In 2010, Brazil was the third most popular tourist destination in Latin America, bringing in 5.1 million visitors. This number is expected to skyrocket in upcoming years as Brazil hosts the World Cup in 2014 and the summer Olympics in 2016. As in any country with this number of visitors, the tourism industry is bound to be extremely lucrative. But lucrative for whom? Ideally, an increase in tourists would benefit the whole of the country. However, this is rarely the case.
I recently spent six months living and attending university in Nairobi, Kenya. Like any tourist spending time in East Africa, I wanted to see the big five animals (lions, leopards, elephants, hippos, and rhinos), and booked a safari for myself and three of my friends. The most popular place for a safari in Kenya is in the southwest region of the country, an area called Maasai Mara. It’s named after its indigenous inhabitants, the Maasai – an ethnic group that’s likely to come to mind when you think of Kenya. They are a tall, lean people who are known for their warriors as well as the colorful beads that they use to create necklaces, beads, earrings, and other ornamentation for their bodies.
On any given weekend in Nairobi, Maasai markets pop up around nearly every corner. Their crafts are prized by expats and visitors alike, and their dancing is an attraction to many a tourist in hotels, resorts, and cultural-performance centers. This is why I was surprised at how little a presence the Maasai had in the game park. While some of the guides were of Maasai descent, they dressed in the Western idea of how a safari guide should be dressed – khakis and wide-brimmed hats (I expect this is to make the tourists feel less ridiculous in their own khaki outfits, mosquito-net covered hats, and hiking boots – keep in mind that guides and tourists alike spend 80% of the day sitting in a jeep and poking their head out of the windows, an activity that doesn't really require heavy-duty ankle support). I spoke to one of the uniformed Maasai guides from a different tour group, and he told me that he only dresses like that for work. On a normal day, he prefers his traditional robes.
Unlike the other safari companies, the tour we took was partnered with some of the local Maasai people. This meant that while our main guard was from the Kenya coast, we rode with a young Maasai man, traditional robes and all. He was excellent at spotting animals hidden by the terrain, and he knew the park like it was his own backyard, which technically it was. I was really happy with the way that my safari company drew on the expertise of the local community. While other companies had inserted themselves into the region and assimilated the locals into their Western vision, my company was closely partnered with the Maasai, who were able to directly profit from their traditional culture and skills (as well as give a better tour).
Unfortunately, tourism companies like this one are few and far between. In most cases, tourism will naturally make its way into certain regions based on their proximity to larger cities and natural attractions. When this happens, large tourism companies dominate the market, leaving local communities to watch as bystanders while outsiders reap all the benefits of their home. This also puts the locals in danger of losing the culture that is uniquely theirs as a result of following the rules and regulations that the outside companies enforce.
CEN is working to counter this phenomenon. We realize that local residents should be reaping economic gain from an increase in tourism. The indigenous people of the Brazilian Amazon should be seeing an improvement in their lives and well-being as they see more foreigners coming through. CEN realizes that in order for this to happen, the local communities need to be prepared before they see this influx. This means that the infrastructure and social institutions needed to support tourism have to be solidly put in place before they can host visitors.
Through CENs eco-tourism program in the Eixo Forte (Juá) community, CEN focuses on building the community to become self-sustaining and successful on its own, encouraging locals to create ideas of ways to improve the area in which they live. Visitors to the Eixo Forte Region can then be invited into these communities to learn about and experience their unique culture in its organic state. This creates a sustainable source of income and enterprise in the region; it is a type of tourism directly benefits locals.
Had there been a presence such as CEN in the Maasai region years prior to the increase of westerners going on safari, I expect that the local Maasai people would have a much firmer hold on activities in the national park in their backyard. Had they been able to build themselves up initially and capitalize on the increasing foreign interest, their lives as a whole might be drastically different today. Rather than taking a backseat to what happens in the Mara, they would have been the drivers. And who better to drive that industry than those who have spent their whole lives in the region? Local communities should be able to take control of their own land and economic growth, and CEN strives to make this possible.