Douglas Trent

Ecotourism in the Pantanal and its Role as a Viable Economic Incentive for Conservation

(Excerpts from the full paper presented in the uncorrected, advance proof of The Pantanal of Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, Hudson MacArthur Publishers, copyright 2000 by Waterland Research Institute.)


Ecotourism is the concept of actively using nature-based tourism to help preserve biodiversity and benefit local communities. A deeper understanding of ecotourism, and how it might help preserve biodiversity, is necessary if we are to benefit from a discussion of its role as a viable economic incentive for conservation in the Pantanal. 

Approximately four percent of the earth’s surface is in some sort of protected area, receiving various degrees of protection. While the protected area strategy for biodiversity preservation is both important and significant, approximately 95 percent or more of the earth’s biodiversity exists outside of these protected areas. In addition, diversity is decreasing in many, if not most, of these reserves, and we can only expect it to continuing decreasing. Reserves ignore the larger hydrological and other natural cycles on which they depend, and they frequently do not have the support of the people living in the area. Many reserves were formed from lands appropriated from those now living just outside of their borders. Recent news that the earth’s population has now reached six billion people proves that growth is unrelenting in most places and that there is simply not enough money to create protected areas, which would preserve as little as 40 percent of the earth’s biodiversity. 


With biodiversity distributed around the entire planet, we need to look to communities throughout the world for answers. When communities become the beneficiaries and custodians of their biodiversity, they are much more likely to preserve it. In the Pantanal, the communities are both the towns on the edges, such as Poconé, Cáceres, Corumbá, Miranda and Aquidauana, and the low density of Pantaneiros and others that live in the wetlands. 


Land tenure seems to be the only way to involve local communities in the decision-making process that often leads to the degradation of habitats. Local landowners are less likely to support the large-scale “development” plans such as dams and roads, which are known for their disastrous effects on both biodiversity and local communities. The Hidrovía river channelization project was at least temporarily suspended in 1998, and yet the Pantanal remains under assault from efforts to clear areas for cattle ranching, rice and soy plantations, agricultural pesticides, mercury from gold mining, along with heavy siltation that destroys fish, aquatic plants and other members of the habitat. A handful of rich families own most of the Pantanal, and the local citizens have little power to oppose these practices. Pantaneiros are the people of the Pantanal. In the northern Pantanal, just a handful of Pantaneiro families own land. Most of the Pantaneiros that currently live in the Pantanal live on the land of and work for rich landowners from outside of the Pantanal. Many of these landowners do not live in the Pantanal. 


Empowering women is also necessary in the preservation of biodiversity. The research of Dr. Deborah Tannen, a well-respected sociolinguist, has shown that women are more community-minded than men, regardless of cultural differences. In many cultures women do most of the wood gathering, cooking, child-rearing and other jobs that support the family. Men often work outside the home and yet wield most of the power in the relationship. An educated woman is more likely to be interested in the long-term welfare of her family and community, which will include a concern for the surrounding natural environment. 

To maintain biodiversity over the long term, we need to work with and support local communities and projects for the long term. Communities often are the recipients of short-term projects run by foreign organizations. After waiting patiently for a project to finish, they often get on with their lives with little or no lasting effect. Without a long-term commitment, it can be difficult for a community to change for the better. We need to support people, processes and institutions, such as farmer cooperatives, small, sustainable industries and women’s groups. There are no short-term answers for long-term protection of our biodiversity. We cannot separate people from the biodiversity where they live. Failures in the protected-area programs usually result from ignoring these realities. 


Ecotourism can be divided into two categories: ecolodges and ecotours. Both can play an important role in biodiversity protection. 

An ecolodge differs from a “normal” lodge much in the same way that ecotourism is different from nature-based tourism. An ecolodge will work to protect the surrounding habitat and its biodiversity, as well as use local employees, and help them achieve economic stability. A non-ecolodge puts more emphasis into the profitable operation of the lodge, with little attention paid to environmental preservation or improving local communities. In the Pantanal, most of the lodges do not pay enough attention to their impact on the surrounding habitat, especially in their handling of waste. While they generally preserve the land, they do not actively reach out or provide the means to preserve other areas. 

Ecolodges tend to have long-term status in a community. By employing and training local citizens they can provide income and prestige. The model that works best is for an ecolodge to provide a complete package. The lodge that has its own naturalist guides, picks up clients at the airport and provides all the meals will be the most successful. Travel agents and tour operators are then able to book the package, rather than having to arrange transfers, guides and hotel reservations. To my knowledge, there is only one lodge in the Pantanal offering a complete package. 

