Veronica Davidov

Veronica Davidov is a Russian-born cultural anthropologist specializing in issues of globalization and sustainable development and their impact on indigenous communities.  She holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from New York University. She conducts research in Ecuador, focusing on ecotourism and indigenous struggles for environmental and social justice.  She teaches in the Globalization and Development Program at the Faculty of Arts and Cultures at Maastricht University.

Ecotourism: A Case of "Green" Ethnocentrism?

Charter tourism is still in its prime, but along with the rising environmental awareness worldwide, a new and supposedly “better” genre of tourism is emerging—ecotourism embraces the principles of sustainable development concerning the economic, social and environmental impacts of tourism. It all sounds very good, but in this essay anthropologist Veronica Davidov questions this new genre of tourism to see how it produces an idealized and simplified perception of nature; the singular ‘lost’ nature rooted in the Western ecotopic values and beliefs that ‘natives’ must have access to forms of knowledge that the industrialized ‘we’ have lost. Does this assemblage a simple green primitivism, a new exoticism, or can ecotourism really help us understand and maintain our nature?

The Bushman Myth Revisited
In his compelling documentary "Death by Myth" anthropologist and ethnographic filmmaker John Marshall documents the policy shift from agriculture to wildlife management and ecotourism, affecting the Ju/'hoansi communities in the Kalahari desert of Namibia.  As the Ju/'hoansi unsuccessfully lobby for continued subsidies of their farms, they are interpolated into a new regime of value, one rooted in Western conservation ideology and implemented, against their wishes, by the governments and the foreign non-governmental consultants.  The ecotourism project that replaces their agricultural endeavours is belied by what John Marshall calls ‘the Bushman myth’: a belief, that the Bushmen are “the happy children of a Mother Nature generous enough to supply all they need, which is all they want. They share everything and live in perfect harmony with their environment and each other.”  “The Bushman myth,” says Marshall, “does not endow them with enough humanity to change their economy and survive.”  In the end the ecotourism project fails, after generating an income of barely over $10 per person during its two-year lifespan.  

An Example of “Good Practices” in Ecotourism?
Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve in Ecuador is a private reserve, which combines environmental conservation and ecotourism.  The tensions around this project are documented, albeit in a veiled way, in a publication put out by the World Tourism Organization, entitled "Sustainable Development of Ecotourism - A Compilation of Good Practices in SMEs" (World Tourism Organization: 2001). This publication was an attempt to create some kind of standard, based-in-case study comparative publication, evaluating various ecotourism enterprises around the world, and included profiles and assessments of ecotourism projects in Argentina, Israel, Madagascar, Ghana, and Ecuador.  The initiative for creating this ecotourism project did not come from the indigenous locals, but rather from foreign investors, fully funded by private contributors. One local community occasionally gets service jobs in the colonial-looking luxurious dome that serves as a hotel where visitors who want to stay overnight find food and lodging. Neighboring communities have had issues with the project.  The report phrases these disagreements thus: "the results of the educational effort undertaken in environmental conservation with the neighboring communities are expected to be forthcoming in the long-term, mainly because of the existence of different viewpoints due to the different cultures involved" in its "problems and their solutions" section.  This is followed by a statement that "the neighbours need time to grasp the goals of a project of this kind" in the "lessons learned section."  The euphemistic phrasing conceals what I heard from several local tour guides, who organize tours to Bellavista during my own fieldwork in the region: the project is very contained and localized, and while it provides jobs only for the locals who live in the immediate vicinity, the protected status of the larger land on which it is positioned prevents clearing land for agriculture. In other words, Bellavista takes away (non-conservation) agricultural opportunities for the neighbouring populations without offering much in return. Their concern is forest conservation, which they see as the good in and of itself; the locals haven't internalized the conservation discourse enough for it to be sufficient for them, especially in an area where economic opportunities are so limited. The euphemistic phrasing in the publication seems to suggest that more education and time is required, rather than addressing concerns about exploitation and reproduction of systemic inequalities.

