What work do you do?
I am chair of the board of Tropical Nature, a nonprofit conservation group specializing in conservation through ecotourism.
What does your organization do?
We run the world’s largest network of eco-lodges in tropical rainforest — in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Brazil. We also consult for rainforest and tropical ecotourism companies and for government tourism ministries in a number of countries of Central America and the Caribbean, as well as in China and Gabon. We use ecotourism as an effective conservation tool to add value to tropical rainforests and thus make them worth more standing than cut.
We think that most so-called ecotourism has little to do with anything truly eco, and that most tourism in tropical rainforests is a boring, hot, sometimes buggy disappointment. But it does not have to be that way — and that is why we created Tropical Nature. We specialize in offering the finest wildlife viewing in rainforests.
How do you get to work?
Half the time, I work out of a small office in my home in a forest near Baltimore, Md. The other half of the time, I am visiting one of our project sites, or possible new project sites, in the tropics.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
In the ’80s I completed a master’s in zoology at Oxford, and a Ph.D. in biology at Princeton. From there, I went immediately into field research on macaws in the rainforests of Peru, as a field biologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
From 1980 through today, I have tested and refined a series of techniques for making tropical forests come alive, through the electronic and print media, and through new models of ecotourism. Our ecotourism tests then became a conservation method, and we have expanded this successful method to create the network of tour lodges that we run today. By 2000, it was clear that applying our research findings about rare, attractive wildlife to create local jobs in ecotourism was a better conservation method than pure research alone. Research did not create enough jobs or alternatives for the local people, who often hunted rare wildlife and cut forest in national parks out of desperation rather than any malice. Tropical Nature was a direct response to our desire to create lots of high-quality, sustainable jobs in conservation-oriented nature tourism in tropical forests.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Baltimore. After decades of living in Peru and Brazil, I am back to my roots, based in Baltimore again.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
When a corrupt government minister in Peru tried to imprison me and destroy our conservation system to stop our team from organizing local forest peoples in the Peruvian Amazon to protect their forestlands from the minister’s land grab.
What’s been the best?
When that minister went to prison, in 2001 — he remains in prison to this day.
Also, when the Connecticut-sized Tambopata-Candamo Reserved Zone in Peru and the adjoining New Jersey-sized Madidi National Park in Bolivia were declared (in 1990 and 1995, respectively). We spearheaded the effort to create both parks, which seemed outrageously ambitious at the time we proposed them. But they happened! These twin parks are the most biologically diverse protected areas on Earth — full stop.
Who is your environmental hero?
Our Peruvian conservation executive, biologist Daniel Blanco, who ran our entire Peruvian system during the attacks on our conservation system by the corrupt minister. Daniel received frequent, telephoned death threats from the minister’s goons. He stuck it out there and saved our system (through clever legal maneuvers) while I had to duck the direct attacks by leaving Peru for a year to keep from being imprisoned on trumped-up charges.
What’s your environmental vice?
My work requires me to fly a lot on jets, thus generating a significant carbon footprint. But I hope our creation of 12 million acres of tropical forest parks in Peru and Bolivia and the protection of a few million more acres of parks through our ecotourism work offsets my jetting around. We hope that the parks we have established become ever more powerful nature fortresses that protect themselves through well-designed ecotourism, thus ensuring that this carbon stays locked up forever.
How do you spend your free time?
I go to see more national parks — especially in Brazil, where they have such an amazing, and relatively poorly publicized system of parks.
Read any good books lately?
I am enjoying Tom Friedman’s The World Is Flat.
What’s your favorite meal?
Ceviche — Peruvian-style raw fish marinated in lime juice with spices and hot peppers.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
The ancient, rusting, sticker-covered Volvo wagon — 23 years old. A rolling billboard promoting nature conservation.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
The luxuriant, forest-savannah mosaic known as the Pantanal, in central western Brazil. It is simply the biggest wildlife spectacle of Latin America. Harbors the world’s largest jaguars, world’s largest parrots (hyacinth macaw), world’s largest snakes (anaconda), world’s largest otter, and many other species of wildlife, often in incredibly high densities. What amazing clouds and sunsets there. No malaria or other nasty diseases. Closest thing to an East African photo safari in the New World.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
That eating vegan be promoted and become the accepted norm. Eating lower on the food chain would allow us to save an enormous amount of nature around the globe.
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
What’s your favorite TV show?
Which actor would play you in the story of your life?
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Tropic of Answer
Ecotourism is promoted as a sustainable alternative to industrial development; however, ecotourism does not generate the same immediate financial returns as industrial development. How can activists formulate their argument when aiming to save pristine areas from mining through promoting ecotourism? — Jacqueline Obando, Pretoria, South Africa
Well, yes, a gold mine, diamond mine, or oil well is going to be hard to compete with in terms of gross revenues. But most places in the world don’t have large gold deposits or oil fields, so it normally is not a problem we have to face. In general, we avoid areas where there is large potential for industrial development or mining, as we know we cannot compete there in terms of job creation and political power. If some amazing, unique biological feature lies in an area of major gold mining or oil production, we would still consider ecotourism-investment there. In such a situation, however, we would go into it knowing that at best we might be able to create just enough jobs and economic activity to prevent the mining or oil production from destroying the biological wonders.
