Column: Positive Tourism in the Colombian Amazon
Meeting with indigenous tribes in remote and exotic locations can sometimes cause controversy in the travel world. For one village in Colombia's Amazon Rainforest, this isn't the case. This community is using the increasing number of visitors to its advantage, hoping to turn it into a positive experience for everyone.
Journalist Lucy Sherriff took to the Colombian Amazon to find out more.
“I’m worried about all the tourists who will come here soon,” says Elvis Cueva, as we shelter under a shop canopy from the thick Amazonian rain. “If they are not handled in the right way, it could be very damaging for the Amazon.”
Elvis, from an indigenous tribe near Putamayo – the Brazilian side – is a guide for visitors to the Amazon, and I meet him in Leticia, Colombia’s gateway to the rainforest.
Thanks to the country’s recent peace deal, the number of tourists visiting Colombia increased from 4.5m in 2016 to 5.8m in 2017 – a growth of 27.7%. Peru, Brazil, and Ecuador have been mainstays for tourists wanting to visit the Amazon, but increasing numbers are now heading to Colombia to access the rainforest.
“We don’t have the infrastructure or experience to deal with lots of tourists,” Elvis continues. “There are many tribes here who have never seen Westerners. It’s important to educate both tribes and tourists on how to respect one another.
Although tourism can have a negative impact on remote areas, one indigenous village on the Amazon River is using visitors to their advantage – and Elvis is keen to show how tourism can benefit communities when implemented correctly.
Vergel, a small community an hour upstream from Leticia has 750 inhabitants. As our narrow, rickety boat pulls up to the grassy bank, I express my fears to Elvis of being a cliché Westerner.
“Here, you are helping them too,” he reassures me. “This is a good example of how tourism can work well.”
There are concerns among the Vergel tribe that their traditions are dying out. In the face of competition from the modern world, the community fears its children are shunning customs in favour of technology, watching football or even migrating to the cities.
“We teach our children our dances, but we rarely need to perform them,” María, wife of the tribe’s leader, tells me, via Elvis acting as translator.
“When tourists come to visit, we put on our traditional dress and we perform dancing and rituals. It helps us remember, it means our children can practise these dances too.”
The women and girls don dresses made from ficus trees. The cloth is made from the inner bark, and the dresses decorated with natural dye and tassels strung with seeds baked for so long they resemble beads. The boys sport full-length tunics and masks resembling various Amazonian animals. The 14-strong group sings, chants and dances – a ceremony traditionally performed during a girl’s coming of age ceremony.
María explains it’s a chance to remember their roots, and to wear the clothes of their ancestors – normally the community wears Western t-shirts and pants or loose fitting dresses.
“We love being able to show our customs to outsiders,” she says. “We hope this will educate tourists about who we are, and so they can respect our traditions, and our way of life.”
After the performance, I’m invited to purchase handmade crafts and jewellery. Although the village is mostly self-sufficient, the extra income is needed for buying food they cannot grow themselves, as well as paying for transport to Leticia, and any medical emergencies.
“It’s a great model,” says Elvis, who has been instrumental in helping the village liaise with tourists, and helping them realise the potential of tourism. “It benefits the tourists, because they have an education, and an insight into a different culture. And it is good for the village, because they can make money and show off their heritage.
“But the hard part is making sure every model is as good as this.”