Conservation worries are a constant dilemma for tourists wishing to explore the world’s jungles. But help is at hand, says Mark Rowe

Conservation-minded travellers and tour operators believe that visits to the rainforests of the world can offer life-changing experiences on all sides. They can help to protect the forests and support local indigenous peoples and, at the same time, the overseas visitor can marvel at the spectacle of the world’s richest habitats, from giant mahogany trees to sloths, golden lion tamarinds, toucans, jaguars and ocelots.

The reality is that forests remain assets of the countries that own them. This was bluntly pointed out at the end of 2007 when Guyana effectively put its rainforests up for sale. High prices for timber and gold, which is mined from forested areas, mean pressure to exploit Guyana’s most obvious resource is building.

A Brazilian plan has been drawn up that would drive a paved road through the rainforest. Instead, Guyana offered to preserve its entire rainforest, with control going to a British-led international group in return for economic aid. President Bharrat Jagdeo said he is looking for backing for private-sector development. “We are a country with the political will and a large tract of standing forest,” Jagdeo said. “I’m not a mercenary; this is not blackmail and I realise there’s no such thing as a free lunch. I’m not just doing this because I’m a good man and want to save the world. I need the assistance.”

It is impossible for tourists to overlook the destruction of the planet’s rainforests. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, net deforestation rates have fallen since 2000, but 32 million acres of the world’s forests are still lost each year, including 15 million acres of primary forests. Nigeria has the world’s highest primary deforestation rate at 55.7 per cent between 2000 and 2005. Vietnam and Cambodia are the next worst offenders. Brazil, whose endangered fauna includes the brown capuchin monkey, inset below, loses the greatest amount of forest, averaging 8.5 million acres a year between 2000 and 2005. Indonesia is the second worst, with a net loss of 3.5 million acres a year over the same period.

But individuals can help secure rainforests against development and exploitation. “Responsible tourism that provides an income to local forest dwellers (as guides, for example) is one of the most effective ways to bang the conservation drum and provide an economic link between the trees and local people,” said Justin Francis, co-founder and managing director of responsible travel. com. Mr Francis cites projects in the Bale mountains in Ethiopia as a good example of such a practice.

Last year, Labour MP Frank Field set up Cool Earth, a charity that allows the public to buy parts of the world’s rainforest. Under the scheme, which is backed by Fauna and Flora International, Sir David Attenborough and Sir Nicholas Stern, author of the 2006 report into the economic impact of climate change, individuals can pay £70 an acre to protect forest from logging and £90 an acre to protect forest from cattle ranching. Land is held in trust with local people and deforestation banned by local covenants or management agreements.

Guidelines are also being drawn up to enable tourists to determine which operators approach tourism to rainforests in a sensitive and sustainable manner. Neel Inamdar, senior adviser on eco-tourism for Conservation International, said that rainforest tourism, if conducted properly, could prevent widespread destruction of habitat and communities. “It’s a tricky question and we have to make a hard choice. We have to try to negotiate long-term benefits from tourism that allow communities to step away from the extracted use of the rainforests – allowing the loggers to move in.”

Conservation International is to launch a good practice guide for tour operators and travellers at the end of March, which will outline ways in which rainforest tourism can be made ethical. “The key aspect is to make sure that you buy things directly from local people and the tour operator is working with local people,” said Mr Inamdar. “Business practices on the ground have to support conservation – the companies can’t just dump their fuel. The issue of flying is also complex because most of us have to fly long haul to get to rainforests. You can’t say don’t fly at all because that would affect rural and poor people at the destination. You need to consider your entire footprint. You are flying, but while you are away you are not heating your house or driving your car.”

The US-based Rainforest Alliance has created a Sustainable Tourism Certification Network of the Americas, which lays down what it describes as “consistent and rigorous” standards for tourism practice.

“If people don’t know how to differentiate between the various certification programmes, and don’t know which are real and which represent a cosmetic green wash, certification loses effectiveness,” said Ronald Sanabria of Rainforest Alliance’s Sustainable Tourism programme. “Tour-ism holds great potential for poor countries seeking to improve the lives of their citizens, but unless tourism is practised responsibly and in harmony with the environment, it can lead to unchecked development, habitat destruction, waste and pollution.”

Several wildlife companies see sense in such schemes. “It’s absolutely essential to incorporate ethics into tourism to the rainforests,” said Chris Breen, managing director of Wildlife Worldwide. “It’s the right thing to do but there can also be no long-term benefits from just using a place regardless of whether any benefits go to local people. All you would do is erode your own market base, and from a commercial and business point of view that is a daft thing to do.

“Trying to operate ethically makes things more interesting – you need to make sure you do your research more thoroughly. We are very specific about just who we deal with and that our guides and naturalists are local people and work with the local community.”

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