HOSTS AND HOSTS: THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF COMMUNITY-BASED ECOTOURISM IN THE PERUVIAN AMAZON

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Abstract

For environmental anthropologists, ecotourism is an especially timely and practical topic. Increasingly, anthropologists are talking with conservationists, development specialists, tour operators, policy-makers, and local leaders about ecotourism and its impacts on local communities and ecosystems. This is good, as anthropologists are especially well suited to focus ethnographic attention on the general but critical question of what happens when people in host destinations near and in protected areas become involved in ecotourism. Do local “hosts” become etter stewards of wildlife, forests, and other ecosystems when ecotourism is introduced? If so, what is the process by which that happens, and what are the challenges along the way? This paper highlights various methods and insights gained during four years of research on a community-based ecotourism lodge called Posada Amazonas, located in Madre de Dios, Peru. As a joint business venture between a private company and a local community, Posada Amazonas represents a new standard for local participation in ecotourism. Here, members of the local community of Infierno work not only as boat drivers, cooks, and guides, but also as directors, owners, and decision-makers in the company. Learning and telling the story of Posada Amazonas ethnographically and from both sides of the partnership allowed me to move beyond a standard impact study of costs and benefits. Anthropological analysis entailed adding nuance to “the local community” and unraveling why people were or were not choosing to participate in ecotourism, and how their decisions were often related to social and cultural roles and perceptions. The ethnographic approach also led to analyses of processes and impacts—that is, how and why there were gains and losses in Infierno, in addition to what the changes were. Answers to these types of questions can have important implications for conservation, beyond calculating jobs gained or income earned. Finally, in addition to deepening the analysis of ecotourism, anthropologists can play important roles as cultural brokers between ecotourism partners, helping to facilitate communication across an array of perspectives and expectations.

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