The centre’s policy to promote eco-tourism is fraught with dangers
Sankar Ray/ Kolkata
In 2002, the International Year for Ecotourism, set out by the United Nations, overwhelming majority of environmentalists in this subcontinent were inexplicably silent, remaining somewhat unbothered about the very concept of ecotourism as if the traditional tourism is ecocidal.
Almost all the tourist spots you figure out, you will find the habitation of adivasis who have for ages been caressing the nature and the nature-human symbiosis. This scribe wrote a scathing critique of ecotorism, defining it as 'silent ecocide' in a Bangalore-based daily. The debate needs to be revived when political leaders and ministers from the erstwhile Union minister for culture and tourism Ambika Soni to the maverick West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee have been taking up cudgels for ecotourism.
Banerjee under the ill-advice by a Bengali newspaper group whose owners thrive on corruption and manipulations in loading and unloading business in ports and collieries, has been unabashedly jockeying for an ecotourism project alongside a 1000 megawatt thermal power project at Nayachar, a sand dune that was afloat in 1932 and is regularly inundated by tidal incursions in Purba Medinipur district.
Soni in a speech on 17 December, 2007 inaugurating the 6th Annual Convention of the Adventure Tour Operators Association of India stated that the existing national eco tourism policy needs to be revived in the light of the ongoing international debate on climate change.
She said she has often come across complaints that by-diversity is being eroded further on account of adventure, world life and eco-tourism but mildly warned that adventure tourists were not only polluting the place but have little regard for conserving the existing natural resources. But her emphasis was on adventure tourism, the main thrust of ecotourism.
"We all in the Ministry of Tourism consider adventure tourism extremely important in taking forward one of the important niche tourism segments of the country. India is richly endowed with the natural diversity consisting of mountains, wildlife, natural parks, rivers and beaches which provide ample opportunities for pursuing adventure sports such as white water river rafting, paragliding, hot air ballooning, skiing, mountain biking, scuba diving, hiking-trekking and rock climbing and rappelling. All these add to the multi-dimensionality of our tourism potential which is not very common in many parts of the world. I am glad that Adventure Tour Operators Association is fully realising the potential of adventure tourism. You all must be aware that Ministry of Tourism through its various publicity campaigns both through print and electronic media gives vast prominence to the potential of adventure tourism in the country. These campaigns help in enhancing the awareness of this fascinating sport. The North East is a paradise for adventure tourism and there is so much that we could do in that region. Apart from the fact that North East is very well connected, helicopter service is also coming up very fast in this region. I feel this connectivity facilitation would enable adventure tourism develop fast."
She took up cudgels for ecotourism arguing , "the existing National Eco Tourism Policy needs to be revived in the light of the ongoing international debate on climate change" but cautioned narrating his own experience, "I have often come across complaints that our bio-diversity is being eroded further on account of adventure, wildlife and eco tourism. There was a genuine concern that adventure tourists are not only polluting the place but have little regard for conserving the existing natural resources. Last year when I took up the matter of reviving licences of adventure tour operators with the Uttarakhand Government, these were the very issues that the Ministry of Environment of Uttarakhand was highlighting."
Unlike Ambika Soni, the WB CM - also her counterparts in other states such as Mayavati and Narendra Modi - seems conceitedly unaware of the menace of ecotourism. They appear to have ignored warnings in magazines like New Scientist in 2002. A team of research workers, led by Kathleen Alexander, a senior wildlife veterinary officer of the Government of Botswana, made very pointed observations on the destructive experience in ecotourism "The first clear-cut case of a primarily human pathogen being passed to wildlife. They have discovered two outbreaks of TB in banded mongooses at Chobe, and one that wiped out a group of meerkats in the Kalahari Desert". Chobe is the second largest national park, an attraction for international tourist community, especially from the western countries. The annual revenue from park fees alone used to cause an inflow of US $ 1.5 million a year. But the more the tourists, the more the possibility of development of TB among mongooses and meerkats in Botswana and researchers doubt that the Mycobacterium tuberculosis passed on from the human beings.