Ecotourism Reconsidered
Ecotourism in developing nations is an important topic of scholarly and policy research.
It is often touted as ‘sustainable development’ and a successful alternative to resource exploitation, potentially capable of empowering politically and economically vulnerable populations, such as indigenous minorities in developing nations.  As such, ecotourism has enjoyed ideological and fiscal support of various agencies of development, including the United Nations, which prioritizes sustainability and ecoconservation in its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and the World Bank, which is a prominent financier of environmental initiatives in the developing world.  It is a concept that has come to be associated with environmentally virtuous fresh-faced backpacker tourists and wise natives, in traditional garb, enjoying their ancestors' way of life in unpolluted habitats.  To the extent that it is criticized, the criticism usually focuses on ‘greenwashing’ practices that threaten to weaken ‘real’ ecotourism—although all too frequently the debates around how ‘green’ ecotourism really is are limited to whether or not it is eco-friendly to fly to Costa Rica or Kenya in the first place, while downplaying the fact that ecotourism initiatives are often financed and implemented through the same neoliberal development vectors as the ones that promote ‘unsustainable’ resource extraction.  It is also deemphasized that all too frequently ecotourism is implemented in zones that simultaneously house active resource extraction sites, like the oil pipeline corridor in Cameroon or the Sucumbíos province of Ecuador.  But even beyond such obfuscations, something worth problematizing is the fact that the values, ideals, and frameworks of globalized ecotourism are, despite their Western historical and ideological underpinnings, perceived to be unquestionably universally positive, collapsing the multiplicity of understandings of ‘natures’ across  cultures into a single normative Nature.  Before discussing the consequences of such reframing, a brief background is necessary.

Is Ecotourism Ethnocentric?
Seventeen years ago the 1992 Rio Earth Summit (a.k.a. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro) launched the international sustainability movement. The Rio declaration, originally conceived of as an ‘Earth Charter,’ signed at the summit, promoted the pursuit of sustainable development. Although ecotourism was not a focal issue of the summit, in the next several years, it emerged as a global darling of sustainable development with both for-profit corporations and NGOs actively interested in implementing it in developing nations. Over the years there have been many attempts to define ‘ecotourism’, a term originally coined by the Mexican architect and international tourism consultant Hector Ceballos-Lascurain in 1983 to describe “tourism that involves traveling to relatively undisturbed natural areas with the specific object of studying, admiring and enjoying the scenery and its wild plants and animals, as well as any existing cultural aspects (both past and present) found in these areas.” And the definition of ecotourism provided in the Quebec Declaration on Ecotourism, the main document resulting from the United Nations-proclaimed International Year of Ecotourism and the ensuing summits, states that ecotourism “embraces the principles of sustainable tourism, concerning the economic, social and environmental impacts of tourism” and promotes “active contribution to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage, inclusion of local and indigenous communities in its planning, development and operation, and contribution to their well-being, and interpretation of the natural and cultural heritage of the destination for visitors.” In other words, ecotourism has become represented in such ‘global speak’ as an amalgam of conservation and development, a philosophical approach and a business model. It runs the gamut from local to global, from small-scale to corporate, from for-profit to non-for-profit.   But in most of its incarnations it is discursively and politically rooted in Western notions of sustainability—a doctrine that necessarily reframes indigenous beliefs and values in Western philosophical and ethical framework.  In that framework, where ‘nature’ is understood and valued as, first and foremost, wilderness (Tsing 2003), and that value set determines who is a ‘legitimate’ resident of such ‘wilderness’ and how they are supposed to behave.  All over the globe, indigenous communities, with long-established ideas of what ‘nature’ means to them, are being conscripted to participate in Western projects of conserving that nature (and, in tandem, their ‘authentic’ culture, which is often seen as inseparable from their ecology by well-meaning Western environmentalists). Indeed, the idea of ‘conserving’ nature and indigenous cultures holds an entire set of frequently ethnocentric implications about the value of consistency and change, and the conflation of so-called ‘primitive’ cultures with the ecosystems they inhabit.

