In January of this year, the Mexican government declared 2011 as “the year of tourism,” toward the end of “aligning all related sectors with this activity so that they undertake actions that would allow more tourists to make Mexico the principal destination of their visits.” While the increase in violence rooted in the war declared by Felipe Calderón against drug trafficking has led to a decrease in the number of tourists in many parts of the country, the state of Chiapas continues to be an important tourist destination. The natural beauty and cultural riches of the state resulted in San Cristóbal de Las Casas hosting the VIII International Forum for Adventure Tourism in October.
Tourism in general, and more specifically alternative tourism and ecological tourism (eco-tourism), have been promoted as an excellent opportunity for remote, marginalized indigenous and campesino communities to escape poverty. Eco-tourism is seen by several conservation groups, international institutions, and governments as a viable alternative for sustainable development. Nevertheless, many communities are not convinced of the purported economic benefits, and they see this as a possible loss of control over their lands and lives. There have also been divisions in communities in which part of the population favors eco-tourist projects while other parts resist the implementation of such plans. In this sense, an eco-tourist project can imply impacts for the community as a whole, as it need not necessarily benefit all the people in question equally and equitably.
The principles of eco-tourism include the need for the conservation of the land, the construction of environmental and cultural consciousness, and respect for human rights. Although different interpretations exist, in general, eco-tourism is combined with the idea of an “ethical” tourism, meaning that the welfare of local populations should be taken into account. This would be reflected in the structure and functioning of the firms and cooperatives that dedicate themselves to offering eco-tourist services. The International Society of Eco-tourism (TIES) defines eco-tourism as “a responsible voyage to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the wellbeing of the local population.” These principles should be reflected in the minimization of the negative impacts for the community generated by the tourist activity.
Many eco-tourist projects, as was seen during the Forum in San Cristóbal, receive financial support from the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (CDI), through the Program for Alternative Tourism in Indigenous Zones (PTAZI). According to the CDI, the objective of the program is to “contribute to the development of the indigenous peoples by means of the execution of actions for alternative tourism, specifically of eco-tourism and rural tourism, taking advantage of the potential that exists in the indigenous regions, granting support to carry out and execute projects taken for the upgrading, conservation, and sustainable exploitation of their natural resources and their cultural patrimony, as well as contributing to increasing their income.”
However, in a communiqué in commemoration of the “Day of La Raza” on 12 October, various groups that are adherents to the Other Campaign pronounced themselves against this form of “development.” Regarding the Forum that would begin two days later, they commented, “We recognize in this initiative a new offensive within the concert of aggressions and violations of collective rights and of the self-determination of our peoples. At this point we say to the neo-liberal gentlemen that the land, the water, the forests, and the cultural and ceremonial centers are not for sale; they will instead be defended by dignified men and women who from below and to the left resist.”
On 17 October, President Felipe Calderón, the governor Juan Sabines Guerrero and Gloría Guevara, head of the Secretary of Tourism (Sectur), inaugurated the VIII Global Forum for Adventure Tourism in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. According to Shannon Stowell, president of the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), more than 650 tourist operators from 54 countries attended. Katya de la Vega, director of the Commission for the Development of Adventure Tourism in Chiapas, declared that more than 408 million pesos would be invested at the event. To call attention to the fact that Chiapas is one of the leading states in the cultivation of jatropha and African palm for the production of agro-fuels (‘biodiesel’), the transport utilized during the Forum was run on Biodiesel Chiapas, “a clean energy that contributes to the mitigation of climate change,” according to the event’s web page.
Felipe Calderón, during his speech, said that the uprising in 1994 by the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN) reflected the marginalization suffered by its members. This was the first time in years that he made a reference to the Zapatista movement. He added that the option for indigenous groups who are owners of natural resources is adventure tourism. In his comments, governor Juan Sabines stressed the sustainable development and eco-tourist projects promoted by indigenous communities. He noted that in the new Chiapas Constitution there is a guarantee of respect for the self-determination of indigenous peoples, who now have the opportunity for more development through the promotion of sites of natural beauty.
