need not take the form of us versus them, north versus south, developed versus developing, the US versus Brazil. No, in fact an opportunity exists to show others how things might be done correctly for once. What might soon become a struggle within Brazil between the forces of Green (biodiesel, say) and Black (petroleum) could very well determine the path other countries might take towards sustainability and energy self-sufficiency.  Rather than exploiting its finite black resources and following the tried old path already tread by so many other countries, Brazil has the option of tapping its infinite green resources, saving the Amazon directly, the polar ice caps indirectly, and providing blueprints for a worldwide economic and energy revolution?
Brazil could become the green energy superpower of the future. The current superpowers already depend on distant, expensive and non-renewable sources for their energy. The consumerist-driven obsession with oil in the USA has blinded its leaders to the fact that the country is being held hostage by the Saudi Arabian oil sheiks. At the slightest provocation, real or otherwise, America is willing to “unleash hell” to secure its national interests regardless of detrimental, long-term consequences. And when the Saudi oil runs out- and it will sooner rather than later- where will the United States turn to for their energy? What future wars will be fought over the last barrels of crude in distant and, in most cases, violence-prone or ecologically-important regions?
In Brazil the Petrobras company has, in only 30 years, made the country just about self-sufficient in oil and natural gas, and its recently tapped deep-sea (“pre-sal”) oil deposits off the southern coasts will turn the country into at least the world’s 5th largest oil producer and a net exporter. Economically, if not necessarily environmentally, things in Brazil, as opposed to the USA, are looking very, very good in the short run these days.
But just as supplies of oil, coal, and natural gas will run out elsewhere these same fossil fuels will also run out in Brazil. What form will the necessary transition from non-renewable energy sources to renewable ones take? In the medium run Brazil will also do well, it seems.  The reason for this is, literally, “blowing in the wind”, and “flowing in the water”. Brazil’s vast interior contains more free-flowing freshwater than anywhere else on earth. The largest river in the world by volume, the Amazon, runs through the center of the country and spills unchecked (how much water is that each day?) into the Atlantic Ocean at the city of Belem. Twelve massive tributaries longer than 1000 kilometers each are found entirely, from mountain headwaters to gaping river mouths, within Brazil’s borders. Hydroelectric potential is obviously enormous. As well Brazil’s coastline stretches 12,000 kilometers from French Guiana to Argentina. Powerful trade winds swath endless, paradisiacal beaches, all potential sites for 21st century wind-farms like those found today in California (USA) and Holland (EUR).   
But the real gem in Brazil’s energy treasure chest is that which will assure Brazil of superpower status in the long run. That gem is green. That gem is the Amazon rainforest. If Brazil can make the transition sooner rather than later from non-renewable to renewable energy sources (and preserve its massive rainforest from what is has already destroyed Indonesian and African rainforests) then the groundwork will be laid for a truly green revolution of a kind never before seen, let alone imagined, on our planet. Heaven help anyone not on friendly terms with the perpetually friendly Brazilians.  
In concluding we would do well, yet again, to consider if not heed the lessons of history.
As a young man the German engineer Rudolph Diesel was appalled at the inefficiency of the steam-powered engines of his time. His revolutionary “diesel” engine won the grand prize at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. But incredible as it may seem his “compression-ignition” engine was not powered by oil or gas. Today’s diesel fuel has nothing to do with Rudolf Diesel; his engine was powered by peanut oil.
And who does this all bring to mind but the popular (and still unfairly derided) ex-President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, a former peanut farmer who in the 1970’s was the last US president to systematically reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil significantly (25%) by facing up to the Middle Eastern monopoly and encourage conservation, mandate lower speed limits and develop more fuel efficient vehicles instead.
In the end you have to wonder why, with all our technological know-how and regrettable sense of godliness, we are unable to implement the changes necessary to save our planet from…ourselves?
*Who killed Rudolph Diesel?  Patent fees from his bio-fuel engines (seed-oil and, especially, hemp) made him a millionaire but a pariah to the emerging American lumber and petroleum empires. Diesel died under mysterious circumstances in 1913, vanishing during an overnight crossing of the English Channel on the mail steamer Dresden from Antwerp to Harwich. His death might have been suicide, an accident or even assassination. His commercial opponents included, amongst others, the Dupont family and William Randolph Hearst…powerful men with a lot to lose from alternative energy sources. Sound familiar?