VATICAN CITY, JULY 6, 2002 ( is a good way to contemplate the goodness and beauty of God, but it can have some drawbacks. This is one of the central themes in John Paul II’s message, published June 24, for the upcoming 23rd World Day of Tourism.
The Pope noted that tourism brings us into contact with other people, and foments dialogue with and knowledge of other cultures. But his message also draws attention to the ecological damage that tourism can create if it does not respect the needs of the local environment.

John Paul II warned against tourism becoming a vehicle for “exploitation and discrimination” that can follow as a result of tourism. The Pope addressed this matter in relation with the theme of ecotourism. In fact, 2002 is the U.N. International Year of Ecotourism.

The message notes that the growing phenomenon of ecotourism has some positive aspects. But, warned the Pope, if caring for the environment becomes an end in itself it runs the risk of leading to new forms of “colonialism,” which could damage the traditional rights of local communities that live in specific territorial areas. In this case, the development, and even the survival, of these local communities can be at risk. The Pope asked that attention be paid to the human environment of local peoples, and not just to the protection of animals and plants.

Parks or people?

The Pope’s concern over protecting local peoples from over-enthusiastic ecotourism is well founded. Last Thursday the London Telegraph reported that Botswana’s government has been accused of the ethnic cleansing of the Kalahari Bushmen.

Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve was created in 1961 specifically to allow a few thousand Bushmen to continue as hunter-gatherers. But now, reports the Telegraph, the Botswanan government wants to bring the Bushmen to large settlements outside the reserve.

The government says that it wants to move the Bushmen to places where education and health care facilities can be provided. But critics say the real reason is to get the Bushmen out of the reserve so it can be exploited for diamond mining and tourism. In fact, the first private safari concession has been granted inside the reserve, allowing hundreds of tourists to reach an area which until recently could only be visited under government license.

The May-June issue of the magazine Foreign Policy warned that in some areas ecological protection is creating “a growing class of invisible refugees.” Author Charles C. Geisler, professor of rural sociology at Cornell University, observed that 70% of the planet’s protected areas are inhabited by human beings, “and these local residents are widely viewed as a menace to environmental conservation.”

Geisler cited data from the Switzerland-based World Conservation Union, that indicates nearly 29,000 protected areas now protect some 2.1 billion acres from a series of residential and economic uses. This terrain accounts for 6.4% of the earth’s land surface, and is equivalent in size to the continental United States plus half of Alaska.

The setting aside of this land is a recent trend, explained the article. In 1950 there were fewer than 1,000 protected areas. This grew to 3,500 in 1985, before ballooning to the current 29,000. And ecological groups want to continue this process. “If such global ‘greenlining’ continues without concern for the rights of resident populations, its gains could take an enormous human toll,” warned Geisler.

Africa offers an example of what can happen when the needs of local populations are not taken into account. In 1985, Africa had 443 publicly protected areas encompassing 217 million acres. Today, over 1,000 protected areas account for nearly 380 million acres.

According to Geisler, mass eviction of indigenous peoples have occurred in Uganda, Botswana, Cameroon, Madagascar, South Africa, Togo, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Congo, affecting nearly half a million people.

“Global conservation is surely a worthy cause,” stated Geisler. But “it is the wealthy inhabitants of the planet who benefit most from greenlining — enjoying exotic vacation destinations, new targets for their tax-deductible largess, windfall gains in value for their high-end properties in or near protected zones, and what Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson calls ‘biophilia,’ or a deeply felt loyalty to the earth’s biota.”

A lengthy article published Dec. 1 by the British daily Guardian also analyzed this problem. It noted how Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, was created by the expulsion of the resident Shoshone. As many as 300 are believed to have been killed in clashes in 1872 when the park was designated.

The Guardian quoted data from the World Bank in which it is estimated that between 1986 and 1996 alone, about 3 million people were forced to move from forests and other areas as a result of both development and conservation programs.

The newspaper also reported that last November it was announced that communities in both Kenyan and Bangladeshi forests were to be moved out to make way for “eco-parks.” As well, the Chinese government announced it is setting aside a large portion of northwest Tibet as a wilderness area, “something it can do only in the wake of the genocide of the people there,” commented the Guardian.

The idea of protecting land “for nature” is erroneous in the view of some experts interviewed by the Guardian. “There is no such thing as wilderness,” says Indian ecologist Vandana Shiva. The idea that people should be separated from nature to create spaces empty of indigenous peoples in order to protect the environment is an error, according to the Indian expert.

The Guardian returned to this subject with a May 22 article by Sue Wheat, a journalist with the charity Tourism Concern. She told the story of how earlier this year 250 Filipinos were evicted at gunpoint from their homes. Their lake-shore village of Ambulong, in Batangas province, was attacked by hundreds of police, who demolished 24 houses. The authorities cleared out the local people to make way for a future ecotourism site.

Wheat described how many conservationists and tour operators hold that ecotourism offers a way to fund environmental protection, as well as encouraging cultural exchange and providing income for the locals. But while the new form of tourism is a good source of money for some, it comes at a high cost for the indigenous population.

Another case in point is Tatajuba, Brazil. The coastal village of 150 families has gone to the courts to try to show that a real estate agency illegally took possession of publicly protected land where they live. A company wants to build a 5,000-hectare ecological resort catering to 1,500 tourists on their land.

The article mentioned that some organized opposition to ecotourism has started. In April a forum organized by indigenous groups was held in Mexico to address the matter. According to Deborah McLaren of the Rethinking Tourism Project: “We want to bring these issues to light. Communities are being oppressed. Governments and industry have corrupted the whole idea of ecotourism and it is proving just as destructive as any other industry. But somehow, no one wants to hear that.”

The Pope’s message points out that when people lose sight of God’s design over nature, they tend to ignore the needs of their brothers and sisters as well as to act with disrespect toward the environment. The solution, exhorts John Paul II, is to recover the spiritual dimension of our relation with the created world. This “interior ecology” will lead to positive consequences in the fight against poverty and efforts to promote the welfare of other people, as well as fomenting a tourism that respects the environment.