A Preview of the FOREWORD

by Richard J. Bangs
former Editor-in-Chief of Mungo Park and Founder of Sobek Expeditions

In The Wake of Adventure

Not that long ago I received a letter from a solo European traveller who had made his way to the interior of Kalimantan, to the village of Long Ampung on the Kayan River. It was his second private tour of this hidden vault of wilderness. The first time, a year previous, when he hired Dayak porters to carry his gear to Long Uro, about a four-hour trek, they wanted $1.80/person for the enterprise. In the interim an adventure tour company had arrived and paid the same porters $3.00 each, and now that was their asking price. The letter-writer was incensed. He couldn't believe that others might follow in his footsteps on an organized tour, and that they might pay more for what he received so cheaply. Once more, he complained, tourists of this type would corrupt the local culture, and ruin the experience for true explorers such as himself.

This is at once a specious and elitist conceit, imperialist in its assumptions, and anti-evolutionist in its expression. As those who actually live in the rain forest have often said when khaki-wearing Americans and Europeans show up in their backyard and proclaim they are here to save the planet, "Who are these Outsiders to think they have a right to impose moral strictures on our land; they've already cut down most of their own trees, killed their greatest herds, polluted their cities, dammed their rivers? We will decide our fate; not outsiders." The ersatz moral ping that courses through the minds of the mobile rich visiting the inert poor is rarely based in reality.

All politics is local, and inevitably the locals want to decide how and when they change, and tourism, more often than not, offers an alternative, a chance to change, to evolve. Later in the same letter, the irate author talks about the high infant mortality rate of the region, the absence of medical aid, and comments that a nurse or doctor visits but twice a year. The nexus is missing, but inductively it would seem that if adventure travelers began to arrive in significant numbers, and paid for local services, then moneys might become available for hospitals, schools, and social services. It has worked in Nepal with ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project), which exacts a fee from every foreign traveler, and the moneys are then turned over to the locals to not only supplement a miserably poor economy, but to help in construction of ecologically sound lodges, and to buy kerosine as a fuel substitute, so fewer trees will be cut. Economics is the most potent coin in eco-tourism, and to wistfully wish that nobody follows in your footsteps so that the less-advantaged remain so, and will entertain your lone visitation for obscenely cheap prices, is a shameful fancy.

Besides, the adventure traveler has been let out of the box, and there is no turning back. The concept of adventuring in an ecologically sound way has blossomed into the fastest growing phenomena in the travel business, with gains of about 20-30 percent per year. About 8 million Americans reported taking a trip in which they learned about and appreciated the environment last year; a projected 35 million consider themselves likely to do so within the next three years. Nature-oriented tourists in the US currently spend about $14 billion a year, about 7 percent of total travel expenditures worldwide. While this may not qualify as a mega-trend, it is well beyond a niche market, and it is here to stay and grow.

Since the late 1980s, countless articles have been written about eco-tourism (or nature-based tourism), international conferences have been held in its name, and an ever increasing number of tour operators and resorts have announced themselves to be good practitioners of it. In the midst of all this activity, the public is sometimes left reeling, feeling that ecotourism is nothing more than another confusing blast of buzz in the "green marketplace."

But ecotourism is much more than a buzzword: It's a movement that is having profound effects on the future of the environment and of travel. And that is a powerful theme in John Ivanko's book.

The danger isn't that we aren't leaving enough wilderness alone for privileged explorers to sample for themselves; nor is it that what might be called "slash-and-burn tourism" is buzzing down the path. The real danger is that wilderness areas will be developed by other, so-called nonsustainable industries, such as logging, agriculture, petroleum extraction and mining, which will irrevocably destroy whatever they finger, a sort of reverse Midas-touch. To meet this threat, concerned members of the tourism industry are addressing the problem of ensuring that ecotourism can become a valid economic alternative for developers, tour organizers, outfitters, participants, and for those who in live in the places we visit, at their behest.

As promising as ecotourism is as a tool for environmental conservation, and cultural enabling, travelers--even the most well-meaning--have an undeniable impact on the places they visit. The key is to insure the impact is minimal and better than the alternatives. In some instances, the impact actually improves the environment visited.

Back in 1978 my company, Sobek Expeditions, conducted a rafting expedition down the Jimi River in central Papua New Guinea, the first exploration by boat into a region little-known to the western world. It was a fabulous trip, better than any river excursion in the Americas for its scenery, wildlife and exotica. Along the way, deep in the Jimi Valley, we met two tribes, who seemed to have had no contact with fair-skinned outsiders. They were nomadic, and their possessions few: some carved stools, spears, pieces of crude clothing pounded from tree bark, and clay lip plates and plugs made from pig tusks used in body decorations. They were as curious of us as we of them, and we spent hours exploring one another's effects and sharing food and drink. Then we disappeared around the bend leaving them in the stone age.

A year later we returned with a group of clients to share what we had found so lustrous and wonderful, and they, too, were transported by the sights and sounds of a piece of the world unchanged for centuries. But, as we pulled away from a village, we looked back upstream and saw a local waving at our departure, and he was wearing a pair of sunglasses. Simultaneously, one of the clients proudly held up a stool he had traded for the glasses. Commerce and corruption had begun.

