This is the first of a three-part series on how social and economic interactions between people in the developing world and those in the developed world creates serious implications for fragile ecosystems. We invite you to join Kenyan journalist John Mbaria on Earth Day as he takes you on a truly "green" tour that might help you appreciate these issues. He has experienced first hand the struggles of many in Africa who face the consequences of an increasingly warming earth, the destruction of many life-sustaining ecosystems and the failure of political systems and institutions to plan for the consequences of these forces. Mbaria is a trained land use planner and a journalist who previously worked as the environment correspondent with The EastAfrican, a regional weekly read in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda. He recently moved to Seattle from Kenya and is a contributing writer to InvestigateWest.
Part one of a series
Long before the world put mass tourism under the spotlight, people had become accustomed to images of truckloads of excited tourists surrounding a pack of sleepy lions or a lone cheetah resting under a tree somewhere in Africa.
The global tourist industry aggressively attempts to cater to millions of people who traverse the globe in search of such rare, exotic experiences. In 2009, the United Nations World Tourism Organization estimated that about 880 million people engaged in international travel. To make such travel possible, less stressful and luxurious involves the production of huge quantities of a whole range of products – food, bottled water, beds, blankets, toiletries and so on. But the daily crowding around historic sites, natural sanctuaries and other exotic attractions by fascinated, wide-eyed and noisy tourists tended to destroy their uniqueness and attractiveness. The full implication of mass visits to areas with fragile ecosystems is not hard to imagine.
But there is another side to it. In many African countries, local people, on whose lands national parks, reserves or wildlife sanctuaries were established, have little to do with it. Most were set up during the heyday of colonialism and with disregard to local people's land rights. They were (and still are) managed by large, somewhat rigid national bureaucracies which have largely been insensitive to needs and aspirations of the people. And beasts being beasts, wild animals often stray from the unfenced parks killing some of the local people, maiming others or destroying livelihoods. In Kenya for instance, when your relative is mauled by a lion or killed by a rogue elephant, you are bound to wait for ages before anyone accepts liability and feels obliged to compensate you. Even then, the set "reimbursement" is a paltry $450, despite recent efforts to raise the cap.
Many of the parks are unfenced and so wild animals routinely stray into private people's ranches and farms, where they come into real conflict with the owners. In addition to killing residents, they also destroy property. In the photo on the left, elephants have damaged a resident's banana plantation in the Imenti North area of Eastern Kenya. (Photo by John Mbaria)
At the same time, the biggest proportion of the tourist infrastructure in many African countries is in the hands of subsidiaries of big corporations in the West who get their food and other goods from well established outlets, not the local markets. If they are lucky, a few local people get menial jobs as luggage handlers, sweepers, ground maintainers or dancers.
A report from the UN Conference on Trade and Development in 2007 indicated that as much as 85 percent of the cash generated from the tourism sector in some African countries is spent outside of the countries themselves. Such statistics have greatly boosted claims made by critics that mass tourism is quite unattractive, exploitative, and not unsustainable. Probably the most memorable take by any critic was made by Jeremy Seabrook, a freelance journalist based in the UK:
“Tourism consumes the places on which it alights, predatory, omnivorous and yet protected from any contact with disagreeable realities like poverty, squalor, crime and violence. It sanitizes and cleanses, offering people an experience prepackaged in the great factory of illusion, sensations crafted by an industry which masks real relationships in the world. “
It is therefore not by chance that the world has embraced new forms of travel, and particularly ecotourism. Those promoting ecotourism have crafted high-sounding rhetoric to galvanize global support for it. It is often hailed as “respectful travel,” one that promotes the goals of poverty reduction, fair trade, peace and mutual understanding and respect between societies.
Given that, it’s understandable why many would support ecotourism. But while working as a journalist in Kenya, I came to believe that the reality of ecotourism is at total odds with the picture painted by the promoters in tourist brochures.
With 55 national parks and wildlife reserves, Kenya still hosts huge slices of the wilderness where one can go out there, silently gaze at it all and – if lucky – get the rare opportunity to ponder how insignificant humans are in the natural order of things. Some of the places have virgin, pristine wilderness, undisturbed by human frailties and almost yearning to be discovered.
Before the advent of colonialism in the late 1890s, this wilderness was the property of local ethnic groups that had safeguarded it for hundreds of years. The traditional communities used just as much land as was necessary and preserved many of the natural systems through a combination of unwritten rules, spiritual codes, taboos and myths. But with colonialism came a social and legal order that was introduced by outsiders who determined that the local people's historic attachment to the land was too nomadic to be accorded any legal protection.
To date, Kenya's natural diversity has few parallels anywhere in the world. The biggest percentage of this wealth is managed by a public corporation, the Kenya Wildlife Service, whose paramilitary staff wields the big stick to protect elephants, beetles and everything in between. To facilitate its operation, the Service collects every cent generated from park-gate collections and leasing land to hoteliers and lodge owners, and transfers the funds from the parks in the countryside to its head office in Nairobi.
The need for “responsible travel” became more imminent for Kenya as well as other countries within the tropics – because of a need to preserve a natural buffer. Like other sub-Saharan countries, Kenya is constantly ravaged by frequent and biting droughts as well as destructive floods occasioned by rising global temperatures and the inability of the now-degraded land to shield local people.
More importantly, ecotourism was seen as the long-awaited “savior” because most of the country's wildlife dominated areas have fragile ecosystems that threatened to degenerate into dust bowls if nothing was done to stop thousands of vans crisscrossing parks in search of the few remaining carnivores. For some of the animals – like the cheetah — day-long visitations by hordes of adoring, fascinated, camera-clicking gazers prevented them from mating, hunting or performing other biological functions.
It was clear that something needed to change. But what?
Read the second part of this series on Friday.