Protected Areas and Ecotourism: A Complex Issue in Brazil

Marta de Azevedo Irving (*)

The planning and management of ecotourism in protected areas represent today one of the greatest challenges that faces the country, with the objective of reconciling the pre-requirements of environmental conservation in areas of high patrimonial value in bio-diversity with the concept of sustainable development.

The "Living Planet Report" (WWF, 1999) states that between 1970 and 1995, in the space of time of just one generation, the world lost about 30% of its natural wealth. This suggests an equivalent decline in biodiversity. Since the 1960´s approximately 10% of the forest covering of the planet was lost between 1970 and 1995. In the case of marine life, this decline is estimated at 35%. This figure is still larger in relation to the wealth occurring in fresh water. An average reduction of 45% of the limnological wealth was estimated between 1970 and 1990, based on studies and data obtained for 102 fresh water species.

In this context, it is evident that human impact on preserved natural areas, or those in the state of conservation, will tend to show a marked increase in the next years, not just through competition in relation to the base of natural
resources which naturally reflects conflicts of interests for land use, but also for its symbolic value in relation to the redemption of nature and values essential for urban societies, with direct consequences on the use of this patrimony for recreational and leisure purposes.

According to Brandon (1996), parks and protected areas are among the main possibilities of conservation of biodiversity as 8,500 protected areas cover approximately 5.17% of the earth's land surface, from a total of more than 773 million Ha. The author also mentions that the majority of parks are seriously threatened by distinct causes, amongst which are the pressure of poverty without alternatives, large agriculture projects and principally, a lack of financial and human resources and political commitment for the management of protected areas.

In Brazil this information is controversial and imprecise. Diegues (1996) states that in 1990, Brazil had about fifteen types of Conservation Units (CSUs), with a total of 429 units and an area of 48,720,109 ha (federal, state, and municipal areas). Of these, in the Amazon region, an extension of 40,000,000 ha covered 72 protected areas. In contrast, an area of 4,043,390 ha in the south/south-east contained, at that time, 80% of the total number of CSUs in the country.

Wiedmann (1994), mentions the existence in Brazil of 31,800,000 ha of federal protected areas (direct and indirect use), which corresponds to 3.7% of the land surface of the country, in comparison to the world average of 5% and a South America average of 6.2% (IUCN, 1992). This percentage is also significantly less than Venezuela (34%) and Costa Rica (11%), countries that are actively engaged in the development of ecotourism.

During the 1970´s and 1980´s, 2,098 CSU´s were established throughout the world (on a national level), covering an area of 3,100,000 km2 (Diegues, 1996). An analysis of the most recent data confirms a tendency towards a gradual increase in the incorporation of new protected areas into the international system of conservation.

The Brazilian case exemplifies this situation well. If UNESCO (1992) data indicated a figure of just 2.4% of the national territory in the condition of protected area - official data used as a basis for the elaboration of the "Projeto de Corredores Ecologicos" (Ecological Corridors Project) (IBAMA,1998) - employed a much larger percentage of 4.57% which just included federal CSUs, in a total of 145 distributed over 38,939,940 ha in seven distinct management categories. Apart from the categories linked to Public Authorities, the IBAMA lists covered in the same year a total of 122 "Reservas Particulares de Patrimônio Natural - RPPNs" (Private Reserves of Natural Patrimony), which clearly demonstrates the growing interest of the private sector in the conservation of natural resources. Just in "Legal" Amazonia, 122 areas, covering a total of 48,168,150 ha, including federal and state CSUs, were calculated. In the Atlantic Forest, 148 areas were registered occupying an area of 4,408,942 ha. These data therefore indicate a progressive increase in the number of protected areas, mainly in the Amazon region.