It is in the best interest of ecolodge owners to invest in the local and surrounding communities. In the Pantanal, this will usually mean your neighbors. The more support the lodge gives these communities, the more support it will receive in return. 


It is necessary to understand the difference between an ecotour operator and an ecotour lodge. Comparatively little has been published about ecotour operators, yet it is often these operators who bring groups to the lodges. Tour operators have a large role to play, but their potential contribution often is not recognized in the literature. It is important to distinguish between outbound and inbound tour operators. Outbound operators are tour companies in the country of the traveler who will visit another country. They often contract with inbound tour operators, those companies in the destination country that receive the tourists and operate the tours. While many types of tour operators exist (adventure, cultural, trekking, and so on), my experience as both an outbound and inbound nature-and-birding tour operator leads me to the following ideas. 


While ecotour operators regularly have the tours stay in ecolodges, other issues may make ecotour operators appear to be less “eco” to those who are without an understanding of the business. While ecolodges may prefer to use local guides, for example, it is not always in the best interest of a tour company that travels to several destinations. Natural-history ecotour guides should be knowledgeable about the flora and fauna at each destination the tour visits. The guides should be able to talk about environmental and social issues that exist in each destination. Unfortunately, the majority of local guides in the northern Pantanal where we offer tours do not possess the requisite skills and knowledge to reach the international standard for quality naturalist guides. 

Also, it is often detrimental to business for an ecotour operator to train local guides if they are likely to become the competition. Thousands of dollars and many months are needed to find “spots” where one can show tour participants important species. More time and money is invested in getting sound recordings of animal calls, which are regularly used on birding as well as general nature tours, in order to see species that would otherwise be seen only very rarely. Knowing that the spots and the recordings are often what draw clients from one operator to another, there is great importance in not letting your hard-earned knowledge or recordings get into the hands of your competition. 


An ecotour company is a business as well as a force in preserving biodiversity. It is, therefore, preferable to hire naturalists who, although not necessarily native to each individual community, are native to the country that is being toured. Several other reasons exist for this policy. For example, it is more desirable to employ guides who can remain with the group for the entire tour, and the Pantanal is usually just one stop on a longer tour. This allows them the opportunity to establish a better rapport with the tour participants. These guides also can answer a wider range of questions about the destination countries. 

An ecotour guide will work with tour participants to collect beverage bottles and other trash generated by the tour in remote areas and transport it back to the city. Ecolodges will almost certainly appreciate such an effort. While there are not many true ecolodges in the South American regions where we operate most of our tours, we have been able to secure the assistance of hotel staff in collecting our disposable beverage containers from the meal tables. At the same time, we have been largely unsuccessful in getting the hotel owners to encourage other tour operators to do the same in the Pantanal and elsewhere. 

The ecotour operator can easily do several things that are more difficult for ecolodges. They can design tours to visit proper areas from an ecological point of view. With their insight, they can assist lodges in meeting the standards of the industry. Ecotour operators can also bring tourists to conservation projects and provide the opportunity to purchase souvenirs from or donate money to those projects. When requested, we provide bird and mammal checklists to the lodges with which we work. 

One of the major differences between an ecotour operator and a nature-based tour operator, whether an inbound or outbound operator, is that an ecotour operator puts a portion of the tour profits into local projects that aid in preserving biodiversity. A common mistake of outbound operators is that they often put large amounts of their conservation budgets into the pockets of conservation organizations in their own country. While most of these non-governmental organizations (NGOs) put some of that money into some very good projects, a good portion of NGO budgets goes toward rent, salaries and other expenses in the outbound country. Both inbound and outbound operators who want to contribute significantly to biodiversity preservation should look for projects that they can support within the destination country. It is a contradiction that some NGOs from developed countries offer tour programs that specifically prohibit the incoming operator from soliciting donations from participants for local conservation efforts while on tour (fearing a decreased donation to their coffers when the participants return home). 


Perhaps the biggest difficulty facing the ecotour industry is that very few consumers care whether the lodge or tour operator are ecotour companies at all. Focus Tours has been in operation since 1981, with the goals of using tourism for environmental education and raising funds for conservation work. In all this time, we have had less than 10 prospective clients ask us about our qualifications from an ecotour point of view. Other ecotour operators have confirmed that this has been their experience as well. It makes little sense to put time and money into ascertaining which lodges and operators in any given area are true ecotour companies if the consumers do not use that information to choose a company with which to work. Consumers seem to be much more concerned about price, comfort and what they can see than whether or not the company they plan to travel with is ecologically conscious. If an ecotour company’s sales and profits are not increased because of their willingness to put some of their profits into conservation, they are not likely to share the profits. Only what they see is necessary will be conserved. 

