Preaching the gospel of ecotourism
Costas Christ has a knack for handling sticky situations. I got a glimpse of this as I was making my way home from an ecotourism conference in Senegal in the early 1990s. Along with a number of other conference participants, I was stuck in the airport in the capital city of Dakar. For some unknown reason, the ticket agents had stalled us, so we were doing what American ecotourists often do when the Third World reveals itself as more than rainforests and beaches — we were freaking out. What kind of government did Senegal have, anyway? Were there jails under the stadium?
Costas Christ, who had been on the trip with us, calmly came to our rescue. A loose-limbed man with an explosion of curly hair and an easy laugh, he was one of the only ecotourism experts at the time who was familiar with Africa. He had spent 20 years living and working on the continent and operated an ecotourism business called Tamu Safaris. He collected our passports and tickets and shuttled to different desks in the airport, returning with stamps, customs forms, and bits of comforting information. He got us all safely on our plane and headed home.
I ran into Costas again at a conference in Venezuela and was impressed by his genuine desire to make ecotourism — a field that is rich in theory and poor in on-the-ground successes — really work. He believes ecotourism is the best means for making environmental protection economically possible in the Third World.
In the summer of 1998, Costas made a career switch and became head of the Peace Corps in Uganda. Within weeks of his arrival, the situation in the country got tense. “The rebels in Congo were vowing to do everything possible to undermine the movement of Uganda,” he says. “What better way to do this,” he recalls thinking to himself, “than to attack Bwindi National Park, the last great mountain gorilla sanctuary in Africa, where researchers, tourists, and Peace Corps volunteers were all located? Bwindi was Uganda’s economic and conservation success story. To me, it seemed like a dream target for the rebels.”
Photo: Art Wolfe, Inc.
Costas was convinced that the Peace Corps should suspend its operations in the park, but no one else was. “The terrain was too mountainous, people argued with me; the jungle too thick,” he says. “And the rebels had never been sighted anywhere near Bwindi. Everyone agreed that the rebels would never strike there.” Costas took a lot of flak from conservationists and volunteers alike, but he removed the park’s three Peace Corps volunteers anyway.
Four months later, at daybreak on March 1, 1999, the rebels attacked at Bwindi, kidnapping and murdering ecotourists at the park headquarters, killing Ugandan park rangers, and burning buildings to the ground, including those that had formerly housed Peace Corps volunteers.
“It was a nightmare,” said Costas. As the war escalated, he closed more than 20 Peace Corps projects, and eventually evacuated all of the group’s volunteers from Uganda. But he misses the country. “There’s incredible wildlife and wonderful people there,” he said. “The truth is, much of Africa is very peaceful.”
You Better Belize It
Now Costas has taken the helm of the Peace Corps in Belize. “Belize has a lot of environmental issues to hold my attention, and the nearby escapes to nature that I crave and need to survive,” he says.
He envisions two key roles for the Peace Corps when it comes to the environment in Belize. The first is educational outreach.
One Peace Corps volunteer has created a “watershed classroom” that goes from village to village along the Sibun River, with hands-on educational activities and “science experiments” geared toward teaching about river ecology and conservation.
Belize has incredible rivers, some of which are in pristine condition. The villagers who live on their banks depend on the rivers, but many of them have no real understanding of what a watershed is. “When there was a large fish kill in the New River in northern Belize, villagers didn’t understand what it was about,” he says. “Chemical and pesticide runoff from sugar-cane fields and waste from a timber factory on the river were dumping directly into the water and there is some very real likelihood that the fish kill was related to this pollution.”
Photo: Art Wolfe, Inc.
Costas’s second environmental goal in Belize is to help rural communities support themselves through wildlife conservation. Last fall, and again in January, manatees were slaughtered by villagers for meat in a poor, rural region of southern Belize. At the same time, tourists were visiting more developed parts of the country hoping to catch sight of one of these large marine mammals. Costas would like the Peace Corps to work with local conservation groups to set up the economic plumbing to funnel money from tourists to poor, rural residents in exchange for wildlife preservation.
Peace Corps volunteers have already played a key role in getting Hol Chan Marine Reserve established on Belize’s famous barrier reef, and many former fishers in the area have now become guides in the reserve. And near San Ignacio in western Belize, one volunteer helped create a farm that breeds iguanas for food, establishing an alternative to the hunting of wild iguanas, which are steadily disappearing.
“Ecotourism — responsible travel that conserves nature and sustains the well-being of local peoples — remains one of the few ways that a country like Belize, economically poor but rich in natural resources, can bring income into impoverished rural communities,” Costas says. “It’s not an exact science, but there have been a few significant successes along the way that have led to positive impacts on rural peoples’ lives and the nature that surrounds them. If I can build on those successes and contribute to them in my own work with the Peace Corps and beyond, then I’ll sleep better at night.”