However, according to recent data (IBAMA, 2001), there are 206 protected areas in Brazil at the federal level, involving 42.894.936 ha or 5,05% of the brazilian territory. The distribution of the different management categories is summarized below:

a) Direct Use
. National Forests : 15.245.715,22 ha (50 Units)
. Environmental Protection Areas: 6,835.830 ha (26 Units)
. Relevant Ecological Areas: 69.463,63 ha (16 Units)
. Extractive Reserves: 3.490.099,71 ha (17 Units)

b) Indirect Use
. National Parks: 11.332.425,95 ha (45 Units)
. Biological Reserves: 3.048.109,63 ha (24 Units)
. Biological Stations: 2.187.572,44 ha (23 Units)
. Ecological Reserves: 685.720,07 (05 Units)

Concerning national parks (the best known type of CSUs and also the most important for ecotourism among the most restricted ones for possible use for recreation and leisure), the potential area in Brazil is of enormous relevance on the international scene. It is important to remember that, in the last few months, new parks have been created.

The World Congress of Parks in 1982, and the United Nations Program for the Environment established that ideally 10% of the earth's surface should be transformed into protected areas. In Brazil, although an evolution in the last few years can be detected, mainly due to international pressures and a greater participation of society in the issue, this figure is still very much below that required or expected. This statement is confirmed by the level of demand for the conservation of natural resources in a country with such megadiversity, in which ecotourism can represent an important source of income and foreign exchange, considering its potential to contribute to the gross domestic product, as in the example of Latin American countries such as Venezuela and Costa Rica. It should also be remembered that, based on an analysis of the Live Planet Index, the WWF (1999) recommends the establishment of a system of protected areas around the planet including at least 10% of each forest type.

However, although all this information is important to support the planning of eco-tourism in Brazil, in terms of tendencies and possibilities, the question related to protected areas is much more complex because it involves not just quantitative aspects linked to the planning and management of CSUs but principally the conflicts generated by this process.

In the Brazilian context, the history of the establishment of CSUs, and their development and conflicts viewed conceptually, are presented and discussed by Diegues (1996). According to this author, "the emplacement of neomites (untouched wild natural areas) and public spaces on "community" spaces, and bio-anthropomorphic myths (man as part of nature), has been causing serious conflicts. In many cases they have resulted in the expulsion of traditional inhabitants from their ancestral territories, as demanded by the legislation relating to restrictive conservation units".

The transposition of this neomyth to a distinct political, social, cultural, economic and environmental context is the basis of, or represents the cause of various conflicts linked to the implementation of the Environmental Policy, specifically the part concerning the conservation of natural resources. This dilemma is markedly expressed in the elaboration and application of legal directives and in serious problems of ambiguity and disharmony in public policies.

To be effective, the feasibility analysis of the development of an ecotourism strategy for Brazil should consider not only the conceptual difficulties related to the theme but also the degree of implementation of the "Sistema Nacional de Unidades de Conservação - SNUC" (National System of Conservation Units) and its results, as discussed below.

It must be remembered that the concept of ecotourism itself is being constructed and debated (EMBRATUR/IBAMA, 1994; Western, 1995; Irving, 1998; Veiga and Romão, 1998). This hinders, for example, the systematic treatment of data and information and even a critical evaluation of the performance of initiatives and projects, as frequently this "label" has mistakenly been used for any type of tourism in which the benefit of nature is the attraction but the commitment for sustainability is not clear.

On the other hand, the main legal instrument for the standardisation of planning and management of conservation units - Law No. 9.985/00 -, that establishes the National System of Conservation Units, one of the demands of the Convention of Biodiversity, signed and ratified by Brazil - has been discussed and negotiated since 1992 and has only recently been approved by the brazillian parliment. This process clearly illustrates the difficulty of achieving an agreement concerning the theme.

The Law No. 9.985/00 describes as one of its objectives: "to promote and provide favourable conditions for environmental education and understanding, recreation in contact with nature and ecological tourism". This same legal document defines Conservation Unit as "territorial space and its environmental resources, including waters, with relevant natural characteristics, legally recognised by the Public Authority, with well-defined objectives of conservation and limits, under a special policy of management, to which adequate guarantees of protection are applied".

