“Travel” is a word where some people may conjure up images of pristine beaches and blue water. Although there are quite a few places like this on earth, not all of them can offer an authentic sense and feeling of belonging.
Recently, CEN has been assisting 16 communities near beautiful Brazil, but more specifically, along the convergence of the Amazon River and Tapajós River to carry out a community-based ecotourism initiative called The Eixo Forte/Juá Community-Based Tourism Project. The project incorporates CEN’s growing experience towards strengthening basic skills and mindsets with a multi-faceted approach to fostering community-based ecotourism. Overall, the target was made to improve community livelihoods without abandoning unique lifestyles and culture.
The process of cultivating a strong and sustainable tourism sector in the region requires building community leadership and institutions capable of developing and managing the implementation of a community-wide, agreed-upon plan. It will also require ensuring strong, equitable economic growth while maintaining the cultural and environmental strengths of the communities that make them an attractive tourist destination in the first place.
To achieve this vision, CEN has partnered with Eunice Sena and Paulo Melo, two seasoned development professionals that live in the area and together, have over 50 years of experience in community-based development, as well as experience working with community leaders and other organizations.
Between the dates of February 13-22, CEN’s first trip, “Unveiling the Amazon”, was organized. Participants visited the communities near the Juá Creek, Santarém, the Tapajós National Forest, and the beachside resort of Alter do Chão. The main idea of the trip was to give visitors a chance to venture into pristine, remote areas of the Amazon where the CEN program is based, in order to more directly support their efforts towards creating sustainable economic opportunities. The pace of life in these tiny communities was still much the way it was 100 years ago, defined by harmony with nature and their surroundings. This trip provided the opportunity for people 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, as well as the community plans with the leaders of the communities. Chuck Hollenbeck, one of the trip participants, stated: “We stayed two nights in houses of individuals who lived in the communities and I think that would be very appropriate for someone else who wanted to visit and get a very personal experience.”
Living like a local sounds romantic—and it can be. Especially if you were to walk out of your bedroom and the first thing you would see is a monkey or an actual açai tree. The lower Amazon River Basic is unique also because of its flora and fauna. For this reason, this part of Brazil is an amazingly exotic tourist destination not only for foreigners, but also for southern Brazilians (Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paolo). There is a growing trend among young Brazilians to travel within the country. Community ecotourism is adventurous, informative and at times shocking for residents of large cities. It also gives a perspective on rural life which may not always be a bucolic picture. There are no paved roads between remote communities and after heavy rains they become impassable. Also, there is no mobile coverage and internet is scarce. Ronald Harmon, another trip participant, stated: “One of the problems that we encountered is that it was sometimes difficult for [the community members] to communicate. [It was] too difficult, too time-consuming. If they had cell phones, they could communicate more easily. They don’t have cell phone coverage in most of the areas in the communities we looked at. You have to get almost to the city of Santarém to get coverage.” These communities must truly rely on their own resources in order to survive.
Lower Amazon River Basic rural communities have historically made their living by subsistence farming: growing and gathering traditional açai, manioc, tapping rubber latex from rubber trees, and fishing and raising livestock, like cows and chickens. However, with the growing development of soybean production taking over the rainforest, they also need to look for other means of survival and self-sustainability. One of the ways to become more self-sustainable is by initiating ecotourism industries which ideally will help raise funds to develop local infrastructure.
The first CEN 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. The difficulty here lies in changing the inherent farmer and gatherer mentality that has been their tradition for generations.
"[I was] pleasantly surprised at how sophisticated [the members of the community] were in terms of community and community organization."
Harmon added, “[I was] pleasantly surprised at how sophisticated [the members of the community] were in terms of community and community organization.” Recently, as a result of CEN work in this region, the 16 communities started to communicate with each other on a regular basis. They’ve created inter-community commissions that advise on everyday matters such as economic development, safety and security, and an overall well-being. As it often happens, older members of the community worry about preservation while the younger members tend to look for better opportunities outside of the communities. “The older members of the community were very well-informed, very thoughtful, [and] very articulate. They are thinking about how to preserve their communities and develop resources to do that” mentioned Hollenbeck in his interview about the trip.
This presents a unique situation where two views of the future can meet in the rainforest and help solve the economic challenge of self-sustainability. By enticing the younger generation with the prospect of opportunity within the community, there can be a harmonious balance between established tradition and future socio-economic growth. The development of community eco-tourism can help accomplish this.
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.