Ecotourism: An Instrument of Conservation
Yellow-throated Toucans

Ecotourism: An Instrument of Conservation
by Raúl Arias de Para, 1994 

Ecotourism, an activity seemingly in vogue nowadays, is much more than sporadic visits to regions of extraordinary natural beauty. By the same token, to live the unforgettable experience of spending a night in the rainforest is only a superficial part of ecotourism.

To understand what ecotourism is all about, we must know the meaning of the word “ecology”, which comes from the Greek words “eco”, meaning house and “logie”, meaning science or doctrine. The dictionary defines ecology as the discipline that studies the relationships between organisms and their environment, that is to say, between an organism and its home. In a broader sense, ecology deals with the relation between living beings and the planet Earth: our great home, our only home. The word tourism does not need any further explanation. In one way or another, we have all practiced tourism at some moment in our lives, because tourism is simply visiting a place different from our home simply for pleasure.

The combination of the words ecology and tourism results in Ecotourism, a fascinating activity on which I will comment summarily in the following paragraphs.

We shall begin our trip bearing in mind that “eco” means home. Therefore, ecotourism can be construed to mean the act of visiting our home. However, this does not mean the concrete and glass structure we inhabit daily, but the primitive dwelling of our ancestors, the home we left thousands of years ago. I am talking about the primeval forests in which the human being is only one of the countless species that inhabit them. To return to our ancestral home, that is, visiting a primeval forest and to walk in it alone, is in many ways, an instructive experience. For example, it serves for something so insignificant as showing us how superfluous modern clothing is. What purpose does a necktie serve in the jungle? However, more important, although painful, is that it produces a profound feeling of shame, perhaps anguish, when we realize that “civilized” man has not known how to conserve his ancestors´ home. How long will they last, these primeval forests that served as home to the Earth´s first dwellers? How long will it be before the flora and fauna of our forests become mere memories in our museums and libraries? If we continue at the same rate of deforestation that we have been experiencing until now, it will be only a matter or one or two generations before our forests become barren deserts. That is precisely why ecotourism can be much more than an amusing and even enlightening activity, ecotourism can and should be an instrument for conservation.

I arrived at this conclusion through direct personal experience. I did not have any books nor did I read any theories drawn up by scientists, although later I discovered that those sources concur with my deductions. I merely had the logic of a businessman concerned about the future of a marvelous place that was in danger of being irretrievably lost.

The following is my explanation.

My brothers and I inherited from our deceased father Tomas Arias certain lands in El Valle de Antón containing a waterfall formed by the Quebrada Amarilla in its inexorable path toward the ocean. It is more than 65 meters high, surrounded by luxuriant vegetation. It forms a small natural pond, which is said to be enchanted. It is supposed to magically dissolve the worries, woes and fatigue of those who bathe in it. Surely, more than one pair of lovers has sworn eternal love amid the bubbling water of its crystalline stream. In addition, many families of Golden Frogs (Atelopus zeteki) lived in the area, and they could often be seen jumping among the black volcanic rocks like minute dots moving across the face of the Earth.

Unfortunately, the disorderly tide of visitors with little ecological awareness was ruining the area, throwing thrash and waste matter right and left. Then they started felling 100-year old tress and uprooting native plants, giant ferns and delicate orchids. Soon thereafter, they took away all the golden frogs to die of melancholy hundred of miles away. Lastly, the luxuriant tropical vegetation died, and the sound of water bubbling amid the rocks, the voice of the North Wind and the songs of the birds were displaced by the blaring noise of portable sound equipment. Then peace disappeared and a saddened Mother Nature became silent.

However, we, the descendants of Tomas Arias decided to rescue the waterfall from the sorrowful state it was in, and undertook a project aimed at preventing its destruction. We did it, not only to honor our father, who for more than seven decades preserved the primeval nature of those rivers and forests. We did it also because we knew that nature does not belong to us, it belongs to the future generations and it is our sacred duty to preserve it for the benefit of those who are going to be living in this planet.

Our efforts to rescue the waterfall should not be limited simply to preventing outsiders from entering the area. When I started to think about the issue, I thought that would be extremely selfish. We had to share what we had with everyone, but in a way that would not endanger the area´s future. In other words, this would be a perfect example of the concept mentioned daily by economists; sustained development, an economic activity that does not deplete the resource it feeds on. We should also charge a reasonable admission fee, not only to generate income with which to pay for the area´s maintenance, but also to show visitors that Nature has its price, and that to the extent that it becomes free, it disappears. Then I proceeded to hire three unemployed youngsters from El Valle, and one fine day I placed a sign at the entrance to the waterfall stipulating that admission to the area would cost one Balboa ($1 US) from now on. I also established certain basic rules to aid in conserving the area. Lo and behold! An eco-tourist activity, an instrument of conservation had been born.

Eight years have elapsed since that summer day in which I established an admission fee for entrance to the Chorro Macho waterfall (also known as Tomasito’s Falls) starting a process whereby Mother Nature generates income for its own conservation. In addition, the townspeople have become the staunchest defenders because they have discovered that they can earn a living out of the area as long as they keep it clean and in its natural state.

What I did, thanks to God and many people who helped me along, can be done at a national level because Panama offers truly exceptional characteristics for ecotourism in view of the enormous extension of virgin forests less than one hour away from Panama City. I am speaking of the Soberania and Las Cruces Trail Natural Parks, and parts of the Metropolitan Park. There are also the recently vacated by the U.S. Armed Forces, for example, Fort Sherman in the Atlantic sector, which covers an area of approximately 10,000 hectares of rainforests unaltered since pre-Columbian times. The United States, unknowingly, rendered us an invaluable service by maintaining the area free of the Los Santos’ hatchets. (Translator´s note: According to local lore, subsistence tree-cutters were called “Los Santos”) It is as if 100 years ago the founding fathers of our country had decided to maintain enormous areas of land untouched for the benefit of future generations. The time has come, we are the “future” generations and soon we will have the key to enter the treasure chamber whose doors have remained closed for over a century.

Ecotourism can to be the instrument with which Panamanians can exploit, without depleting, the enormous natural resources that will soon be ours. Let us hope that we will know how to properly manage this extraordinary natural heritage.