However, a frequent problem observed in ecotourism planning refers to the interpretation of the concept of conservation unit, which can result in problems, which are difficult to solve and manage. It is important that there is clear distinction concerning the nomenclature of protected areas and their potentialities and/or restrictions for eco-tourism, mainly in relation to what the system calls "direct use" and "indirect use". In the terminology adopted by Law No. 9.985/00:

Direct use involves the collection and use, commercial or not, of natural resources. In this type are included the so-called Sustainable Use Units: Environmental Protection Areas, Areas of Important Ecological Interest, National Forests, Extraction Reserves, Fauna Reserves, Sustainable Development Reserves and Private Reserves of Natural Patrimony. In theory, all these areas can be utilised for the rational use of natural resources. Therefore, visits or use for recreation and leisure purposes and/or ecotourism are not incompatible.

Indirect use refers to activities that do not involve consumption, collection, damage or destruction of the natural resources. In this category, CSUs would be directed to the integral protection of natural systems, so as to assure the maintenance of ecosystems free from alterations caused by human interference, with just the indirect use of its natural attributes permitted. In this type, the following categories for management are included: Ecological Stations, Biological Reserves, National Parks, Natural Monuments and Wildlife Refuges. Of these, visiting is only allowed in the last three types, subject to Management Plan norms.

However the Management Plan - principal standardisation document and regulator for the use of protected areas - is not available for the majority of them. And according to the legal text "...until a Management Plan is elaborated, all activities and work developed in the totally protected CSUs should be limited to those destined to guarantee the integrity of the resources that the unit protects, assuring the traditional resident population that happens to be in the area, the means and conditions necessary to satisfy their material, social and cultural needs". Thus, in the case of totally protected CSUs, ecotourism is in theory restricted to those that have Management Plans and that in them, the guidelines are clear and locations are compatible with the activity. This limitation once again shows the importance of government bodies working and articulating as a group concerning the areas of tourism and the environment, so that ecotourism can become a real possibility in the next decade.

Recent data indicate that, depending on the area, ecotourism can represent from 40% to 60% of international tourism. In Brazil, with its cultural and environmental diversity, the country could be certainly used as a demonstrative case study in the search for a new ecotourism planning and development model. It is important to remember that while mass tourism exploded in the 20th century, another type of tourism began to emerge with the growth of environmental concern in the nineteen sixties. This period marked the beginning of ecotourism that has been growing significantly ever since.

It is important to add as inspiration for the Brazilian case that, in many developing countries in Latin America, tourism in protected areas already constitutes an important element in public policies. This growing interest sharply reflects the economic potential of the activity and its value as a powerful measure for attracting resources and regional development. Viewed in this way, ecotourism, if well managed, can have an unprecedented part to play in the process of the conservation of natural areas and benefits to local populations.

Although few studies have been conducted to estimate the financial return of ecotourism in protected areas and the conceptual definition of ecotourism itself is being constructed, a solid appraisal of its economic potential is presented by Ceballos-Lascuráin (1996) and it supplies important data in support of the statements above and the approach of a notion of environmental patrimony and/or economic value of the biodiversity.

In spite of being a megadiverse country and containing in its territory an enormous diversity of ecosystems and CSUs, Brazil does not occupy a prominent position in Latin America in relation to the development of ecotourism and only the Iguaçu Falls National Park is considered to be profitable. This is because, although the growth of tourism in protected natural areas is evident, many issues still need to be resolved before its effective fruition. Another emergent issue in this context is the following: What is the guarantee that the financial resources obtained through ecotourism will be applied to conservation of these areas and to the benefit of the local population?

A study of 23 protected areas with projects whose objectives envisaged the generation of income and local economic development confirmed that, while many initiatives were said to promote ecotourism, few generated substantial benefits for the protected areas or the local populations (Wells & Brandon, 1992).

Another limiting factor is that the concept of carrying capacity is only peripherally used in Brazil. This can be illustrated by the few examples, such as the marine national parks of Abrolhos and Fernão de Noronha, for which limits on the number of visitors have been set and control mechanisms applied. Nevertheless, these attempts are not always successful because they represent isolated measures, frequently in conflict with the policies of development defined for the area.

