1. Beyond preserving culture and wildlife
When talking about experiencing the lifestyle of local communities through Community-Based Tourism (CBT) initiatives, the association that automatically arises is related to immersion in cultural traditions and heritage, with different degrees of exploration of the natural environment.
However, we would like to invite you to go beyond this limiting perspective on CBT projects, and, for a moment, stop looking at them as mere providers of ethical experiences, and start picturing them as ideal partners in the journey towards sustainability, given that they are already actively implementing their own agendas.
2. Human and social development
CBT has proved to be a champion in achieving goals related to the social dimension of sustainability, which in the language of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are connected to the goals of gender equality (#5), reducing inequalities (#10) and decent work and economic growth (#8).
This is because at its core, CBT is a collective project, in which the people are the pillars, their good health and well-being (#3) its focus, and the goal of zero hunger (#2) is a daily monitored goal.
The Quilombolas communities of the Ribeira Valley (SP, Brazil) have effectively translated CBT’s DNA into a symbolic practical rule. As community leader Ditão informed me, the pronoun “I” has been erased from their vocabulary when tourism matters are discussed, to always leave space for the “we”, which clearly demonstrates the ownership of priorities, interests, responsibilities and final decisions.
In CBT projects, therefore, economic gain is usually achieved through the empowerment of their members, especially those groups who have traditionally been marginalised or who have less access to power, such as women, youth and people with disabilities.
3. Planet and conservation
The way that traditional communities relate to the natural environment is usually deep and spiritual, never considering it as a resource, but rather as a well of knowledge and wisdom. For indigenous communities, the Earth is also the roots of their identity, and, obviously, the main source of their survival.
Traditional methods of fishing and hunting are usually given as examples of responsible consumption and production (#12), and they are established in the context of a healthy relationship with the land. Although nowadays it is not always possible, unfortunately, for these methods to be carried out, they contain keys to understanding the local environment and its cycles, and to learning important lessons about the balance of the elements involved.
Supporting healthy life below water (#14) as well as life on land (#15) are generally goals for most traditional communities, because they guarantee their existence. CBT projects celebrate those practices as part of their living cultural traditions, and through workshops and hand-on activities with the visitors these activities are kept alive and passed on to new generations.
If, in some cases, CBT projects use tourism as an opportunity to indirectly educate their own local communities about the importance of protecting local wildlife, as in the case of the African continent and poaching activities; in other cases, CBT projects allow communities’ needs and wishes to become real so that tourists can support a project long desired for and designed by the locals, such as the Sea Turtle Conservation Programme, a voluntourism opportunity offered by Lamphope, in Cape Verde.
Through the implementation of CBT projects, the local community can also discover new solutions, which can be spread and become restorative practices for the local environment, and maintained through tourism, as in the case of Red Rocks Rwanda’s Igihooho seed bag or the bamboo cup project.
4. Innovation and resilience
Beyond being a natural ally in finding solutions to the problems currently faced, local communities can form part of a great strategic partnership and be a laboratory of creativity, in the area known in Brazil as social technology. This term refers to forms of social innovation that through specific processes, techniques and methodologies are able to transform the ways people interact, manage and produce.
The resilience shown by certain CBT projects during the Covid-19 pandemic has been, in some cases, an exemplar of the strength and unique advantage that grassroots communities can demonstrate – as in the case of the Traditional Communities Forum and the campaign Cuidar é Resistir – to mobilise resources effectively by using the capillary reach of their network and their deep knowledge of the territory, thereby contributing to the goal of building sustainable cities and communities (#11).
Local communities are at the frontline in the climate change struggle; in some cases, for example as reported to me by Fernando (whose indigenous name is Berà Miri) about his indigenous community of the nation Mbya-Guaranì in Argentina, they have already changed their diet, while the elders still tell stories about plants and fruits that ceased to exist decades ago. Fernando also told me that in the CBT projects they are building, they plan to include an educational element about the changes that our planet is suffering, so that the stories that tourists hear and the information they learn about the trees is the up-to-date version of their reality.
During the pandemic, many communities returned in large numbers to farming activities, in Panama, as well as in Ecuador and Nicaragua. They have rediscovered their own land and forgotten crops, started new projects, often involving and educating the younger generations, and are reviving traditions that were about to be lost, as in the case of the coffee production that IKA – Indigenous Kokoda Adventures has recently restarted.
Many of the CBT projects mentioned above have been possible thanks to strategic partnership with academic research centres and private sector initiatives, along with the support of the local government – when available.
A broader technical and scientific knowledge can help in achieving nature conservation, but only when it complements the natural skills, knowledge and traditional practices that are embedded in the local lifestyle. In addition to this, the local inhabitants should supply the limits, boundaries and goals to tourism activities. The external partner would need to learn to be part of community collective management systems, which are built through long but necessary participatory methodologies, and whose focus is on the internal redistribution of economic benefits and the well-being of the communities.
Partnership for the goals (#17) seems to represent the next step with regard to CBT projects.
In a moment in which co-designing with local communities is seen as a desirable goal – even though, due to the novelty of the venture, there is a lot of uncertainty about how to work with them; in a moment in which sustainability awareness and the more recent regenerative approach are on the rise not only within the industry and among governments, but also in tourists’ minds, it seems that joining forces with the ‘local expert’ is the obvious solution.
Perhaps the key to the solution is to look at tourism as communities do, i.e. as a tool, rather than as a goal, changing priorities to see how we can, through tourism, together support the sustainable development of people and the planet. The starting point should be, of course, at the grassroots level.
CBT should never be seen just as a product, but as a propeller to new solutions and unwritten paths, and, consequently, CBT projects can become strategic allies in this journey. A Win-Win-Win-Win solution for the planet, the people, the tourists and the industry itself.