Santa Anita La Union Redefines Ecotourism…

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The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as, “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” This idea appeals many socially conscious individuals because it incorporates travel to exotic locations with service projects, education and unique cultural experiences.

However, part of the problem with ecotourism is that outside of what TIES states on it’s web-site, you won’t find an actual definition for the word ecotourism anywhere. In some places I’ve travelled local tour operators consider it to be renting you a gas guzzling four wheel drive jeep to drive through jungle for the day.

Regardless, ecotourism brings with it certain characteristics of voyeurism. Its growing popularity has become an outlet for westerners looking for adventurous ways to escape their daily routines for two weeks a year, without making a long term commitment to the places they visit.

The desire for short term volunteer opportunities in impoverished rural Central American communities has created a kind of fast food market for ecotourism in Guatemala. Communities that are struggling to maintain traditional cultures often agree to host and feed volunteers as a quick way to generate desperately needed revenues. In many cases this is done without first developing a concrete plan for how outside resources and ideas can benefit their communities. To many foreigners this sort of advertising is an invitation to shoot photographs of peoples everyday lives without consent. This creates feelings resentment by residents within communities open to ecotourism towards visitors, who without knowing it behave as if it is their right to make a spectacle of people who’ve not been afforded the same privileges they have.

The short-term influx of quick revenue and foreigners though ecotourism has brought a number of communities more trouble than it’s been worth. Often projects are started and never completed and promises are made and never followed through on. Santa Anita is working to change this, by focusing on clearly defining what ecotourism means to them as a community. The ecotourism program was created and is managed by the women of Santa-Anita, who intend it to serve, the dual purpose of providing funds for community development and increased income for members of the community.” The community views ecotourism as, “a way for finca members to share their knowledge and stories and as well as a way for groups and individuals to participate and learn about the community, its agriculture, and its history.”

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Members of the Santa Anita view volunteer work as an act of solidarity in accordance with the visions, goals and directly democratic approach to government within their community. After talking with the women who run Santa Anita’s ecotourism program about their efforts give new meaning to the term ecotourism, and establish parameters for how volunteer labor can be best used within their community, I found that a rough guide to what Santa Anita expected to gain by opening the community to foreigners existed in their minds but nothing was written down.

One of the main concerns expressed by the women was a desire to learn how to create models of self sufficiency within the community, to serve as a means for continuing to promote and generate revenue through ecotourism without dependence on outside assistance.

They explained there is really no need for long term volunteers to come Santa Anita to do work for the community. What is needed is for people to come to Santa Anita and share with the community new skills which will benefit the people of Santa Anita in the future.

For example the community of Santa Anita does not need a somebody to provide technical support for their web-site and respond to e-mails about volunteer inquiries. What the community of Santa Anita needs, is somebody who is willing to give workshops and training on how to use a computer, check e-mails and maintain a web-site. So when they leave, the people of Santa Anita will have knowledge of how to maintain their own web-site, and respond to e-mails from interested volunteers.

Another concern expressed in line with the context of this article was a desire to eliminate the voyeuristic aspects of ecotourism. This can be accomplished by encouraging volunteers to continue to offer support and mutual aide to the Santa Anita community when they return home to their communities. By extending the volunteer experience beyond Santa Anita and into peoples home communities volunteers can become part of building a stronger solidarity movement with Guatemalan coffee farmers and banana growers.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. I’m opening up the comment section to discussion about things that volunteers can continue to do to support Santa Anita when the return to their home communities?If you’ve volunteered at Santa Anita for any period of time please take a moment to think about this and post a reply with three simple things you can do to continue to offer mutual aide to Santa Anita from your home community.

post written by, Chris Heneghan

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