Organizations interested in funding studies to determine which businesses are ecologically responsible need instead to channel their funding into projects which educate consumers to be more discriminating, choosing only true ecotours. Market forces would solve the problem if consumers based their travel decisions on the degree to which a business is ecologically active. 

If consumers who go to the trouble of finding a real ecotour discover that the company is not professional in other aspects of the business, they will be unlikely to support other ecotourism businesses in the future. This will have a negative effect on the goals of ecotourism. 


The Pantanal offers the tourism industry a chance to turn nature-based tourism into ecotourism. Up until now, however, I have seen little true ecotourism being practiced in the Pantanal. In the Pantanal and many other areas around the world, the term “ecotourism” is simply being substituted for nature-based tourism, without the “eco” benefits. We need to raise the standards for what is currently referred to as ecotourism in the Pantanal and elsewhere. 

Although there are now several lodges and a number of inbound and outbound tour operators offering tours in the Pantanal, I am not able to report that tourism is doing much to preserve biodiversity. While most lodges will encourage wildlife to occupy their land, there is so much wildlife throughout the Pantanal that this occurs without their help, and cannot be counted as a benefit. The employees in these lodges are often from the nearest big city and are not Pantaneiros. Where Pantaneiros are employed, they are usually at the bottom of the economic ladder. They often work as boatmen and help keep the grounds clean. 

The majority of the tourists I see in the northern Pantanal are Brazilian, and they have only a marginal interest in the natural history. They do not demand that their guides have much knowledge or are ecologically conscious. While I personally like all of the local guides that I have met, only one or two have the knowledge to guide an international natural history or birding tour in the region successfully. In addition, most do not seem to have an understanding of proper behavior when dealing with wildlife. I recently spoke with a group that found a large yellow anaconda while out on a morning drive. The guide captured the creature, put it in a sack and stored it on top of the vehicle, with the intention to take it back to the hotel and show it to the part of the group that had decided to pass on the morning outing. The snake got out of the bag, dropped down into the car and was met by screaming tourists who began batting at it in fear. Animals are not to be persecuted, and especially not captured. This is posted at the entrance to the northern Pantanal. One key to an ecotour is knowledge, but a more important key is respect for the flora and fauna of the areas. 


Many tour operators believe they are operating an ecotour business. They are using local vehicles, staying in Pantanal lodges and hiring locals as guides. A closer look at the situation in the northern Pantanal where I have my experience reveals another picture. The city of Poconé has a large population of Pantaneiros who have left the Pantanal. Poconé is the seat of government for the county that includes the northern Pantanal. The Transpantaneira is the dirt road that runs south from Poconé 150 km to the Cuiabá River, which is the southern border of the state of Mato Grosso. Poconé County has the responsibility of keeping the road graded and the more than 100 wooden bridges in shape, as well as providing services to the people of the county. Cuiabá, 100 km to the north, is where the airport resides. All of the local tour operators, rental car companies, bus companies, guides and so forth are in Cuiabá. Aside from money spent at hotels and gasoline in Poconé, all of the revenue from tourism in the region stays in Cuiabá. In the southern Pantanal, the same can be said for the cities of Campo Grande and Corumbá. Interests that are not indigenous own all but a few lodges, and they own all of the large profitable lodges. The few lodges owned by Pantaneiros do not have the economic power to expand, as more and more tourists go to the larger lodges with more amenities. 


Focus Tours’ relationship with the Pantaneiro family of Benedito Leire Falcão de Arruda is a noteworthy exception to the above trend. . . .


True ecotour companies go out of their way to make conservation-through-tourism a reality. Using local hotels, rental buses and so forth is a part of running a nature-tour business and does not automatically make a tour operator an ecotour operator. One has to be willing to use tour profits and time to work towards actively preserving biodiversity. One has to encourage others to donate and work to come up with ways to preserve. 


Humankind is facing an unparalleled challenge when it comes to preserving the planet’s biodiversity in the Pantanal and elsewhere. Solutions that are most likely to be successful will work at the community level in a very decentralized manner. Ecotourism is well positioned to evolve into an important element of the total equation if the demand for real ecotourism increases substantially. The biggest problem ecotourism currently faces is the apathy of the consumer public. Those wishing to assist the ecotourism movement need to address that apathy. The alternative is the proliferation of the dangerous arm of tourism that has left its destructive mark on much of the world to date.