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Voices From Africa


Number 6: Sustainable Development Part 2




by Ole Kamuaro

The trend towards the commercialization of tourism schemes disguised as sustainable, nature-based, environmentally friendly ecotourism ventures has become the subject of considerable public controversy and concern. These schemes may have serious impacts on nature and society, particularly in the South.

This so-called ecotourism has become the fastest growing sub-sector of the tourist industry, with an annual growth rate of 10-15% worldwide. At the same time, international tourism to the Third World is rapidly increasing by 6% per year, compared to growth in developed countries of only 3.5%. At present, 20% of international tourists travel to southern countries.

Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa reap significant economic benefits from these commercial ventures. But the negative psycho-social impact of this type of tourism;including physical displacement of persons and gross violation of fundamental rights;far outweigh its intended medium-term economic benefits.

A Deficient and Ambiguous Concept

East Africa provides excellent examples of the disastrous nature of these activities. Mass tourism was first introduced to these regions in the 1950s with the legalization of hunting and culling of wild game by the then "white settlers," the British colonial masters who controlled Kenya and Tanzania. The need for exclusive hunting and recreational zones inaccessible to "natives" led to the creation of protected areas, national parks and game reserves. These areas became very important revenue-earning ventures with the establishment of lodges and tourist campsites.

But 70% of national parks and game reserves in East Africa are on pastoralist lands, particularly Masai land.

The first undesirable impact of tourism on the Masai of both these countries was massive loss of land. Parks and game reserves require considerable space and investment. Local and national governments in these countries took unfair advantage of the ignorance of the Masai and robbed them of huge chunks of grazing land, in most cases the best pasture areas, putting to risk their only socioeconomic livelihood, pastoralism.

The fierce loyalty of these people to their traditions had soured their relations with their colonial rulers. They were provided with few or no social and infrastructure services; as post-independence governments did little to improve their literacy rate, few acquired a formal education. While others adapted to modern ways of life the Masai pursued traditional pastoralism, which has unfairly been considered backward and wasteful as an economic activity.

Ironically, pastoralism and conservation of nature go hand in hand. Given the Masai's large open tracts of land, abundant plant and animal wildlife, and their rich and much-romanticised culture, it was almost inevitable that they would be targeted by large-scale tourism.

In Kenya, tourism has not brought any tangible economic benefits to the Masai people. Despite their loss of land, employment favours better-educated workers from other parts of the country. Investors in the tourism industry are not local and so have not ploughed back their profits into the local economy.

Outside the park and game reserve areas, land tenure is communal. On communally owned group ranches, residents are registered and resources are in theory distributed equally, with land managed by a committee elected every year.

But management committee officials can be easily corrupted and have been known to register non-residents, who then appropriate large portions of land for themselves, gaining an unfair advantage when campsites and lodges are developed for tourists. As a result land disputes have erupted and local elders cannot resolve them because of their complexity and powerful persons involved, all casting an envious eye on the area's tourism potential.

Traditionally, land was not a commodity for exchange like money or livestock. With the introduction of tourism it has become possible to trade land for money and this has created destitution and poverty, pitting members of the same clan against one another.

In Tanzania, the picture is similar and in some cases even worse. In Mkomazi, a game reserve was designated without informing or consulting local people, who simply received an eviction order from their own government. In Ngorongoro district, the Sultan of the United Arab Emirates was allocated a hunting corridor through vast grazing land, with no limit set on hunting. The Masai were never informed of the development. When they reacted with indignation, grazing restrictions were imposed on their herds. Tourism and hunting always take the best land.

Clearly, tourism as a trade does not empower those who make it rich and satisfying. It simply exploits and depletes, particularly in the Third World. It has to be redefined and reoriented if it is ever to become sustainable.

Impacts of Ecotourism: Environmental Hazards

Biodiversity and environmentally intact lands form the basis of ecological stability. But this has already been severely affected by industrialisation, urbanisation, unsustainable agricultural practices and mass tourism. While ecotourism sounds comparatively benign, one of its most serious impacts is usurpation of "virgin" territories;national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and other wilderness areas;which are then packaged as green products for ecotourists.

