Friday, September 29, 2006

Ecotourism - Are we on the right path?

How do you interpret the concept of ecotourism?

I came to the conclusion that ecotourism is actually a profitable business that cater for tourists who are supposedly there to protect the environment, aid the local community and educate themselves. BS!

So.....they said, to protect the environment and the local community, ecotourism products need to be developed. Infrastructures need to be built to increase the carrying capacity of tourists in those fragile areas.

I wrote to ecotourism organizations and interviewed Wildlife Department personnel on the excessive building of infrastructures with expensive wood.

These were some of the answers:-

Wildlife Department Personnel - "infrastructures were built so that they look natural and blend with the surrounding".

The object of development according to the concept of ecotourism as explained by the ranger was to ensure as far as possible a more "natural look", one that would be consistent with the natural surrounding. The colors and the materials used should be as natural as possible. It was on this interpretation that concrete signboards which were "maintaining free" were knocked down and replaced with wooden structures. These new wooden signboards had their timber sourced from other part of the jungle in Malaysia. Indirectly, this interpretation of "natural look" could affect the increase in demand for timber and thus increases logging activities and more destruction of ecosystem to another part of the jungle in Malaysia. It is ironical that the conservation of National Parks and Recreational areas has indirectly affected the degrading of other forest ecosystem in Malaysia.

Concrete walkway "camouflaged" with expensive wood. Is this necessary?

Some examples include the wooden jetty built over the original concrete one in a national park in Penang. Wooden steps built to Bukit Teresek in Kuala Tahan. Within a year, fallen trees, erosion and termites had destroyed many sections making it an eyesore. Quality woods were used and these were sourced from unsustainable sources. Steel cables for the hanging bridge at Penang National Park were coated with imported jute ropes that last only several months.

Concrete Signpost that can outlast human lifespan was
torn down and replaced with wooden one.

Why should natural materials that do not last be used or to camouflage the concrete or steel structures?

To get the answer, I emailed ecotourism organizations on the use of wood in building chalets and amenities for tourists but received only one reply. Below was the explanation.

Dear Forest Ang,
It is hard to offer any good advice from a big distance.

Here in Brazil, the focus is moving from ecotourism (which generally is confused with nature tourism) to sustainable tourism (because you then emphasize the importance of environmental, socio-cultural and economic sustainability).

There is no black & white answer to the problem you mentioned.

From the marketing (visitor satisfaction) point of view it is better to use natural looking materials. From the sustainability point of view it depends how the materials were sourced and what the overall sustainability impact of the material. Let me give an example :

- if I use wood from demolition, sustainable forest management or confiscated from illegal logging operations, I am basically recycling a natural material, which is better. In Brazil and I am sure in Malaysia as well, you can find termite and climate resistant timber and even if it rots it will then compost and thus be recycled again
- if I use concrete (or other manmade material), you should examine what the environmental impact of making concrete is (using lots of energy etc).

You can of course also use natural stones instead of timber. There are some good books available on interpretation and signposts with suggestion of materials etc.

Goof luck
(Name omitted)

I must admit there were some truths in the explanation given.

But why should we satisfy the ecotourists with natural looking materials? Wouldn't long lasting and maintenance free structures use less energy, less timber and less materials to replace?

If you confiscated timber then that timber should be used. But how often do you see confiscated timber in Malaysia? I hardly hear about it in Malaysia, except the controversial case of the custom vs an MP in Malacca some months in 2006.

Yes, cement & concrete need a lot of energy and could cause environment damage. But cement and concrete from a small limestone hill can sustain for many years. You just can't compare it with logging because logging is extensive and it destroys everything along its path - herbs, shrubs, animals, streams and ecosystem.

I agreed that wood does rot and termites do infest - these composts go back into nature as nutrient for the trees. Then again we have to cut more trees to replace the wooden structures - isn't this wastage of energy (fuel for transport, tools, etc). And we will continue cutting and damaging water catchments, rivers, fishes and wildlife. The conflicts of men and tigers and elephants were such problem created from the logging activities. If we have used less wood, we would not encroach on the tigers and elephants' territories. Rivers will not be polluted with silts. Fishermen would have better income. Terrapins and otters will not be affected. They are all related.

I have a friend who hung a framed rhinoceros beetle in his house. I told him that by framing a rhinoceros beetle, he was actually killing one of the rare beetles. And by doing so, that particular species could face extinction. He replied, "I only killed one. This will not affect the species. It is the logging - they practically wiped out the whole ecosystem in the jungle. Logging killed everything! You want to stop me then you should first stop the logging!"

I am dumbfolded. You?