Travel for mind, body and spirit: Heart Eco-tourism in Bolivia

As sunsets go it wasn't that spectacular. A soft pink as opposed to the shocking, palm tree-silhouetted orange of picture-postcard fame. But what made it so memorable was Tom Morrill - a soulful, 77-year-old American - reading his poems in the twilight.

We were standing in a watch tower in Bolivia's Noel Kempff Mercado National Park - 1.6 million hectares of wilderness in the northern corner of the tropical lowlands of Santa Cruz. Foxes, we were told, came out at dusk, and even maned wolves. Ardent eco-tourists, the whole group had congregated 30 feet above the savannah to wait and watch. And Tom's words struck everyone dumb. A nature lover, he uses wildlife in his poems as symbols of hope. "Civilisations have come and gone and ours, as we all know is falling apart through our own doing," he explained. "but I believe this wonderful thing called nature, which is so beautiful and so clever, can teach us a new way of living."

An eco-tourism idealist, his heart wide open, Tom travels the world marvelling at its splendour: the delicately crafted hanging nest of the humming bird, the eyes of a baby alligator shining in the moonlight, the party of swifts flirting with the mist of a waterfall. He is convinced, he says, that if only others could see these things, they would not destroy it. "I'm an optimist," he says. Eco-tourism, he believes, could be a new way forward.

But for me, the park had a strange atmosphere. I had never been anywhere so untouched, never seen so many exotic birds and plants in their native environment, (never, for that matter, been eaten alive so vigorously by unrelenting swarms of mosquitoes) but something was missing. From the moment I had reached the sophisticated jungle camp of Flor de Oro, it had reminded me of the film Jurassic Park. A private plane had brought 13 of us here accompanied by a British ornithologist and North American botanist. Our flight took us low over the rainforest canopy - a huge carpet of giant moss, broken only by two stunning waterfalls cutting immense amphitheatres through the rock. Just like in the film, we had this fantastic park to ourselves. It was weird.

Did no one live here? It seemed not. We were the privileged, foreign, few.

After our trip, I discovered that my unease had been well-founded. Some people do live in the park and the very things that Tom had built his hopes on - conservation and eco-tourism - are the things that have filled local people's hearts with fear and anger.

The park is managed by Bolivian environmental agency, the Fundacion Amigos de la Naturaleza (Fan) which has been contracted by the Bolivian government to manage the park and recently, to extend its boundaries. The three communities living there, however, once dependent on logging and the harvesting of heart of palm (a delicacy which sells for a high price but which kills the tree once collected) have seen both activities banned. In protest, the locals have threatened park guards and stolen park vehicles. Fan is working with the communities on creating alternative livelihoods, such as the planting of an alternative palm which does not die when its heart is removed. Until its first harvest in two years' time, however, the locals are in economic limbo.

A similar clash has also been taking place in another prime national park near Santa Cruz - Amboro. Here, the peasants (known in Bolivia as campesinos) have been so incensed by the efforts of British zoologist Robin Clarke to remove them from an area he had persuaded the government to protect, that they have threatened to kill him if he ever enters it again. He argues that many of them are illegal settlers. They argue they need to survive.

It was a no-win situation: heartfelt environmentalism versus heart-wrenching poverty. But I did find one ray of hope. Over the past two years a campesino community of 43 families, called Villa Amboro, has set up its own eco-tourism project on the edge of Amboro National Park, after winning the right to manage the land and combine farming and conservation. Probioma, a small Bolivian environmental organisation, acts as its agents, staying in touch by two-way radio. Despite limited advertising, the community receives around 150 tourists a year.

Juan Vique, a local farmer and part-time guide, met us with two horses at the small town of Espejitos. We rode the eight miles to Villa Amboro and the camp. As the miles passed, the environment changed from forest to the cleared farm land of Villa Amboro and back to forest again. Then we reached a small clearing where a kitchen hut and a dining room had been built from local wood and palm thatch. With funding from the British agency Christian Aid, they had also bought tents and bedding for tourists, built a toilet block and made signed trails through the forest.

"We know we're one of the first communities in the world to do this - to manage our own tourism project in a national park and to profit from it directly," explained Freddie Lopez, one of the community leaders that met us that night after supper. "We know this is a place of natural treasures, where tourists can come and enjoy everything in its natural state and our aim is to protect it."

"The prospect of earning money from eco-tourism had made them realise the importance of conservation," added Hugo Rojas, another community leader. "We had no idea about conservation a few years ago. Now we are planting trees in areas that were cleared in the past for logging or farming. We have also banned anyone from hunting, fishing and logging in the area and people are farming organically. All of the families in Villa Amboro are involved in this eco-tourism project and our conservation plan, and everyone will benefit from it."

Over the next few days Juan showed us his forest - fruits that can be used for soap, bark for making rope, and plants with medicinal qualities. "Our aim is conservation which will also help the community," he said simply. "We want to build a school and a health post with any profits. And we want to be an example for other communities so that they can do the same."

Nature, it seemed, was providing a new way forward, just as Tom had hoped. The people of Villa Amboro, like him, were eco-tourism idealists. I hoped with all my heart that they succeed. Sue Wheat

Fundacion Amigos de la Naturaleza (00 591 3524921, Fax 00 591 3533389); Villa Amboro Eco-tourism project. Contact: Probioma (00 591 3 431332); there are no direct flights to La Paz; the best routings are on Varig via Sao Paulo or on American Airlines via Miami.