How do you facilitate so that all in a community benefit from an ecotourism venture? Often men, the most vocal, and those taking leadership roles in a community benefit the most. — Jacqueline Obando, Pretoria, South Africa
We ensure that each family in the community is an equal shareholder in the lodge and that all qualified community members who complete job training then participate equally in work rotations at their own lodge. Some of the community members show more ability than others at harder, higher-paying jobs in their lodge, such as chef or forest guide, and they do receive a higher salary for this harder, more skilled work. But, in general, between the even shares owned by each family member and the meritocracy and universal right to work, the benefits are quite widely distributed.
I have grave moral reservations about traveling to “Third World” countries; that sort of tourism seems to encourage, if not racism explicitly, at least a certain sense that some races or nations do well to be servants of other races or nations. How do you defend ecotourism against such charges? — Mark Stephen Caponigro, New York, N.Y.
If you were to ask local Amerindians such as the Quichua of Napo Wildlife Center about their views of showing foreigners around their rainforest lands, they would tell you that they are proud to show off their homelands and make a living doing it. And they would also say that the alternatives (cutting the forest to sell the trees or to grow subsistence crops, or working wage labor for the polluting oil companies) are far less appealing and offer them much less chance to protect their culture. While we agree that the risk does exist of having racism creep into ecotourism, we are sure that it is a much more manageable risk than those faced by indigenous people who feel forced into either cutting the forest or working for callous oil companies.
Do you ever see a “budget” ecolodge in the future — a place where the average family of four can afford to make a trip every year? — Jon Current, Hillsboro, Ore.
A family of four would find the airfare to be one of the most expensive items — if you could go to Peru in its low-travel months (November, February, March, and April), or to Costa Rica in its low-travel months (September, October, and November), you could probably get much better prices on airfare and have enough money left over to visit a good ecolodge. Within the Tropical Nature system, for instance, Sandoval Lake Lodge, in Peru, would be affordable for you if you could find a good deal on off-peak air travel. And we offer discounts and deals for families, which also helps make our lodges affordable.
How can a newcomer get involved in ecotourism? — James Jedibudiah, Madison, Wis.
Read all about it, and if possible, volunteer at some sites where you feel comfortable learning the language. If you lack the financial ability to volunteer, try studying for and applying to guiding or ranger positions in the U.S. to build up some savings so you can then consider making the leap to other countries. If you want to be guiding in the field, you can study the fauna and flora of distant lands before you ever even reach them. In your case, not only could you benefit from studying guide books and nature handbooks in good science libraries (like the University of Wisconsin-Madison), but you also could benefit from studying the immense (off-display) biological collections and scientific libraries at leading natural-history museums (notably the Field Museum in Chicago, which is not too far from you).
I’m working in a town with no love for a well-educated environmentalist, and I’m looking for job opportunities elsewhere. Can I be of assistance? — Claude Chandler, Chesterton, Ind.
Perhaps, but the first question always is: Do you speak Spanish or Portuguese, and if not, what are your skills and job experience?
What is your opinion of certification systems for ecotourism? Are your lodges certified by any of the existing standards like Green Globe 21? — Michelle Knab, Santa Barbara, Calif.
I think that the certification idea is a good one, but I am not familiar enough with the different options. We will look into Green Globe 21 and see how it works. Some of the certification efforts we have examined in the past did not appear to verify at the ground level which lodges were truly green versus brown covered with green marketing facade.
Can eco-travel be accessible to the mildly disabled? I think of people like myself — arthritic, ambulatory, but often slow and a bit clumsy. I’m a walker but have no interest in carrying all my own food and camping equipment in a backpack. — Rebecca Phillips, Marietta, Ohio
At Sandoval Lake Lodge in Peru and at Santa Tereza Lodge in the Pantanal of Brazil, we have made it easy for people with physical limitations to enjoy nature to the fullest. Neither requires much more than a five-minute walk (or even a 30-second walk or wheelchair ride in the case of Santa Tereza), and the outings at both lodges are by boat or car, so almost no self-propelled locomotion is required.
I operate a large nonprofit recycling organization in Colorado. When I travel, I see the world flooded with trash, especially plastics, even at “eco” locations. Is anyone working to help the ecotourism industry gets its act together so that there will never be another “ecolodge” without recycling? — Eric Lombardi, Boulder, Colo.
The question of recycling at ecolodges is an interesting and knotty one. Help us analyze this, please. Environmental Defense told us years ago that if we were going to have to consume significant amounts of fossil fuels to transport plastics or glass from our remote lodges to urban recycling sites or dumps, that it might be more justified to simply bury these items properly on site so as to prevent adding insult to injury. We do separate and recycle when feasible, but I don’t think that makes sense all the time for lodges that are too distant from the closest recycling location.