An element for analysis concerns the lack of information about the protected natural areas and the training of personnel to transmit this knowledge to the potential eco-tourists. In the same way that the demand for ecotourism in CSUs increases, the demands of the 21st century tourist also grow. The ecotourist, in the broadest sense, does not just want to observe but also understand the natural dynamics and to do this he looks for a means to live the nature as a whole. Publications and systematic data on the conservation units in Brazil are sparse and there is an unprecedented lack of qualified personnel to act, not just as "guides" but also as "decoders" of technical information and "partners" in the process of a search for knowledge.

If, on the one hand in the operational sphere, the lack of qualified human resources represents an obstacle to the development of ecotourism in Brazil, on the other, professionals specialised in sustainable tourism - with a managerial profile and broad knowledge of the issues involved in ecotourism especially in protected areas - are still absent from the process. There is still a regional inequality in relation to the training of professionals for ecotourism, and frequently the places with the greatest potential for the activity are the least favoured in strategies for the training of human resources.

Another problem to be resolved concerns the available infrastructure in the Conservation Units. In Brazil, most of the national and state parks lack the minimum infrastructure of support for ecotourism. CSUs that have an infrastructure generally have a visitors centre and/or lodgings for small groups. However, except for those closer to the capitals, these centres are not equipped to cater for the demand during the whole year and may even operate under precarious conditions.

There is also the institutional issue to be considered. Environmental organisations have only recently started to work together with institutions responsible for tourism planning. The result of this synergy was a document entitled "Diretrizes para uma Política Nacional de Ecoturismo" (Guidelines for a National Ecotourism Policy), developed jointly by EMBRATUR and IBAMA (EMBRATUR/IBAMA,1994). However, government bodies rarely act jointly at the insertion point of a protected area, which generates frequent conflicts between public policies and institutional decisions made far from the local reality. In addition, there is no systematic mechanism of integration between the federal, state and municipal institutions. This results in producing fragmented activities, which are not very effective in relation to the conservation of high biodiversity areas. Added to these difficulties are the financial crisis and lack of human resources, and the gradual loss of political power of environment institutions on a national scale, worsened by the corporate and centralising posture which have dominated until recently.

This collection of postures and institutional limitations has impeded discussion for a long time on the perspective of shared management of protected areas, with greater engagement of the local community in the taking of decisions. It is therefore evident that, without a defined new model for locally based integrated inter-institutional action, already in experimental implementation in some protected areas, the development of ecotourism linked to CSUs will tend to be slow and problematic.

It is possible, however, that the main obstacle for the use of parks for ecotourism is the land tenure issue and all its implications. As CSUs have been established by legal measures based just on technical data and not in consultation with the local communities and connected segments of society, many of these areas are considered "paper units". Most of them do not have their land tenure situation solved and many are historically occupied by communities, traditional or not, that use the natural resource base for their survival, and who obviously do not want to give up the legal rights to the land. It is estimated, for example, that 85% of CSUs in the southeast region are occupied and cases of totally protected CSUs being uninhabited are rare. At the moment, the land tenure issue represents the most serious problem to be faced by Public Authorities for the management of protected natural areas.

To aggravate the problem even more, the owners of areas transformed into "integral protection areas" lose access to, or the possibility of use of, property acquired by the usual processes of a democratic society, and no alternative is offered as compensation. The pressure of occupancy also tends to increase in overspill, in response to the interpretation that these areas are "no mans land". As, up to now, the environmental and social costs of the establishment and installation of units of indirect use have not represented parameters of analysis, and as the Public Authorities do not have means to put into effect the processes of compensation and/or dispossession, conflicts of all sizes remain without solution.

Some studies illustrate the complexity of this subject and the impact of tourism on areas of high ecological value in Brazil. Silveira (1998) analyses the evolution of eco-tourism on the Ilha do Mel (Paraná State Coast) , Veiga and Romão (1998) discuss the subject for the Vale da Ribeira (SP), and Sansolo (1998) focalises on the problem of the Serra do Mar. The three cases exemplify the phenomenon of social exclusion and the land tenure conflicts in areas identified for ecotourism, and they reinforce the magnitude of the challenge to be faced.

