The Case of Río Blanco, Ecuador
It may be only natural for an inveterate traveler and tourist to become interested in the study of tourism, though it took me eight years of frequent traveling in various parts of the world to formalize my interest by entering graduate school. There I found, somewhat to my surprise, that scholars in a range of disciplines were discussing the very issues which I had been contemplating as a dilettante for years.
While my fascination with the topics discussed in this paper developed over a long period of time, my interest in the specifics of ecotourism development in the Amazon arose during a 1993 trip to Ecuador. There I visited a number of ecotourism projects as a tourist and casual student of ecotourism. Late in that trip I also learned about Capirona's project, though I did not have time to visit it. The following year I began graduate school at the University of Minnesota with the notion of studying Capirona as a "model" of ecotourism development. I was fortunate in that my advisor and many other faculty in the Geography Department supported my desire to do fieldwork in rural Ecuador as a M.A. student, which to stricter minds might appear preposterous.
The field research took place over two months in the fall of 1995, almost all of which I spent in Napo Province. After several days in Quito, where I spoke with several ecotourism developers, operators, and observers, I traveled to Tena to meet with Tarquino Tapuy, RINCANCIE's ecotourism coordinator. We met frequently over a period of a week to develop an agreement which would be of mutual interest and benefit. He told me that Capirona was no longer accepting any type of non-tourist visitor; its members had had their fill of journalists, scholars, students, and anyone else who required unusual attention. As an alternative, he suggested Râo Blanco. Though just one year old, its ecotourism project was second only to Capirona in tourist visitation.
The change of site required a revision of my research strategy and interview schedules. I shifted my focus from examination of the consequences of ecotourism development to its potential: as sustainable development, as a means for forest conservation and as a mode of intercultural communication.
Adapting to these new circumstances was only half the task facing me in Tena. I also had to offer RINCANCIE something of value. I brainstormed a list of possibilities: a land-use map, a "snapshot" description of this stage of ecotourism development, and the insight into tourist expectations and experiences which only a fellow gringo could discern. I also said I could take photographs of Râo Blanco's tourist attractions. My photos, I added for effect, had won prizes in photo contests. This was only a slight exaggeration, since photos of mine had placed second and third in a contest sponsored by the University of Minnesota's Geography Department earlier that year. Though he accepted all of these as acceptable offerings, Tapuy seized the last in particular. RINCANCIE needed photographs for publicity purposes, and I had come along at just the right time to take them. But, he added, RINCANCIE needed photos from many of its communities, not just from Râo Blanco. So we drew up a contract in which I agreed to visit several other communities after my stay in Râo Blanco. While this reduced the length of my time in the community, I was very glad to be of some use to RINCANCIE. I also appreciated the chance to see several other Quichua communities.
A young Quichua man guided me to Râo Blanco, since the trip requires travel by bus, canoe, and foot. The people of the community accepted me and my plan, though they said that I would need a guide. Many members were not sufficiently comfortable with Spanish to allow me to interview them unaided, and many members lived on their farms, away from the center of the community. I would need a guide both to take me to respondents' homes, and to translate occasionally. The tourist guide, who was also a leader of the ecotourism project and a local shaman, agreed to work for me. While I was concerned about the effect his presence would have on responses about the tourism project, there was no alternative; no one else was willing to devote the time required to guide me. We agreed to a wage and began planning what to do on the days he would be free to help me. I was given a room above the health clinic in the center of the community and arranged to take my meals with a nearby family.
I had hoped to learn about the community through both formal interviews and informal contact with community members. In both cases, but particularly the latter, language proved to be more troublesome than I had expected. I had been studying Spanish for several years and was able to understand it well if spoken with a relatively clear accent. Before traveling to Ecuador, I had contacted a number of North Americans and Ecuadorians who had worked in Napo regarding bilingualism among the Quichua. All had told me that the great majority of Napo Quichua spoke Spanish as well as Quichua. What they did not tell me, perhaps because of the nature of their own experiences in the area, was that just because the Quichua can speak Spanish does not mean that they normally do speak Spanish. For obvious and praiseworthy reasons, the Quichua of Râo Blanco prefer to speak their native language whenever possible. Generally speaking, Spanish is required only during the weekly or biweekly trip to the market in Misahuallâ. Most members were happy to speak to me in Spanish in a one-on-one situation, but in groups Quichua was the rule. Thus I was shut out of virtually all discourse at social gatherings and communal events.
As a result, formal interviews became my primary method of gathering information. With my guide I visited twelve of the community's twenty-two households. (Late in my stay I also interviewed members of nine households without the help of my guide.) At each we would approach the house, calling out. If someone was home, we would be invited in and seated on a low wooden bench, where we were usually given a bowl of chicha (manioc beer) and often a plate of food such as manioc, plantain, and boiled egg. In one house we were each given a bowl of queen ants, a seasonal delicacy when caught with their egg sacs. After eating, we would commence with the interview. I would explain the purpose of my visit, ask if they objected to my use of a microcassette recorder (none did), and then begin asking questions.