Ethnographic Chasms
But even leaving aside the problem of sustainability as an ethnocentric ideology for the moment, presuming indigenous complicity in the conservation agenda leads to various complications and ironies that arise in the course of the implementation of ecotourism and conservation projects theoretically designed to benefit indigenous stakeholders. For example, as Holt (2005: 201) writes about the kind of enforced ‘primitivism’ resulting from conservation projects in a Huaorani community, “The cultural conditions deemed compatible with biodiversity conservation (i.e. low densities, limited technology, and subsistence production) are precisely those under which a common property theoretical framework would not predict conservationists’ practices to emerge.” She points out that conservation awareness does not arise in an ecosystem that is artificially kept outside of the processes that lead to a recognition of the consequences of overexploitation—a pressure on resources concurrent with population growth, introduction of Western technologies, and market production.  Other examples of incompatibilities of conservationist and indigenous paradigms around nature are found in Richards’ (1992) writing on the Mende of Sierra Leone, whose symbolic relationship with the forest as a protecting entity was inverted in the environmentalist notion of a ‘protected’ forest, and Gooch’s (1998) work on the Gujjars’ of northern India who had to strategically reposition themselves as ’forest people’ following their forcible expulsion from the forest.

Constructing Ecosavages
While sustainability is a discursive focal point for any conservation project, the very invocation of this concept signifies a particular set of values that circulates globally, and becomes appended to particular types of interventions, usually NGO undertakings that require a sort of cultural persuasion of the locals. The language deployed as a part of the development agenda, from the text of the Millennium Development Goals to the reports published by the World Tourism Organization and the United Nations Environment Program, to the mission statement of the World Wildlife Fund is meant to transcend local emplacement, but all to often falls short of that goal. Goals such as ‘ecosystem preservation’ and ‘cultural survival’ cannot even be articulated in any meaningful way without the context of the local realities and the empirical dimensions of said realities, such as the seasonal vs. constant nature of tourism, frequency of visits, cultural uniqueness of a community, and so forth. Ultimately, as a cultural value, the notion of sustainable development masks as much about the projects it structures, as it reveals about the values and assumptions belying those projects. Do problems that arise around the implementation of ecotourism projects have to do with the Western perception of small-scale, forest-dwelling, pre-industrial communities as “ecologically noble savages” (Redford 1991), creatures of the wild so essentially tied to nature that their ecology is inseparable from their culture?  The Western fantasies of the indigenous populations around the world construct them as intuitive stewards of their natural habitat, “wise bearers of ancient cultures” (Slater 2000), and “natural conservationists” (Conklin and Graham 1995) organically fused with their ecosystems. This image of the primitive ‘other’ sometimes allows space for indigenous ethnoecology through what Luis Vivanco (2006) calls “green primitivism,” rooted in the Western ecotopic belief that ‘natives’ must have access to forms of knowledge that the industrialized ‘we’ have lost.  As a result, a certain caliber of legitimacy is afforded to this ‘ecological wisdom,’ a concept problematized by various scholars across the disciplines. But even under the best of circumstances, indigenous knowledge about the environment is constructed as essentially different from the rational “scientific” knowledge (Agrawal 1995) and undergoes transformation and homogenizination in the environmentalist discourse (Brosius 1997). Furthermore, in ethnically stratified societies with a history of institutionalized racism against minorities, indigeneity is often historically associated with low cultural capital, lack of education, and a diminished capacity for rational self-governance. This incapacity for self-governance is further ‘evidenced’ when indigenous communities resist top-down conservation initiatives (usually due to being marginalized or disenfranchised in the process, with a common scenario involving uncompensated loss of agricultural opportunities on a land that is designated as protected).. This resistance then ‘proves’ the need for institutional governance of local nature. Awareness of these histories of disenfranchisement can better enable us to understand how ecotourism can take different trajectories.  Does it have the potential to empower communities?  Absolutely; the claiming of ecotourism as a desirable trajectory by indigenous political movements around the world is a testament to that, as is the emergence of grassroots, truly community-managed ecotourism projects. But it can also reinforce the Western structures of domination in a process named by Paul Driessen as “ecoimperialism .”