I noticed you said your favorite meal is ceviche. If you were able to institute an environmental reform where everyone was to become a vegan, would you include yourself and be able to give up ceviche? — Gill Brociner, New York, N.Y.
I agree that ceviche is a problem, and I realize that it contradicts my call to eat vegan. But, yes, if good vegan fare were easily available, I could give up ceviche.
What suggestions do you have for promoting a vegan or vegetarian diet? — Marylou Noble, Portland, Ore.
The main problem for me has always been lack of interesting spicing and preparation options. A chef from Lima who worked for our system amazed me with very tasty dishes made from texturized soy protein — dishes that were quite delicious and interesting. It would seem to me that with proper spicing and preparation, vegan fare can rise to the level of the best carnivorous fare.
What are your thoughts on keeping macaws as pets? — Mark Stephen Caponigro, New York, N.Y.
I would not do it, but I know many people who do. I used to think keeping macaws was uniformly, universally bad. But now that I have seen how well many people treat their pet macaws, I have come to accept the practice on a case-by-case basis. The key is quality of life — many, but not all, people take excellent care of their macaws. Nevertheless, I do not recommend that people get macaws as pets (too loud, too neurotic, too complicated). I will never own one myself.
If you are worried about your carbon lifestyle of jetting to South America and back, why not offset your carbon-producing flights with companies like Carbonfund.org, the Solar Electric Light Fund, NativeEnergy, TerraPass, or Sustainable Travel International? — Kim Fortin, Minneapolis, Minn.
Thanks for these useful suggestions, which I had not heard of before.
My husband and I recently returned from a trip to Peru and Ecuador. I was shocked to see the massive prevalence of Australian eucalyptus. What is your opinion of the situation in Peru? — Katherine Austin, Sebastopol, Calif.
Although not an expert on the issue of carbon sinks and eucalyptus, I feel that it is quite unfortunate that the amazingly diverse high-elevation forests of Peru and Ecuador have given way to this biologically sterile Australian monoculture. Our projects in the cloud forests of Manu (Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge) are protecting original cloud forest from conversion to eucalyptus.
I will be visiting Peru for two weeks this July. Hotel plans are already arranged, but I’d love to visit some of the lodges featured on your website. Are there any day trips available? Can you suggest any other great trips and sights to see in Peru? — Morgan Poncelet, Fremont, Calif.
You may have arranged hotels through our conservation system already and not even know it! Our conservation system has web portals and web pages that offer hotels in Peru. Anyway, yes, there are a number of good options for day trips, but please email us and we can talk to you about options, some just outside of Lima and others outside of Cusco.
I work in southwestern China’s Yunnan province. One challenge faced by ecotourism in this area is effectively accommodating local culture and preferences; for example, many of the “best” destinations are sacred to local people. Has Tropical Nature faced issues of local cultural demands or protection of sacred lands in South America? — E. Pay, Kunming, China
We would not take tourists to any location that could not be visited while respecting the beliefs and customs of local cultures. So far this has not been an issue, but if the issue were to arise, we would try to design trips or outings in conjunction with leaders from the local cultures such that their culture is respected.
How do you really, truly, keep whole the soul of a place and a people who are connecting with tourists daily? No matter best intentions, people get burned out answering questions about their heritage or lifestyle, or they become envious of the outsiders’ stuff — their binoculars, their Ray-Bans, whatever. How has Tropical Nature dealt with the negative aspects of exploitation, even though that exploitation is welcomed by the people and needed for conservation efforts? This haunts me, as a sustainable-tourism expert. — Anne Markward, Durango, Colo.
An excellent question that also haunts us. It is hard to strike the balance, but we feel that indigenous people who have significant, reliable income from protecting and showcasing tropical biodiversity are in a much better position to design systems to prevent burnout and loss of their culture than are those who are desperately scratching out an existence by deforesting poor tropical soils and frantically hunting all the game animals to sell the meat illegally to restaurants and meat markets in tropical towns.
Over 20 years of working with traditional peoples in the Peruvian Amazon, we have found that the increased pride in being forest peoples and knowing a lot about the biodiversity and making good money from protecting that biodiversity leads Indians to push back against the loss of their language and culture. Rotation of workers and continual training in total quality and in new aspects of biodiversity service industries can keep people excited about their work rather than burned out. The great thing about the tropical rainforest is that it is so diverse that there always are new biodiversity frontiers to be explored, protected, and showcased.
We are heartened by the fact that some of the jungle executives in our system are traditional Amerindians who now have the wherewithal to promote their own culture much more than they did when they were poorly paid laborers for illegal mahogany loggers. They know we respect and value their culture and traditional knowledge, and rather than burn out, they are learning more Western techniques while teaching us more of their traditional jungle secrets. Typically, their jungle knowledge is more interesting and more useful commercially for ecotourism development than are our Western techniques, which already are both well-known and much easier to duplicate.