In contrast with the official discourse, the organization Otros Mundos Chiapas affirmed in a communiqué that “Tourism affects many things: […] it affects local cultures that are asked to make themselves available to tourism; it affects the waste of millions of pesos in advertising that could be destined to schools or hospitals; it affects through the repression and militarization against communities that do no want these activities and who struggle to defend their lands and territories in search of real alternatives for survival.” In more general terms, the Center for Superior Studies of Mexico and Central America (CESMECA) denounced that “Implicitly, they are trying to make people believe that the injustice and social inequality suffered by communities results from the ‘self-isolation’ that they impose upon themselves; and that with this type of tourist activities they can be included in ‘progress.’ The official line is that these economic activities are promoted so as to supposedly combat inequality and poverty, but strangely they fail to take into account the opinion and the rights of the principal protagonists, who are the original peoples of the region. It is evident that we are facing a clear demonstration of a modern adventure colonialism.”
The situation at the tourist center Agua Azul reflects many of the negative consequences of eco-tourism, both due to the division of the local population as well as to the militarization of the area. According to U.S. tourism consultants that have helped develop a state tourist strategy in Chiapas, “Agua Azul has the potential to create one of the greatest eco-tourist experiences in the Western Hemisphere,” as reported in an article in the Financial Times on 30 September 2011. A new tourist complex planned for the zone would consist of a first-class luxury hotel, a recreational area, a bar, and a restaurant overlooking the waterfalls. According to the article, the consultants also indicate that it would be necessary to involve the terrains neighboring the waterfalls so as to provide for sufficient space for leisure and to maintain the natural landscape as part of the beauty of the tourist complex. Indeed, in the neighboring Zapatista community of Bolom Ajaw there were confrontations at the beginning of 2010 between people of the community and members of the Organization for the Defense of the Rights of the Indigenous and Campesinos (OPDDIC). The dispute centers around the waterfalls located beside the community, in lands recovered by the Zapatistas in 1994—lands that are of great interest for tourism development.
In recent years there have been several conflicts and confrontations between locals in favor and opposed to tourism development of the Agua Azul zone. In 2008, adherents to the Other Campaign in San Sebastián Bachajón installed a booth to charge admission apart from the official checkpoint, in order to generate resources and raise awareness among tourists about the situation of conflict in the zone due to the disagreement of part of the population with the planned tourist development of the waterfalls. On 2 February of this year, this tense situation resulted in a confrontation between indigenous adherents of the Other Campaign opposed to tourist projects and a PRI group in favor of the projects, leaving one dead and several injured.
Since the confrontation, the Agua Azul zone and its surrounding areas have been heavily guarded by a deployment of hundreds of police and soldiers. Victor López, director of the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Center for Human Rights (CDHFBC), referred to this intense militarization and the lack of consultation with the local population in a press conference after the release of those adherents to the Other Campaign who had been arrested after the confrontation. He mentioned that they continue to be “imprisoned” by a “unilateral process, with the police and the federal Army on their lands, in light of governmental projects that involved no consultation with local populations.”
In the attempt to construct an eco-tourist complex in this zone, the division of the population of the community of Agua Azul is seen clearly. On one side are the authorities of the ejido, supported by the government, who welcome the work and income that tourism could bring; on the other is a large part of the population, which insists on th
eir right to maintain their form of life and their right to self-determination, who denounce intimidation, violence, and abuse of the legal system to take their lands from them. The Financial Times article ends by mentioning that for many, “eco-tourism implies a form of harmony between tourism and the environment.” But this search seems to exclude the local population from the equation.
Another problematic attempt at the eco-tourist exploitation of nature is seen in the region of the Laguna Miramar, in the Montes Azules Biosphere. On 20 August a denunciation was published in La Jornada del Campo, revealing that the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve (RIBMA), considered by environmental authorities as a “priority zone for conservation,” will soon see the beginning of the construction of a hotel macro-complex, without the consent of local residents, and without any regard for true sustainable development.
