Responsible tourism in South America

Responsible tourism in South America

Travel right in south america

South America's contrasting cultures and landscapes – from searing desert and steamy jungle to snow-capped Andean peaks and ice-bound south – combines with a sometimes turbulent social fabric to present varying challenges to authorities juggling economics with ethics. South America has built a fine network of national parks and reserves that provide a magnificent resource for visitors seeking to aid responsible tourism in South America. But too much land is still ravaged for commercial gain or sold off in the face of claims from indigenous peoples. More needs to be done to tackle environmental degradation – tackling deforestation, restricting mining and boosting renewable energy – as well as improving indigenous rights. But South America seems to be stirring itself to act, despite wider economic woes.

People & culture


A host of riches – amid grinding poverty

Our guide has highlighted just some of the natural and cultural riches that make South America such a diverse and unforgettable draw for visitors. Yet it remains a continent where millions struggle in severe poverty, often alongside tourist sites flowing with wealthy foreign tourists.

While responsible tourism can't solve the problem, along with more widespread economic policies it can help not only bring valuable income to local communities but also underpin pride in themselves and their traditions. UK tourists spend about £2bn on vacation in developing countries – that’s comparable to the UK Government’s aid budget. Not all of this ‘trickles down’ into local people’s hands but it indicates the scale of tourism’s potential to reduce poverty.

Tourism is labour intensive (only agriculture among major industries is more labour intensive) and therefore a very significant employer – often employing otherwise economically-marginalised groups. Tourism has great potential for linkages with local enterprises – craft sellers, local guides and restaurants, local food producers and fishing communities.

In 2014, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reported that more than 56 million people had been lifted out of poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean between 2000-2012, with poverty levels defined as living with less than around £2.50 a day. The UNDP singled out Bolivia and Peru for achieving some of the greatest poverty reduction, and also praised progress in Chile and Argentina. Another 2014 report, this time from the World Bank, found that extreme poverty in Latin America – defined as having less than $2.50 (£1.60) a day to live on – halved between 1995 and 2011, to 13.3% of the population.

But welcome as the trend is, the vast population involved means those percentages still translate into hundreds of millions of people on the continent suffering from severe poverty. Hundreds of millions more are classified as “vulnerable”, existing on just $4-10 (£2.50-£6.50) a day, and at risk of slipping back into crippling poverty if their fortunes change.

What may seem like small amounts of money to you on your South American travels can represent the difference between a life of misery or a life of hope for local people you are dealing with. Spend wisely, and spend generously.

SOURCE: Responsible Travel
SOURCE: The Economist

What you can do: Every penny you spend in a responsible way can make a huge difference to people. Buy local goods and produce from people on the ground rather than larger shops or big city markets, choose accommodation owned by members of the local community rather than foreign companies, spend generously in small local restaurants or street food stalls, and use local guides wherever possible.

This land is our land

Brazil is home to more isolated and uncontacted tribes than any other country in the world. FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation, claims there are over 65 tribes that remain uncontacted – many with less than 100 people left, making them particularly vulnerable to extinction. Some tribes are aware of outsiders and have had minimal contact, but choose to remain isolated, while others are cut off entirely.

The greatest threat posed by encroachment on their land is disease. Entire populations have been killed by common colds – which the indigenous population has no resistance to – while malaria-bearing mosquitoes are now present in areas where they previously did not exist. As well as that, their land is being seized by loggers, farmers and miners – both legal and illegal. Enormous hydroelectric dams also cause widespread flooding of territories. The logistics of policing the Amazon are hard to comprehend, and while there is such high financial value in its natural resources, spending a fortune to protect it poses something of a conflict of interests to the Brazilian government.

Argentina's diversity of indigenous peoples have suffered discrimination and violence since the 19th century, sometimes in the name of 'economic progress', others due to sheer prejudice. With regard to land rights, native populations have often come into conflict with industry over large-scale agriculture and mining. The UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples has criticised the lack of consultation with the communities over development projects and the exploitation of natural resources in territory they consider their own. Protests by native people have often been met with violence from the authorities. Thankfully, there are signs that claims to basic human and land rights in Argentina are beginning to be heard by those in power.

Land grabs take two forms in the vast wilderness of Patagonia, a stronghold of the Mapuche people. An influx of rich foreign investors are buying million of hectares to create giant livestock farms, while others are buying up forests, riverbanks and entire lakes to create luxury retreats and golf courses.

Not all landowners have used the land for their own gain, however. Most famously, Doug Tompkins, founder of The North Face, has conserved over 2 million acres of land across Chile and neighbouring Argentina through his organisation The Conservation Land Trust. Some of the land is now a private park with public access; while another tract was returned to the Chilean government on the condition that it would become a national park – it is now Corcovado National Park.

"The land is our life. From it we obtain the food and medicines we need. It provides us with the natural resources to make our houses, for our livelihoods. Without the land, we the indigenous people will lose our spiritual roots," says Félix Diaz, leader of the Qom indigenous community in the province of Formosa, talking to Amnesty International. Indigenous voices must be heard.

What you can do:
Help local people generate income from land – including within the national parks – to counterbalance the impetus to sell it off to speculators and other big business. Explore national parks and happily pay your entrance fee. Use local guides and visit local communities. Stay with people working the land in traditional ways. Empowering local people to create livelihoods from the sustainable use of their lands will give them a bigger voice against rich entrepreneurs and multinationals.

And support organisations campaigning for indigenous rights in South America such as Survival International, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Wildlife & environment


The unkindest cut of all?