Pinged with guilt, thinking we may have introduced something to a culture that would upset its value and more systems (a la the Coke bottle in The Gods Must Be Crazy), perhaps alter its cosmology, (the cross in The Mission), even elevate the status of the man who randomly received the glasses (like winning the lottery), we decided to seek out the right thing to do. So, we wrote up an account of the incident, and concluded that we hoped to return again and again to this part of Papua New Guinea with more clients, but we hoped for some guidance as to how to handle this inter-cultural exchange. We then sent this query to the head of every college anthropology department in the U.S., and some overseas. Within a couple weeks replies began to fill our mailbox. By month's end we had a pile of wildly differing opinions from the experts. Maybe a third of the respondents chastised us and our adventure travelers for venturing into a pure environment, a rare field laboratory circumstance, in which an untainted culture could be examined by trained social scientists. With nary a Ph.D. among us, we were contaminating a petri dish, and we were advised to cease and desist. Another third wrote back and commented that progress was inevitable, that freeways would soon be passing through these villages, and we need not concern ourselves with adversely affecting a culture doomed to dilution anyway, so raft and enjoy.

Then there was a middle ground. Several professors advised that change is destined, and the wise course is the one that attempts a sensitive, responsible, softly stepping approach. They suggested we trade with the people we met on the river, but that we do so in a judicious way, trading simple things they could use (fishhooks) and biodegradable items (soap; spices), rather than Hawaiian shirts and yo-yos, or icons that could radically revise a system. And that became our policy.

We still run rivers in New Guinea, and other adventures throughout the developing world. A lot has changed. Anthropologists from around the world have dropped in on the Jimi Valley and come out with Ph.D. theses. There is now a money economy, and an awareness of a world beyond the banks of the Jimi. Not far away there is a clinic to which the Jimi peoples take their ill, and a few have left the valley for schooling. There is talk of a road coming in. Change has occurred, as it always does, always will, and is the desire of the locals. There are downsides to change, to cultural evolution, but from the point of view of those in the midst, it is better than being damned as a museum piece to serve the romantic or academic notions of outsiders.

Adventure travelers and purveyors of such must know that it is impossible to visit an environment, a culture, and not have some deleterious effect. But, it is the larger ledger that must be considered. Every inch of the planet has been charted, inspected and lusted after by commercial or governmental concerns, and most often, if left alone, unvisited, these places fall to the abominable short-term, often irreversible exploitation of industrial and business enterprises. And in many cases nobody notices until it's too late. But, when eco-travelers come around, the active travelers, the rafters, the kayakers, the backpackers, they become an active constituency and a powerful voice for a better way. They leave behind moneys in a local economy, which improve a way of life, while at the same time celebrating tradition; they fight to keep the wild places so, as they have been personally touched by the magic and beauty of pristine places, and want to return, even if just in memory.

We've seen this ethos work countless times, perhaps most dramatically with the Tatshenshini River in Canada and Alaska just last year. It runs through one of the wildest and most inaccessible corridors in North America, through the three-mile-high St. Elias range, and is host to more grizzly bears and bald eagles than anywhere in the world. Nobody lives here; there is no evidence of humankind. It belongs to the wildlife and the wildflowers and wildness. The only intrusions are from the occasional rafters who float down the river during the summer months. Yet, when a giant open pit copper mine was proposed in the British Columbia section of the river, it was in such an obscure location the backers never expected opposition. But, the rafters saw what was happening, and discovered that the mine, besides scarring the impeccable face of a wild place, would leak sulfuric acid into the watertable, which might poison the salmon, and as part of the food chain, then the eagles and bears who ate them. It was the rafters who grew incensed with this arcane project, and who built a grassroots movement to stop the atrocity. They brought the issue to the pages of National Geographic, Life, Sierra, Audubon, The New York Times, and millions now saw the rare and special beauty that had been the privilege of a few rafters. Finally, the plug was pulled, and the region was declared an international park, due in no small part to the eco-travelers who passed through, were affected by what they saw, and chose to act.

Another example illustrates how an adventure travel group can provide a local economic incentive to actually improve a place that was soiled by early explorers. Two years ago, the Sagarmatha Environmental Expedition set out to climb Mount Everest, but with a twist: their goal was to remove some of the 10 tons of trash that has been left on the mountain since the first successful climb in 1953. The expedition not only reached the 29,028'-summit, they put a sizable dent in the garbage. The group, which included American climbers and local Sherpas, removed 5,000 pounds of junk and 250 oxygen bottles from the slopes of Sagarmatha, the Nepali name for Everest. Brent Bishop, son of the late Dr. Barry Bishop, a member of the first American team to summit Everest in 1963, headed the expedition's environmental aspects and implemented a simple market-based incentive program that contributed to the campaign's success. The plan involved paying staff Sherpas a bounty for collecting and transporting garbage, in addition to their usual salaries. Now, such incentives may become common in Nepal, and other similar clean-up expeditions are planned for Pakistan and India. The alpine world is improving, due to those who came after the original explorers, and made a commitment to pitch in and make a difference, not just extract a personal experience.

It does no good to wish that travelers not follow in your footsteps and alter what is inevitable. It is better to wish that the visitors, and their guides, travel with a certain consciousness, in a certain responsible and appreciative way; in short, that they endorse and practice the tenants of Environmentally Responsible Tourism. If the world traveled the way John Ivanko has, with an open mind, a searching heart, and a will to find the least imperfect path, or even if his book is read and its lessons seeps into readers' souls, this will help to usher in a better world.

Some day the Dayak villagers just might save enough from the foreign adventure travelers so they can come visit our neighborhood, and maybe they'll leave some coins behind: the coins of equality, opportunity and pride.

--Richard Bangs is the former Editor-in-Chief of Mungo Park, the interactive adventure and environmental on-line magazine, and founder of Sobek Expeditions.


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The Least Imperfect Path is published by Paradigm Press Ltd.

Exploring distant lands or one's backyard, Ivanko's publishing credits and clients include subjects or material from 35 countries spanning six continents.