In 2010, the Ministry of Tourism (Sectur) informed residents of the ejido of Emiliano Zapata, whose lands neighbor the Laguna Miramar, that a project to construct cabins for tourism is viable, but not in the modest form that they had previously requested, but rather by means of a large hotel complex, in an area of 40,000 square meters located a kilometer from the lake. In the assemblies carried out to discuss the proposal, ejidatarios have expressed their concern that they would lose control of their lands, become servants of the entrepreneurs, and be left out of any profits. They informed Sectur that they did not accept the project, and the response of Sectur was to declare that the project would in any case be carried out in another community in the zone. In light of this, in a new assembly, the section of the community that favors the initiative succeeded in attaining a majority in favor of the project.
During 2010, Sectur and private firms negotiated with residents of Emiliano Zapata the concession of four hectares of land for the construction of the complex and the right to exploit the lagoon for the next 30 years. In the first ten years, the tourist company which will supply part of the investments cannot be removed from the administration of the complex, but the directorship of the Society of Eco-tourism of Zapata (comprised of 125 ejidatarios) will form part of the administration and receive 10% of the profits. After this phase, the ejidatarios will have the option of themselves administering the complex, “insofar as” they have been trained to do so. At the beginning of 2011 an agreement was signed among the ejidal authorities, Sectur, and the company involved. The project is about to begin, with the community divided among itself.
The previously mentioned examples of resistance against tourist exploitation in the regions of Agua Azul and the Laguna Miramar deal with communities that had been organized before the appearance of tourism plans. An example of serious violence against persons opposed to touristic plans in their area who had not been previously organized occurred in Chicultik in October 2008. Ejidatarios occupied the ruins of Chincultik, which are located in front of their community, with the intention of having the ejido itself administer the Mayan archaeological site near the city of Comitán. Despite the negotiation process that was underway between the official administrator of the site, the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), and the protesters, federal and state police carried out a violent operation to put an end to the protest, leaving 6 dead, 17 injured, and 36 arrested.
A more communal example of eco-tourism is the eco-tourist park El Arcotete, in the ejido Río Arcotete, some 6 kilometers from San Cristóbal. According to the park brochure, the Tsotsil indigenous people who, expelled from San Juan Chamula, came to reside in the region in the 1980s begin logging when they did not find other sources of income. It was in 2008 that the eco-tourist project began, with the attendant diversification of income. In an interview, the president of the eco-tourist park, who is an indigenous person from the area, mentioned that the initiative to develop the project was discussed with the neighboring community before beginning. Personnel from the Secretary of Social Development (SEDESOL) arrived to speak with the people to discuss the development of the park, and they offered financial support; the people of the community began to clean their lands and caves and to erect hanging bridges in 2008. One of the more attractive aspects of the park is the “zip line” that was financed by the CDI last year.
Those who benefit from the park are people of the community itself; according to the president, there are 15 persons from the community who work on the project. Previously there were few jobs, leading many to migrate to the United States. It would seem that the project takes into account the wellbeing of local people: “Here we care for the ejido. No one from outside works here. When people from outside enter is when we begin to have problems.” The eco-tourist project El Arcotete was also represented in the VIII International Forum of Adventure Tourism for promotional purposes, so as to attract more people to the park. As the president mentions, apparently this has already had positive results. “We are already seeing more people come spend the day at the park.”
The ecotourist projects represent a potential source of conflicts when they are undertaken without regard to the numerous aspects having to do with the right to self-determination of peoples. To avoid such conflicts, it must be ensured that those persons and communities who will be affected by a given project be informed from the beginning of the development of the plans. This implies transparency regarding the distribution of profits from a project, as well as participation in decisions regarding work and other responsibilities that will result from the project. In this way it would be possible for ecotourism to meet the objectives of minimizing impacts, both environmental and social. Regarding the search for a “harmony between tourism and the environment,” this would also include taking into account the wishes, needs, and opinions of those persons affected by the project.