Introduction The concept of ecotourism itself is contested, as are its contributions to local and international development. Here, I define ecotourism as a form of tourism that takes place in environments purported to be relatively undisturbed, with experiences focusing on scenery, plants, animals, and local culture. At localized levels, much of the research on ecotourism has centred on the evaluation of its potential for sustainable community development. Potential benefits promoted by advocates of ecotourism include increased income for local people, community control over tourism development decision-making, raising environmental awareness, generating financial benefits for conservation, revitalizing local cultures, and strengthening human rights and democratic movements (Horton 2009). However, researchers have found significant negative impacts on both local peoples and the environment due to displacement from parks and environmental degradation caused by hotels (Carrier and Macleod 2005), as well as improperly managed foreign investment (Moreno 2005). These negative impacts lead Carrier and Macleod to state: ‘like conventional tourism, ecotourism is a form of environmental exploitation, one that often displaces previous forms’ (2005: 319). Horton (2009) contends that despite positive intentions, ecotourism is still driven by the dynamics of capital accumulation and does not challenge power structures. Despite these constraints, there are factors that can lead some ecotourism projects to be more sustainable than others. In a meta-analysis of 215 case studies of ecotourism from academic literature, Kruger (2005) found that local community involvement was an important predictor of whether an ecotourism project was perceived as successful in attaining sustainability goals. Within sustainable projects, revenue creation was considered a factor that led to changes in land-use patterns. Establishing small-scale initiatives over large-scale operations was shown to contribute to sustainability. Detailed case studies of community agency in ecotourism projects (Matarrita-Cascante et al. 2010; McAlpin 2008) also reveal a need for comprehensive consultation and inclusion of community members. Beyond assessing the environmental impacts of ecotourism, it is pertinent to examine how the redefinition of social relations affects socio-ecological
domains. Carrier and West (2009) problematize the role of complex social factors in contemporary conservation projects. Environmental conservation projects engender changes to non-static relationships of local peoples, both among themselves and with their surroundings. For example, local peoples have been able to form strategic alliances with NGOs and state institutions by employing discourses of sustainable development and environmentalism (West et al. 2006). Ecotourism sets the stage for ‘encounters in which people and institutions with multiple ideological agendas, knowledges and methods negotiate the meanings and practices of environmentalism’ (Vivanco 2006: 17). It is likely that the processes and factors that affect pro-environmental perspectives and practices vary significantly between context-specific ecotourism initiatives. Thus, an understanding of how an emerging ecotourism economy affects both livelihoods and environmental practices must be understood as a process, which takes place at the intersection of local peoples and broader politico-economic institutions. Costa Rica, a country of 4.3 million people in Central America, has been described as ‘ecotourism’s poster child’ and a ‘laboratory for green tourism’ (Honey 2008: 160). Drawing on a six-week ethnographic study1 in the rural village of San Gerardo de Rivas, Pérez Zeledón, Costa Rica, this chapter examines how ecotourism has influenced local livelihood strategies, as well as environmental perspectives and practices. It also highlights the ways in which local people are involved in shaping how ecotourism is developed in their community. Owing to the village’s location as the main entry point to climb the country’s tallest mountain within Chirripó National Park, the majority of households in San Gerardo now derive some income from tourism. Using an actor-oriented approach, I argue that while motives to engage in ecotourism have primarily been to provide for livelihoods, perceptions and uses of the environment have changed in relation to external economic and social conditions evolving over time. In response to the shortcomings of structural and generic theories of development in the 1980s, Long (2001) proposed that an actor-oriented perspective would highlight the interactions between various social actors in order to better understand contemporary development interventions and social transformations in the era of globalization. This theoretical and methodological contribution to development sociology sought to expand ethnographic approaches to explore ‘the links between the “small” worlds of local actors and the larger-scale “global” phenomena and actors, and the critical role played by diverse and often conflicting forms of human action and social consciousness in the making of development’ (Long 2001: 15). This approach is therefore applicable to examining the specific lived experiences of members of a community affected by the global processes of agrarian change and participation in global commodity and tourism markets. Ecotourism is yet another form of engagement of rural communities with the global economy and thus subject to many of the same risks and vulnerabilities that affect rural households engaged in export agriculture. However, it has provided many locals with higher incomes than from agriculture alone, enabling them to invest in their children’s education and to enjoy a higher standard of
living. It is also apparent that ecotourism has been more environmentally sustainable than relying solely on agricultural income, which is dependent on the transformation of forests into pasture or crops. Ecotourism has led to a valorization of conservation practices in San Gerardo de Rivas in recognition that a ‘pristine’ natural environment can attract further tourism income. Efforts to attract tourism have included environmental conservation initiatives, such as better waste management practices and land-use changes, which have resulted in notable environmental benefits. Through concerted, visible efforts to promote natural resource conservation and the attainment of sustainability certifications, local people are strategically negotiating the direction of tourism development by aiming to avoid negative environmental impacts and increase revenues in their community. On the one hand, I found that the extent of environmental practices employed is also limited by economic realities. Yet, I also encountered a positive appreciation of nature among several participants that went beyond simply economic motivations, particularly as some of these people did not earn direct income from tourism. This chapter suggests that, in the particular context of San Gerardo de Rivas, ecotourism may engender more robust sustainable community development that contributes to both an improvement of livelihoods and the attainment of conservation objectives. While this is largely congruent with what proponents of ecotourism advocate, it is important to consider the role that local people play in shaping development outcomes in this context.