The Amazon is the largest and most climatically important area of forest on Earth – yet it continues to be decimated at a terrifying rate in the interests of mass market agriculture and other big business enterprises.

Loopholes in Brazilian environmental laws have actually been used to increase deforestation. Satellite data in 2014 revealed a 190 percent surge in land clearance in August and September compared with the same period last year as loggers and farmers exploited loopholes that were designed to protect the forest. Figures released by Imazon, a Brazilian nonprofit research organisation, show that 402 square kilometres – more than six times the area of the island of Manhattan – was cleared in September 2014 alone.

Reasons for the setback include a shift in government priorities, putting a lower priority on the environment in favour of building alliances with powerful agribusiness groups. As part of this, the authorities have weakened environmental legislation, and also pushed ahead with highly controversial dam construction in the Amazon.

In Argentina, similar catastrophic loss of forests is being driven by the short-term demands of agriculture rather than the long-term needs of the environment. According to a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Argentina has lost at least 70 million hectares of forest in the last century, with over 16 million hectares of tree cover decimated between 1980 and 2000 alone.

The clearing of forests to provide grazing for cattle has long been cited as a major cause of mass deforestation in Argentina, damaging swathes of the Espinal shrubland forest and the Chaco region. But vegetarians have nothing to feel smug about. Research by the WWF also points major blame at soya cultivation, with deforestation due to expanding soybean cultivation posing a serious threat to environmental jewels such as the Yungas 'cloud forest' as well as, again, the Chaco region – one of the largest forest biomes in South America.

Chile's precious temperate rainforests have suffered too from logging for over a century. According to the WWF, between 1985 and 1995 alone, Chile lost nearly 2 million hectares of native forest – destroyed for pulp, then replanted with pine and eucalyptus plantations which were expanding at an annual rate of nearly 10 percent. The result is the Chile now has the world's largest expanse of radiata pine tree farms – while also having some of the world's most endangered native forests. These are a global jewel – Chile has the second largest expanse of temperate rainforest on Earth, second only to British Columbia in Canada.

The destruction of native forest also has devastating effects on wildlife. 90 percent of the native forest-dependent species in Chile are found nowhere else in the world, including the world's smallest deer (the pudu) and a remarkable hummingbird that builds nests entirely from moss and spider webs. The genetic isolation of such indigenous animal species into little pockets – native islands amid a sea of foreign trees – severely threatens their ecological needs and long-term survival.

SOURCE: The Guardian
SOURCE: Reuters

What you can do:
Try to use paper products that carry a certification from organisations such as WWF to show they have come from sustainable forestries. Support organisations such as WWF that are campaigning to protect vulnerable environments. Visit national parks and protected areas to demonstrate that these precious regions are worth far more intact than razed.

Under-mining the future

Mining is a vital industry to South America, providing vast amounts of revenue to countries that are often in desperate need of it. So its importance to the continent's economies cannot be ignored. However, mining is also a major cause of environmental scarring, as well as a threat to precious water supplies and a driver of climate change.

To get a scale of the issue, consider the following statistics for the continent as a whole, from the 2010 Minerals Yearbook. Brazil was the world’s leading producer of niobium and tantalum, the third-ranked producer of iron-ore and regional leader in the production of bauxite and crude steel. Chile was the world’s leading producer of copper (both mined and refined), as well as iodine and lithium; the second-ranked producer of arsenic; and the third-ranked producer of boron. Argentina was the world’s second-ranked producer of boron and Bolivia the second-ranked producer of antimony. Peru led the world in silver production, and was the second-ranked producer of bismuth and copper, fourth-ranked globally for lead, and the region’s leading producer of tin.

The result is that all across the continent, mines – often vast, dirty open-cast sites – are gouging vast holes in the earth and spewing toxic dust into the air. In northern Chile, Chuquicamata is site of one of the world's biggest open-cast copper mines, sending arsenic-laden dust into the air along with a plume from its smelting work carries at least 200km.

Dust from mining also covers precious glaciers which are not only natural wonders for visitors to admire but also key suppliers of fresh water in countries like Chile and Argentina. Dust also accelerates the melting of glaciers, contributing to global climate change. Mining operations also consume vast amounts of precious water, contaminating it in the process. While humans can work out ways to create clean drinking water – if there is any left - animals desperate to drink in the parched environment are often forced to drink contaminated water.

SOURCE: Mining Weekly

What you can do:
Support environmental organisations campaigning such as Friends of the Earth which are leading campaigns against irresponsible mining.

Responsible tourism tips

Travel better in south america

  • Spend money supporting local community businesses in your destination – restaurants, small shops, local tours/guides.
  • Support the national parks systems and don’t resent the entry fees. As long as local people, from government to grassroots, can see that conservation equates with burgeoning coffers, they will have another reason to protect the land and the species that live there.
  • Water can be an issue. Some areas are flush with fresh water, if you’ll forgive the pun, but in other places it can be scarce. As a general rule, simply don't waste water anywhere in South America.
  • Waste disposal is also a big issue, especially in remote areas, where an accommodation owner might have to travel for hours to get rid of waste, so take your rubbish with you if you can.
  • Whale and dolphin watching trips take place in Chile, Argentina, Ecuador and Galapagos. Take a look at our Whale and Dolphin watching travel guides to ensure you book a responsible trip – and know which questions to ask your tour company.

Photo credits: [Poverty in S.A: Milton Jung] [Tribe in Brazil: Ben Sutherland] [Deforestation: Originalwana] [Mine in Chuquicamata: Eduardo Frei Ruiz Tagle]
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