Friday, February 20, 2009

What is Eco Anyway?

From time to time I meet a tourist that views me as a neo-conquistador disrupting a culture and spreading upheaval. My crime? Buying land in a developing nation.

This same tourist would charge that the eco-resort I built in The Fortuna Forest Reserve is not a true eco resort at all. It was not built with local materials, it does not have solar power nor does it have composting toilets.

My answer for this charge… My resort is not yet perfectly ‘green’ but is one of the most eco-friendly resorts Panama.

Like many communities in Panama my community has environmentally conscious citizens and others -- not so much. My community, Valle de la Mina, is inside a forest reserve administered by the largest hydro-electric project in Panama, Fortuna, S.A. Right now the environmentally conscious citizens are loosing the battle. The U.S. Peace Corps volunteer and a local businessman tried to organize the cleaning of local streams and the transport of garbage to a landfill sight. They asked for support from the dam administration but there was not much enthusiasm from them or the town. The Peace Corps volunteer left without being replaced. Hunting inside the reserve is widespread, pesticides are overused and our neighbors clear cut their land.

However there is hope. Take for example, Kune, the owner of one of the only certified organic farms in Panama. His coffee is not the quality of the big Boquete plantations. His wine does not compare to Napa Valley. But after a tour of his farm you will taste the pride in his coffee and it may well be the best cup of coffee you have in Panama.

Tourism officials in Panama want to attract wealthy tourists. One rich tourist they believe will spend as much as five budget tourists but leave a smaller carbon footprint. This is naïve. Budget tourists, like our customers, eat Sancocho with local free range chicken, not Australian Black Angus steaks. They stay at local bed and breakfasts not the large international chains. They are providing an alternative industry to many poor Panamanians that could turn to other industries that are not so great for the environment.

Although we have not successfully eliminated hunting in the reserve, hunters no longer use our trails to access the reserve. But the point is not to restrict their actions but to provide them with an alternative. The answer is in the economy not from pedantic moral lessons. One of our customers helped us raise $1500 for a local family that needed a new home. Kune, the organic farmer, gets 100% of his customers from us. Slowly, the community is realizing through our example, that there are dollars to be made in preserving the natural beauty of their environment. The composting toilets are important and will come but toilets alone do not raise the awareness of a community.

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