Whenever we hear the word "travel," most people immediately conjure images of pristine beaches and blue water. There are quite a few places like this on earth, but not all of them can still offer an authentic sense and feel of belonging as does the Eixo Forte region of the Amazon, near Santarém, Brazil. In February, I accompanied our first small group of visitors to the region as "beta test" for the communities' ecotourism initiative.
Community Empowerment Network, the Ferndale-based nonprofit I started, has been assisting the 16 communities in the region develop community-based tourism to create sustainable livelihoods for families in the region that reflect their way of life, improve economic levels and retain the local ecology. For the past two years we've facilitated the communities' efforts to define their own vision for development, create a comprehensive plan and start implementing the plan. Our visit was an important milestone in this process.
While the Brazilian economy has enjoyed steady growth over the past five years, 45 percent of the region's residents remain in extreme poverty and earn less than $2 a day. Most families continue to eke out an existence based on the substance farming of manioc, which generates little income.
Due to its proximity to the city of Santarém, the region is attracting development by outsiders, largely without regard for impact on the environment and local communities. The region is also under the threat of increased deforestation from development and nearby soy production.
Few opportunities exist for the local populations to fully and gainfully participate in these economic opportunities and the essential decision-making processes that affect their communities and environment. Unless the local communities acquire the skills and resources to drive the process, they will remain bystanders of development with few economic gains for themselves and risk losing their lifestyle, culture and ecological base.
The pace of life in these tiny communities is still much the way it was 100 years ago, defined by harmony with nature and their surroundings. This trip provided the tourists the opportunity to interact and share with residents and their families informally, while making a lasting contribution to their community by supporting their initiatives, as well as by mutually sharing perceptions, thoughts and experiences.
Tourists stayed in thatched roof lodges and local families' houses, canoed with local guides in the streams, hiked the rainforest, experienced folkloric culture, shared traditional meals with their hosts and discussed the project trip expectations and community plans with the leaders of the communities.
Living like a local sounds romantic - and it can be. Especially when you walk out of your bedroom and the first thing you see is a monkey or an actual açai tree (the same açai you know so well from your local juice bar - did you ever wonder what it looked like?).
The first Community Empowerment Network tourists sensed how much of a "novelty" they were, most of the locals had never even met foreign visitors! The goal of the trip was not only to promote the region as a destination in its own right, but to promote the idea of ecotourism to locals as a method of viable self-sustainability. A difficulty here lies in changing the inherent farmer and gatherer mentality that has been their tradition for generations.
Ron Harmon, one of the trip participants, said he was "pleasantly surprised at how sophisticated (the members of the community) were in terms of community and community organization. ... The older members of the community were very well informed, very thoughtful, very articulate. They are thinking about how to preserve their communities and develop resources to do that."
This development of ecotourism will aid in the funding and maintaining of local infrastructure and communications, which in turn will further encourage communities to retain their identities in order to share their local culture with future tourists.
We are now in the process of planning another trip this summer, and are also able to help facilitate visits by individuals. Anyone who is interested should contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ferndale resident Bob Bortner is the founder and director of the Community Empowerment Network, a nonprofit organization that empowers rural communities to become self-reliant so they are able to better address their own development. For information go online at endruralpoverty.org. Bob has more than 25 years experience in economic development and has a master's degree from the Johns Hopkins Nitze School of Advanced International Relations.
Window On My World is an occasional essay in Monday's Bellingham Herald that allows Whatcom County residents to share their passion for what they do, an idea or cause they support. Send your Window On My World, which must be no more than 700 words, to Julie.email@example.com.