The establishment of CSUs in Brazil has allowed for some lessons to be learnt, including the view that the integration of work focused on the conservation of natural resources with the development of economic strategies of low environmental impact - including ecotourism - is absolutely necessary. The above examples however reinforce the statement that ecotourism linked with CSUs, although based on natural attractions of extreme relevance and secured to the distribution of benefits to the local population, is still not widely practised in Brazil in its most global sense. This perhaps is the justification for why the inclusion of Brazil has only two areas (Silves/AM and Prainha do Canto Verde/CE) for ecotourism in the International Guide of Ecotourism, published by the NGO Tourism Concern, that recommends 180 projects distributed in 41 countries. This theme inspires reflection on the need for the establishment of standards, criteria and social and environmental quality indicators of ecotourism projects and enterprises. In this sense, the Environment Program of the CPCH/UFRJ is developing the "Projeto Estrela Verde" (Green Star Project), that seeks to establish a segmented classification system for the tourist sector, based on its efficiency in serving the central presuppositions of what is considered to be sustainable tourism.

According to this view, ecotourism can represent an important alternative for the generation of income to local communities close to protected areas, provided that it is preceded by, and accompanied by, a systematic process of environmental education and follows a wider perspective of regional development (Sansolo, 1998; Irving, 1998).

Contrary to the problem under discussion, situations can also be identified in the country in which the mobilisation for the community towards ecotourism eventually motivates the creation and/or establishment of CUs, as occurs in Prainha do Canto Verde, in the State of Ceará, a location traditionally inhabited by a fishing community historically involved in serious land tenure conflicts. The natural beauty of the area, together with the dominant role of sun and beach tourism in the State, ended up attracting various speculating real state agents, and a significant risk of conflict and the exclusion of the local populations. The action of opinion formers, with the support of non-government entities, therefore began a process to increase the level of awareness of leadership and financial support. As a result, within the community there is now a Tourism Council with 40 active members that deliberates on subjects of interest and the collective use of the area for sustainable tourism purposes. At the moment, efforts are being directed at the establishment of a Community based Ecotourism Program and the local population is mobilised to solve the land tenure issues and support the creation of an Environmental Protection Area(APA), that will assure the status of "conservation unit" to the location.

Another similar example is the Municipality of Santa Maria Madalena, in the State of Rio de Janeiro. This rural municipality, with a high rate of depopulation, contains part of the Desengano State Park and its surroundings, one of the main contiguous areas of Atlantic Forest in the State, that has received little attention from the Public Authorities since its establishment. With a significant drop in revenue for the municipality, due to the crisis in agricultural and dairy products, the local leaders, in partnership with a non governmental organisation and the university, began in 1997 the process of raising the community's awareness and questioning in relationship to the potential alternatives for regional development, including ecotourism and rural tourism. In the meantime, the park began to be recognised as collective ownership to be preserved for the economic and environmental sustainability of the municipality. With this in mind, the Community Based Sustainable Tourism Strategy for the Desengano Region is being developed, the community leaders are being trained to direct the process and new partnerships are being established, also involving the private section and government bodies, with competence and power in the management of conservation units. In this case, the action of society through its leaders had a propulsive effect on the recognition of economic potential linked to the protected area, and it will probably be responsible for the running of the park as a guarantee of municipal development through ecotourism.

In reality, there are countless comparative advantages to the development of eco-tourism in protected areas in Brazil but equally limitless are the problems and conflicts to be solved as a pre-requirement to the activity. However, it is important that discussions on this theme consider the global patrimonial value of the protected areas for the Brazilian nation.

Perhaps the first step towards this objective is the discussion on ethics and tourism and the adoption of codes of conduct (UNEP,1995) ratified by all participants involved in the process. The discussion concerning ethics in tourism is still in its early stages in the country (Caracristi,1998;Irving,1998a) but this needs to be continuously and systematically stimulated and guaranteed. Similarly, the use of the national biodiversity with a global value through ecotourism cannot be considered without the generated benefits being shared by all Brazilian citizens. For this, the planning of ecotourism in protected areas has to be a transparent process and have the commitment of effective participation of the whole of society.


(*) Eicos Program/IP/UFRJ


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