Ecotourism, Neoliberalism, and the Politics of Wildlife. When I began my research for my Wildlife Politics book, I found relatively little research that focused on BOTH wildlife AND politics. One exception to this generalization concerns the literature on neoliberalism as it relates to wildlife conservation. There are a significant number of articles and chapters that discuss the themes of neoliberalism defined by the Hill & Byrne article cited below as “the environment is commodified and valued for its potential economic returns.” I appreciate the existence of this literature and have found some useful research from it. However, I have found that much of this literature seems satisfied to label some conservation activity as neoliberal thus implicitly condemning it but they usually do not go into detail on how it has been harmful and how some (usually vague) alternative to these activities would have been better. The 2016 article by Hill and Byrne is titled “The ecotourism-extraction nexus and its implications for the long-term sustainability of protected areas: what is being sustained and who decides? Published in the Journal of Political Ecology Vol.23, 308-327. This article is an example of research that goes beyond mere labeling of activity as neoliberal with a good description of the development of whale-watching ecotourism in a small Mexican village. The location of the ecotourism is El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve that has been designated a Whale Sanctuary and World Heritage site. The area has two lagoons where ecotourists come to watch gray whales up close enough to touch. The ecotourism businesses provide employment for 13 “seasonal employees” who live in the Ejido Benito Juárez, which can be described as “communal land” occupied by poor peasants that has received official designation from the Mexican government. The residents receive modest financial benefits from their ecotourism but Hill and Byrne state that more income is derived from payments by a private salt mining company that is using the land next to the lagoons. The authors interviewed ejido residents and some voiced the opinion they were dissatisfied with payments from the salt company because they were small compared to the profits the company was reaping. The salt company tried to expand their operations to another “pristine lagoon” but after a long battle, thanks to a coalition of ejido participants, foreign and domestic NGOs, and “international celebrities,” the proposed expansion was rejected in a 2000 presidential decree. Hill and Byrne conclude that ecotourism has brought “mixed blessings” because it has not lived up to its “purported social and economic benefits.” They argue that many of the ejido participants are satisfied with the status quo and have “little motivation to change existing arrangements.” They go on to state that the inhabitants are focused on “their immediate needs” and prioritize short-term economic development over “long-term social equity.” Thus they conclude that ecotourism “cannot substitute for genuine institutional reform” and argue that their findings show the need for “political reform” and changes to the ejido “land tenure system.” Although I am sympathetic to the authors’ wishes for ecotourism to result in underlying social change and equity, as an individual committed first and foremost to wildlife conservation rather than social equity, their description of ecotourism sounds to me like a success. It appears that the ecotourism helped to stop what was a strong effort at harmful development that would have hurt whales. It also appears that ecotourism is contributing to the well-being of the small community of members of the ejido. Still, as one reads this article, it appears that the authors think they have proven another case of the harmful effects of “neoliberalism.” I question this. What would have happened if there had been no ecotourism development? My reading of their case study suggests that the outcome would have been worse for wildlife conservation.
During my research for the book, I noticed that there was no blog available for sharing informaton on wildlife conservation and thus I set up this blog to accomplish this purpose. Please share any informaticoncerning issues related to wildife policy and politics. I welcome feedback from users concerning this blog and website.