Simple demographic questions required little translation or explanation on the part of my guide, but the more abstract questions dealing with environmental perception and tourism development sometimes did. Depending on the volubility of the respondent and the amount of explanation and translation required, interviews lasted between 30 and 75 minutes. After the first few interviews, I modified several questions to incorporate local terminology and dropped several about development and authenticity which were simply incomprehensible to most members. In a few cases my guide appeared to be suggesting answers to the respondents, and I had to decide on a case-by-case level which responses (and in a few cases, which questions) to discard and which to keep. In all cases I interviewed a male member of the household first, because to do otherwise was unheard of and unacceptable. In every case I also tried to interview a female member, the wife or, in two cases, the mother of the male respondent. Out of twenty-one households interviewed, I was able to interview nine women (43 percent). At the rest, the men either did not allow me to interview their wives, or the wife was not available. Unfortunately, even those interviews I did complete with women proved of limited use. Women usually gave terse answers and in many instances barely answered at all, apparently due to timidity. Since responses between men and women were scarcely comparable, I have done virtually no gender analysis in this paper.
Furthermore, when I realized how difficult it would be to interview women, I altered the interview schedule. By removing as many questions as possible, I hoped to make the experience less intimidating for both the woman and her husband. I tried to eliminate only questions which would duplicate answers already given by men, but late in the study discovered at least one blunder. Men often underestimated family income because they did not include the tourist crafts which their wives made and sold. In retrospect this seems a mistake only a naive researcher could make. However, in most cases responses regarding income were offered after a brief consultation between the husband and the wife, which presumably would prevent such an error. Near the end of my stay, I consulted with my guide to establish a rough average household income from tourist crafts.
My guide provided me with a map of the community, which had been officially surveyed in the early 1990s when the national government granted land tenure to the community. I used this plat along with information from respondents and community-made drawings to map land ownership and land use within the community. Male respondents were asked detailed questions about land use and agricultural development. As described in the methods section in Chapter Two, I had to adjust the data from these responses to conform to the government plat of the community. As a result, despite repeated redrafting to account for new, clarifying information from respondents, I was well aware that my final map remained error-prone. At the end of my stay I asked my guide to show the map at the next community meeting and solicit corrections. He answered that I knew more about the community's land use than did anyone else now, and that in his eyes my map was the best source available. I held out hope that satellite images from the Landsat Thematic Mapper would resolve some of my doubts, but the cost of such imagery, along with its poor resolution in this context, ruled it out as a solution.
As noted in the methods section, other information given by members proved similarly troublesome. My relatively brief stay in Râo Blanco (just under a month) meant that I was unable to corroborate some information, and a great deal more information was never collected. Still, I transcribed most interviews within a day, allowing the opportunity for verification and follow-up questions. Throughout the fieldwork, I was frequently reminded of the phrase, "Someone with one watch always knows what time it is; someone with two watches is never sure." By the end of my stay in Râo Blanco, I felt like a man wearing a dozen watches. However, while much of my data should be considered somewhat "soft," I have included in this paper only that information in which I have a reasonable level of confidence.
Two tourist groups visited Râo Blanco during my stay. The first consisted of three Spaniards. Several problems interfered with my attempts to interview them. First, I was reluctant to interview them in the presence of the guide, since we would be speaking in Spanish and I wanted frank evaluations of their tourist experience. Also, the man was wont to answer for his wife and daughter, muddying the usefulness of the responses. Finally, their schedule was too full to permit a relaxed, comprehensive interview. In the end I consigned those attempts to the scrap heap of "experience," modified several questions based on their answers, and planned how to interview the second group of tourists which was scheduled to visit during my stay in Râo Blanco. As described in the methods section in Chapter Four, this group consisted of fifteen college students on a study abroad program in Quito who were visiting the Oriente for five days. I accompanied this group through most of its tour and returned with it to a nearby jungle lodge operated by Fundaci÷n Jatun Sacha, where I interviewed each tourist.
Following my stay in Râo Blanco, I visited three other RINCANCIE communities to photograph their tourist attractions. I took advantage of this opportunity to ask several people in each community a short list of control questions. These regarded land use, the ecotourism project, and Quichua values, and were selected to help me understand in what ways Râo Blanco was typical or atypical of Quichua communities in the area. Overall, responses were similar as in Râo Blanco, but as detailed in Chapter Five, there was a notable difference with the question, "Is Quichua life better or worse today than it was ten years ago?"
Photographing tourist attractions proved interesting as well. In Râo Blanco as well as in the other communities, I photographed both cultural and natural attractions. For the former, musicians and dancers donned their traditional garb for me, and I marveled at my opportunity to personally stage some authenticity. Like the tourists, I held some reservations about the cultural program, but I revised them one evening after showing a group of people in Râo Blanco a picture book I had brought about the American Midwest. In nearly all the photographs in the book, people wore the clothes of their ancestors--be they Native Americans at a pow-wow or white Midwesterners at a Scandinavian-American festival. Even as I struggled to explain that these were not how people normally dressed in the United States, I realized that the Quichua understood the photos perfectly. What the book showed was no different than what they did in their cultural program.
My ambivalence about the cultural program diminished further when Tarquino Tapuy asked me to take several photos at his family's resort outside of Tena. To my astonishment, he had arranged for a young man, a young woman from his office, and his little daughter to dress in ocelot skins and other traditional clothing. I photographed them standing in front of thatched roof cabins and tropical palms. He was planning to make postcards from the photos, which many ecotourists would consider kitsch, to sell to the mostly Ecuadorian clientele of his resort. For him as well as for the people of Râo Blanco, culture and authenticity are not the sacred, fragile things which foreigners may think them to be.
After returning to the United States and processing the film, I selected about forty slides which I thought best represented RINCANCIE's projects and sent them to Tarquino Tapuy for use in tourist brochures. Though meant for tourists, brochures such as these have been known to fall into other hands as well. In fact, it is not unusual for tourism researchers to analyze their overt and subtle meanings when studying authenticity.