With the tremendous expansion of commercialised ecotourism, environmental degradation, including deforestation, disruption of ecological life systems and various forms of pollution, has in fact increased. Even its proponents concede that ecotourism is far from a panacea for environmental destruction.

The Masai Mara National Park in Kenya and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania are both excellent examples of ecological disaster arising from tourism. In both areas, lodges and camps have heavily deforested the small riverine forests that existed here with their hunger for firewood for cooking and heating.

The number of motor vehicles crisscrossing the park areas keeps growing as tour drivers search for rare animals such as lions and rhinos. An unsightly network of roads and tracks for "game drives" disrupts the grass cover, with serious consequences for plant and animal species.

Often overlooked is the fact that ecotourism is a highly consumer- centred activity catering to the lifestyles of the new urbanized middle-class societies. In their search for untouched or authentic places, young and adventurous travellers open destinations off the beaten track, accelerating the pace of social and environmental decay in host communities.

But any commercial venture into unspoiled, pristine natural places with or without the "eco" prefix is a contradiction in terms. To generate substantial revenue;whether from foreign exchange, tourism business, local communities or conservation;the number of tourists must be high, which inevitably means greater pressures on the environment.

Many East African parks are also mismanaged and deteriorating rapidly. Recent efforts to rearrange existing mass tourism into ecotourism have failed due to a general reluctance to limit the growth of tourism, lack of controls and sustainability, and lack of thorough examination on the environmental impacts of tourism, including the impact of environmental resource utilisation, the consumptive nature of tourism, and its continuous discharge of pollutants through increased road and air traffic.

The sewage material from one Ngorongoro hotel, for example, is dumped at a "safe" distance from the tourist hotel and allowed to flow onto neighbouring grazing grounds and Masai settlement areas. In other parks, sewage material from campsites is simply thrown into the river from which wildlife, livestock and local communities draw their drinking water.

Social Degradation

With the establishment of protected areas, local people have often illegally lost their homes and livelihood, often without any compensation. They have been pushed onto marginal lands with harsh climatic conditions, poor soils, lack of water resources, and infested with human and livestock diseases, making survival impossible.

While ecotourism planners recently put local participation in decision making high on their agendas, this has mostly been done to confuse dissent. Rarely have local people been involved in the planning and implementation of ecotourism ventures. Nor have they taken part in decisions on whether a project should go ahead or on the distribution of common resources and revenue.

The designation of ecotourism sites tends to disentitle the poor by depriving them of their traditional use of land and natural resources. Despite local resistance, property rights have often been reallocated by influential figures in order to allow investors to make profits. With such an approach, local communities face exploitation and abuse, including the loss of cultural and social identity. This form of development undermines the autonomy of local people by increasing their dependence on outside forces, eroding societies' capacity and potential for self-reliance.

Other social side effects include drastic behavioral change, particularly among youth. These side effects include loss of positive traditional values, increased promiscuity leading to prostitution, and the spread of AIDS from mass tourism sites to ecotourism destinations. These issues have been studiously avoided in ecotourism discussions.

Corruption is covered up or downplayed and funds continue to flow even though there is evidence that much of the money is pocketed by corrupt influential figures.

Indigenous Cultures Threatened

For ecotourism to claim that it preserves and enhances local cultures is highly disingenuous. Ethnic groups are increasingly being seen as a major asset and "exotic" backdrop to natural scenery and wildlife. The fact that these people are the target of exploitation and suppression by the dominant social groups in states has generally been ignored.

There is rarely an acknowledgment;much less support;of indigenous people's struggle for cultural survival, self-determination, freedom of cultural expression, rights to ancestral lands, and control over land use and resource management. Pastoralist communities are the single most exploited cultural group in East Africa today. Postcards portraying traditional headdresses or cultural ceremonies adorn gift shops throughout the tourist circuits of Kenya and Tanzania.

