Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Eco-tourism

Eco-tourism is the new big thing in Southern Laos. Having donated my English skills to the local Eco Guide Unit, I thought I should probably take on one of their treks as well and get a look at the nearby Dong Natad Protected Area.

The obligatory tuk-tuk carried my shaken remains out of town for a good forty minutes to our first stop, a salt factory. They pump 55% saline water out of the ground and either leave it to dry in the sun, or boil it in big wood burning trays. All of which makes for some nice photographs, but I'm struggling to find the environmental angle.






The trek through the forest is interesting, but I find myself in a strange mood, and am really struggling to engage. We walk, occasionally talk, and they point out things you can eat, enormous termite mounds, and trees that the locals draw oil from for their lanterns. Again, I don't really see how burning holes in trees in order to get fuel is an environmentally sustainable practice, but maybe I'm missing something.




The forest is beautiful, but it's less daunting and alien than the one I trekked in Thailand. Hallowe'en style cobwebs adorn every tiny branch, and an assortment of strange insects threaten me at every turn.






These ants smell of vinegar if you crush them in your hands (not very Buddhist?), earning the nickname sour ants, and their eggs are a delicacy apparently, though I don't get to try. The morning redeems itself by arriving at a splendid lake, where we stop for lunch and I put my guide in his place in a stone skimming contest (growing up in Worthing has its advantages).




I'll have to confess to being slightly underwhelmed by the whole experience, but these are early days, for the whole idea of taking tourists into this area, and for the guides and villagers who facilitate it.

What I discovered was the role eco-tourism has in educating local people about the importance of preserving their natural environment. Most things boil down to economics, and if you live in a forest and can make more money chopping it down than leaving it where it is, then that is probably what you're going to do. Tourism offers an alternative though. The local Eco Guide Unit goes into the villages and explains how to gather NTFP (Non-Timber Forest Products), puts up signs and rubbish bins and educates the locals in how to use them. It will take time, a lot of time.

But the ball is rolling at least, and in a few years things should be a lot better. In the meantime, if you're passing through, your patronage will help them get off the ground, and maybe even pay for a few lightbulbs so they can stop bleeding the trees dry...

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