On Sunday I went with Alex, Estela, and Cori, the other Sister Cities volunteer, to Cinquera, a quiet town tucked into the folds of the mountains at the end of an extremely bumpy dirt road. It was one of the historic areas during the armed conflict in the 80s, as the mountains surrounding the town were filled with guerrilleros and suffered countless bombardments by the armed forces.
“If they had a bomb and couldn’t find where to drop it, they would just come drop it on these mountains,” we were told by Rafael, a former guerrillero and current park ranger in the municipality’s 1,600 acre Eco Park.
Eco Tourism is one of those trendy words these days, right up there with “Organic” and “Fair Trade” and “Farm Grown” and “All Natural”. It’s been picked up by the marketing genius that puts leaves and brown writing on a label and in so doing convinces the people that it’s healthy and environmentally friendly. Costa Rica is a great example of a country famous for offering tourism that both preserves and offers access to natural treasures like forests, beaches, and rivers. It makes us feel good about ourselves and our vacations when we feel like we’re enjoying nature and helping to preserve it. From a lounge chair under massive banana leaves and screeching monkeys, it’s easy to feel far away from the capitalist machine that we all know deep down is eating our souls and our environment.
But a visit to Cinquera’s rapidly growing Eco Park — which saw 13,000 visitors just last year — made me think about what is at the heart of this whole Eco Tourism thing. There are those who argue that the term is an oxymoron, that the high-traffic and structural development intrinsic of tourism does not fit within the scope of ecological preservation. And a lot of the time, those people are right.
I think it is important to think about what motivates these kinds of projects, and that determines a lot about the nature of such initiatives. Eco Tourism projects that are started with the vision of a BUSINESS opportunity to MAKE MONEY are doomed to lose sight of the principles of preservation and natural integrity. They become assets to be used to maximize profit. But if you’re doing Eco Tourism because you want to protect the important resource of a natural area and people’s ability to remain connected to it.
The Cinquera Forest Eco Park was created because the former guerrilla fighters felt indebted to the trees that protected them from bombardments and provided shelter and food during the 12 years of armed conflict. It was because they knew that the cycles of water, land erosion, and growth depend on a healthy forest. All tourism development is secondary to those motivating factors.
The hostel is simple, and there’s nothing flashy about the tourism there. Some people would rather not learn about the history of the conflict in that forest, but the team that manages the park insist that history is a part of the park that cannot be left out. According to some tourism experts, they are not doing all they could.
But what is definitely true is that this forest has given life to the community of Cinquera and to the people who have rebuilt their lives and their community in the 21 years since the armed conflict ended. And I think we have a lot to learn from them.