A few weeks back, I wrote a post about mixing work with play, and how I’m using this trip partially as a professional development opportunity. Well, in addition to the WTFs and the Pictures of the Week, I’m starting a new regular installment of posts, Industry Bloggin’, when my responsible tourism articles are published on the web. This week, check out the story I wrote for Sustainable Travel International’s monthly e-News about my friend Peter Shear and the great work he is doing in Ecuador. You can find the original at this link or copied below.
Featured Article: Community-based Tourism is Changing Lives in Rural Ecuador
By Ted Martens
Pucara, Intag River Valley, Ecuador – The Intag River Valley, a gorgeous and lush mountain landscape northwest of Quito, is home to one of the most bio-diverse zones in all of Ecuador (a UNESCO biodiversity “hot-spot” and deemed one of the 10 most bio-diverse ecosystems in the world, due largely to its extreme elevation change – sea level to 11,000 ft in only a couple dozen miles). In addition to its one-of-a-kind forests, flora, and fauna, the region is also home to a wealth of valuable minerals and ores beneath its surface. A number of mining enterprises are in pursuit of digging rights, and many locals are tempted by the short-term financial returns promised by these companies. Without a financially viable alternative, the region is doomed to be exploited and destroyed by the mining industry.
Pucara, a small Intag community of roughly 300 residents, is confronting these challenges with the help of The Inter-American Center for the Arts, Sustainability, and Action (CASA), an NGO committed to helping rural communities realize sustainable economic development opportunities. CASA Director Peter Shear, an American who has lived in Ecuador for over 12 years, is working closely with the Pucara community to develop viable economic alternatives to combat urban migration and unsustainable resource extraction.
While CASA’s projects span a wide range of economic development initiatives, a core component is community-based and volunteer tourism. For over 7 years, CASA has been bringing groups of student and young-adult volunteers to the area, working side by side with the locals to build community projects and infrastructure that benefit the residents and the community at large. Volunteers participate in “mingas”, organized project days where residents come together to work on a particular construction, farming, conservation, or other community-benefiting initiative. Funding for minga projects comes from local sources, as well as money raised by volunteers prior to their trips. To date, CASA volunteer tourism projects have included:
- Building homes for residents in need (recipients of the homes were chosen by a community housing board that accepted applications and prioritized based on economic and social factors).
- Construction of a community center for meetings, events, celebrations, weddings, etc. The center is the largest of its kind in all of Intag, and has turned into a source of revenue for Pucara, as neighboring communities have begun renting it out. Proceeds from this program now pay for transportation for Pucara students to attend high school in the neighboring community of Apuela (prior to this program, most kids in Pucara did not attend high school due to the prohibitive transportation costs).
- Purchase of land and construction of community organic gardens.
- Purchase of land and construction of community farms. Some of the poorest residents in town have no land, and were in need of space for subsistence farming.
- Construction of solar hot water showers for community use.
- Construction of soccer field facilities.
- Conservation through land purchasing, reforestation, and preservation.
- Education through organic and agro-ecological farming instruction and testing.
- Construction of community-based tourism facilities, including the Intag Spanish School (which employs 4 local women who otherwise would have little or no income); a trail network through the town and the protected area; and other visitor infrastructure.
This impressive list of projects, while organized and guided by CASA, was driven primarily by community initiation, participation, and democratic decision making. The result is a community with a much richer set of resources and infrastructure for creating new economic opportunities for local residents.
One of the most lucrative opportunities that has arisen from CASA’s work in Pucara is a well organized community-based tourism infrastructure. While initially developed primarily for the volunteers, Pucara is now well equipped and actively receiving independent travelers interested in an authentic experience interacting with rural Ecuadorian families and communities. A rotating homestay program with 20 participating local families allows travelers the chance to live, eat, sleep, and participate in lives of the residents of Pucara for US $10 dollars per night (which includes 3 meals). The rotating nature of the program ensures an equal distribution to families throughout the community. The CASA-established Spanish school, the first of its kind in Intag, allows travelers to hone their language skills while supporting local women teachers, all of which are government-certified. Travelers pay US $6 per hour for private lessons. Of course, there are always volunteer opportunities available, independently or through community mingas. The Intag River Valley also has a wealth of activities to offer visitors, from guided or independent hikes through protected areas and native cloud forest, to natural hot springs, local markets, and agro-ecological tours.
The Intag Valley (and most of rural Ecuador) is faced with a growing number of challenges in an increasingly globalized economy. With the majority of the younger working class fleeing traditional farming for greater financial opportunities in urban areas, Intag residents face an uncertain future. While the proposed mining project would reverse this trend and bring short-term returns to these poor regions (local jobs, mining subsidies, etc), the long-term environmental impacts would be disastrous. Volunteer and community tourism is one example of a successful alternative sustainable economic development model that is bringing similar benefits to the local population, allowing these communities to preserve their heritage, culture, and environment.
Ted Martens is STI’s former Director of Outreach. He is taking a yearlong sabbatical to explore the world and indulge his passion for learning about the latest and most innovative developments in sustainable travel. Keep in an eye out for Ted’s latest dispatches from across the globe in future editions of The Responsible Travel Report.