Ecotourism as Balm for Environmental Anxiety
Ecotourism panders to Western preoccupation with loss, which is becoming especially acute  with the increasing reality of and anxiety around climate change.  In his essay, Bruno Latour writes about the modernist myth of mastery unraveling as the ‘unexpected’ consequences of the glorious scientific and technological achievements of our industrial modernity unfold into an ecological crisis.    Contemporary public consciousness is permeated with anxieties around losses that signal runaway processes leading to a frightening tomorrow.  Losses of entire species and losses of habitats.  Losses of biodiverse forests and clean lakes, losses of ‘traditional’ cultures that, for the Westerners, exemplify a social environmental harmony and innocence lost in the processes of industrialization and the capitalist structures of labor relations. From the get-go, ecotourism, has been informed by the idea of ‘vanishing nature’, ‘disappearing cultures’, and ‘the last of such people.’ Through ecotourism, the salvaging of these processes of loss through the counter-processes of conservation and cultural revival can be aided by tourists, who historically have been criticized, for contributing to the adulteration and destruction of indigenous ecosystems and cultures. Thus, in addition to experiencing ‘authenticity’ and ‘alterity’, the Western ecotourist is positioned as an altruist as well as a consumer, helping the natives salvage their forests and rituals through Western patronage and money, and, enacting a fantasy of returning to what Mike Hulme calls “mythical pristine climate of the past” in his essay.  Especially now this form of conservation is constructed as transcultural, global duty—surely we can all appreciate the gravity of the global environmental crisis, surely we must all pitch in, Western nations and inhabitants of the rainforests.  But why, after we in the West have achieved a high level of economic development and quality of life, largely through exploiting nature, and using nature as a medium of exploitation of non-Western peoples, do we so often perpetuate the systemic inequalities between the Global North and the Global South even in our conservation initiatives?  It is worth distancing ourselves from the universal positivity of ecotourism and the values informing it, and questioning whether operating from a singular understanding of what nature means, how it should be “conserved” and whose voice is represented in the these decision-making processes.  



  • Agrawal, W. 1995. “Dismantling the Divide Between Indigeous and Scientific Knowledge”, Development and Change 26(3): 413-439
  • Brosius, P. 1997. "Endangered Forest, Endangered People: Environmentalist Representations of Indigenous Knowledge", Human Ecology Vol. 25(1):47-69
  • Ceballos-Lascurian, H. 1987. “The Future of 'Ecotourism'”, Mexico Journal (January 17):13-14Conklin, B. and L. Graham. 1995. “The shifting middle ground: Amazonian Indians and eco-politics”, American Anthropologist 97: 695–710
  • Driessen, P. 2005. Eco-Imperialism: Green Power, Black Death. Bellevue: Merril Press
  • Gooch, P. At the Tail of the Buffalo: Van Gujjar pastoralists between the forest and the world arena, Department of Sociology, Lund University.
  • Holt, F. 2005. “The Catch-22 of conservation: indigenous people, biologists and culture change”, Human Ecology 33(2) :199-215
  • Marshall, J. 2002. Death by Myth, USA: Documentary Educational Resources.
  • Redford, K. 1991. “The Ecologically Noble Savage”, Cultural Survival Quarterly 9(1):41-44.
  • Richards, P. 1992. “Saving the rainforest? Contested futures in conservation” in: S. Wallman. Contemporary futures: Perspectives from Social Anthropology. London: Routledge, pp.138-157'
  • Slater, C. 2000.  “Justice for Whom?  Contemporary Images of Amazonia”. In: People, Plants and Justice, C. Zerner (ed.) New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 67-82.
  • Tsing, A. 2003. “Cultivating the Wild: Honey-hunting and Forest Management in Southeast Kalimantan” in: C. Zerner (ed.) Culture and the Question of Rights: Forests, Coasts, and Seas in Southeast Asia. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Vicanco, L. 2006. Green Encounters: Shaping and Contesting Environmentalism in Rural Costa Rica. New York: Berhgagn Press.
  • World Tourism Organization, 2001. Sustainable Development of Ecotourism - A Compilation of Good Practices in SMEs. World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Press.