Charles Munn, a pioneer of South American ecotourism, answers questions
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?