David Nicholson-Lord candidly defined in an article in the US journal, Resurgence (June 2002) ,Green tragedy: the blight of eco-tourism blasted the concept , "Eco-tourism, as defined by the World Tourism Organisation, represents only 2 to 4 per cent of international travel spending. Suppose it grew to the point where it dominated the tourist industry. Could such a large-scale industry be managed in a small-scale way? Can anyone who has flown half way around the world in a jet powered by subsidized fossil fuel and puffing out greenhouse gases qualify as an eco-tourist?"
Elaborating his point further, Nicholson-Lord wrote, although theoretically, eco-tourism is to be on a small scale, eco-friendly and attuned to Nature, the reality is that no one has properly defined eco-tourism, and in this vacuum the marketing men, greenwashers, corporate developers and government spin doctors flourish. I have heard a casino in Laos described as eco-tourism because it was sited in untouched countryside."
Eco-tourism came somewhat synergistically with the introduction of Structural Adjustment Programme during the tenure of P V Narasimha Rao as the PM. Tanzanian scholar whom this scribe, had met accidentally in Calcutta during an international seminar, organized by the Confederation of Indian Industry, stated bluntly. "Tourism can develop if and only if the natural habitat and natural surroundings are kept intact", he said. Theoretically, eco-tourism ensures the biological continuity of flora and fauna. But the fact remains that proliferation of concrete structures takes place even where pristine beauty draws tourists for a tranquil and blissful pastime".
Eco-tourism drastically minimises the contact between animals and people if it is to be genuinely environment-conducive. But in that case tourist attraction may wane.
A UNESCO report in the last decade observed that the World Heritage site of Macchu Picchu in Peru has become almost saturated. The people justly want a greater share of tourist revenues. They are forced to do so and are blocking roads to prevent tourists from going to the 'heights of Macchu Picchu'.
Sue Wheat in an essay, Sold Out in Guardian (London) on 22 May 2002, narrated how rapid growth in ecotourism affected indigenous peoples. "Earlier this year, 250 Filipinos were evicted from their homes.
Their lake-shore village of Ambulong, in Batangas province, was attacked by hundreds of police, who demolished 24 houses. Many people were reported wounded, four seriously and one with a bullet wound. Cesar Arellano, of Pamalakaya, a Filipino human rights organisation, said: 'The people are not leaving - they have set up camp. They are going to fight for their land."
The intention of the authorities was to clear people to make way for a major business venture - not oil, logging or mining, but ecotourism, which is growing massively around the world and is now backed by governments, world bodies and international banks.
This year has been declared by the UN the international year of ecotourism and this week, a world summit is being held in Quebec to consider the problems and potential for the fastest growing sector of the world's largest industry."
She went on, "Ecotourists are thought to spend considerably more than mass tourists and for debt-strapped developing countries, having people visit, look at things that require minimal investment and pay lots of money for the privilege, can seem manna from heaven. Nature is a money spinner. Ecuador earns over $100m a year from 60,000 visitors to the Galapagos, for instance, and Kenya as much income from its safari holidays. But the stakes are now getting higher and the dispossession of people from their land is increasingly associated with ecotourism.
The cases are widespread. In the Moulvibaza district of Bangladesh, over 1,000 families of the Khasi and Garoare indigenous groups face eviction from their ancestral lands for the development of a 1,500-acre eco-park. "We were born here and grew up here. We have been living here for hundreds of years . . . we will not leave this forest," said Khasi headman Anil Yang Yung in a public demonstration during a hunger strike in Dhaka last February. "We cannot survive if we are evicted from the forest."
It's time to work for awareness against ecotourism at a time when environmentalists and responsible economists are for sincere implementation of Forest Rights Act that acknowledges the traditional rights of forest-dwelling populations in India.
They have been unjustly treated by denying them rights to the lands and resources they use.
Several hundred million people in India are dependent on forests for various direct uses; a portion of them also live on forest lands, or are in settlements that are within or just adjacent to forests.