Though ecotourism attempts to integrate indigenous communities into the market driven economic system, the underlying objective is to keep them as archaeological artifacts, stimulating the tourist's nostalgic desire for the authentic, the untouched, the primitive and the savage. Photographs and descriptions of ethnic women used to promote ecotourism give credence to the false notion that they are willing and available for "discovery" by tourists. This is a dehumanising and undignified practice which intensifies the very dysfunctional cultural impacts it is intended to forestall, while strengthening discrimination by race and by class.

An Example

The Masai from Loita Hills, some 320 km southwest of Nairobi, have been fighting a fierce battle to prevent an indigenous forest, traditionally known as Naimina-Enkiyio or the Forest of the Lost Child, from being turned into another ecotourism destination. Having experienced the devastating effects of tourism at the nearby Masai Mara National Park, they are determined to preserve their sacred forest, which for generations has been under their management and control and carefully kept as a sacred place for worship and communion with Masai deities.

Though largely pastoralists, the Masai here are also small-scale subsistence agriculturists who have used resources in a sustainable manner. As a result, the forest is still dense and rich in biodiversity, with abundant wild flora and fauna, plants which serve as herbal medicines, sufficient water sources, and pastures on which to raise healthy cattle.

Undoubtedly, their spiritual and material way of life will degenerate rapidly if tourism intrudes. As one local person in the neighbouring Masai Mara reserve said, "Tourism has been allowed to develop with virtually no controls. Too many lodges have been built, too much firewood is being used and no limits are being placed on tourist vehicles. They regularly drive off-track and harass the wildlife. Their vehicle tracks crisscross the entire Masai Mara. Inevitably the bush is becoming eroded and degraded."

Ecotourism versus Development: A Language of Confusion

Reports and literature promoting ecotourism have created considerable confusion between ecotourism as an ideal and its reality on the ground. Terms like "opportunity" and "potential for" ecotourism give the impression that this activity has already proved a success.

Whereas its proponents concede that it has destructive potential against natural and cultural resources, they promote ecotourism as a powerful tool for boosting economic development. They argue that its benefits will far outweigh its problems.

Another threat is the illegal acquisition of genetic materials by multinational corporations who, under the guise of ecotourism, gain access to pristine areas high in biological diversity. The recent trend by these multinational corporations is to term this illegal activity "nature interpretation," which allows them to illegally remove and genetically control valuable flora and develop their own Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). This exploitation of natural resources is causing a rapid decline of valuable flora which local communities have managed for generations and upon which they depend for healing and food sources. It also denies them an opportunity to learn from the scientific process of genetic resource development.

Disregard and Suppression of Critical Input

While criticism for ecotourism is widespread, there has been little acknowledgement of this by its organizers and promoters. This may be due to a fear of creating "image" problems, which might slow the industry's growth.

At the same time, outside professional initiatives are usually favoured over local, more traditional ones, which tend to be rejected as unscientific.

Yet despite the lack of "success stories," tremendous amounts of money and human resources continue to be spent on ecotourism. Even more is spent on public relations campaigns to dilute the effects of criticism. This channels resources away from other projects which might contribute more sustainable and realistic solutions to pressing social and environmental problems.


The ecotourism lobby, predominantly based in Northern countries, exercises tremendous financial and political influence. But at the very least, there exists a strong case for restraining such activities. At best, they should be scrutinised, monitored and controlled through administrative mechanisms, legal frameworks and informed public debate.

There is also a need to establish an adequate infrastructure to review and reevaluate ecotourism and develop accountability mechanisms to phase out unsustainable policies and projects. Simultaneously, expanded and adequate resources should be made available for holistic studies of other fields of development aimed at bringing about alternative solutions to tourism and to the diverse problems resulting from urbanization, industrialization and over-exploitative agricultural land uses.

More efforts need to be made to fully inform and educate tourists on the adverse environmental and social impacts of ecotourism. And, regulations and laws should be enacted to prohibit the promotion of unsustainable ecotourism projects and materials which project false images of destinations, demeaning local and indigenous cultures.


Loita Naimina-Enkiyio Conservation Trust Company Brochure: Forest of the Lost Child, 1994.

Panos Media Briefing, The Panos Institute, London, 1995.

Carrere, R., Kenyan Indigenous People Battle to Save Sacred Forest, 1994.

Third World Resurgence

Third World Network


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