The Drunken Logic of Eco-Tourism

t was with some admiration that I watched Johnny Depp’s rambling dramatisation of Hunter Thompson’s The Rum Diaries. When struggling writer Paul Kemp arrives, habitually drunk, in rum-stained Puerto Rico, to work for the sinking San Juan Star, he quickly observes that the American Dream, beyond the resort, and its bowling alleys – where gluttonous foreigners are found – is an intoxicating lie. In a manner of speaking, all are drunk on some myth spawned by the ‘piss puddle of greed.’

Kemp begins sobering up soon after meeting the elegant hack Sanderson, who informs him that real estate is the real gold, and God’s version of money was the beautiful jungle that made the country’s land so prized. In the process, while the ‘trained’ natives paid to smile, keep doing so, tremendous resentment is created outside of these spaces of exception – the microcosm of colonial concepts renegotiated by corporate capital.

Only Depp, with his low muttering and quirkiness, can commercialise with some measure of integrity, Thompson’s character, for the character itself was a gonzo fiction of sorts based on Thompson’s observation of the San Juan Star (which rejected him as a writer). As another character, Sala, states of the perpetually drunk writers, ‘substructures of the brain have been eaten away by rum.’

The line that struck me as most true came almost halfway through the movie, where Sanderson – who made his fortune “selling this place street by street to the Yanks” threatens to shoot some unfriendly Puerto Ricans in the jungle adjacent to his private beach, if they trespassed again. They protested; they were not on his beach. Sanderson raged on: ‘No….but we are and what we do is private. Now get the fuck gone. I see you again, you’re gonna have a shotgun telling you what to do.’

Sanderson proceeded to inform Kemp about building a set of hotels and apartment on a small private Island. Kemp inquires about the illegality but is informed that it is an inappropriate question. (’10 000 waiters, maids, bellhop, janitors, clerks, plus whores for the fat men…’)

He is later confronted by the same Puerto Ricans when he dines in the wrong part of town. ‘Seems to me there are bad vibes developing’ mutters Depp, alarmed. ‘There are one or two oddities giving us the eye…A man just walked in. He’s just seen me and he wants revenge on the white man.’

The Rum Diaries is true of Africa, too.

When Tom British and Co. came to Africa, they created conservation. It was a rich place of green wonderment where they could enjoy wildness. It was a tamed and sanitised wilderness, without the accompanying presence of the working (or, made-to-work) class, such as Dumi Africa, the miner.  Initially, this began with legalised and profitable forms of hunting and culling. But the bigger business was private conservancies. Since industrialisation came on tap, capitalism has been increasingly interlocked with conservation. The first national parks created in the US bear testimony. The US’s Wildlife Management in the National Parks briefing document (1963), known as the Leopold Report,  described such parks as ‘vignettes’ of primitive America. But they were not.

Rather, such places were constructed to become naturalised commodities. The architecture of ecotourism also necessitated the valorisation of certain primitive natives who are selectively provided access. Dehumanised enough to be part of the natural wildness, such natives are celebrated, too, for their backward culture, facilitating a sort of time machine for visitors. No wonder then that Schaffer, in her book See America First: Tourism and the National Identity, claims that exposure of American Indians in the tourism industry was designed as scenic commodities to be consumed visually.

In the book Imagining Indians in the Southwest, Dilworth lasers in on the root cause: ‘imperialist nostalgia’ or the longing to authentically experience what the tourist was directly or indirectly complicit in destroying. But this ‘staged authenticity’ as Dean Maccannel describes in his masterpiece, The Tourist: a New Theory of the Leisure Class, provides the believed in escape valve for those unable to ‘breathe’ in the civilized cities that devoured it.

Transforming mass tourism into conservation has long been a strategy of capitalism. Under the guise of ecotourism, dependence is created by propertising and giving different use-values to ecologies. If those ecologies were used by peoples for different purposes, such people were forced to integrate or displaced. By privatising shared common as ‘national development’, disruption of communities takes place under the umbrella of legality. Ecotourism thus provides financiers with a new way in to which to identify and claim natural spaces.

These days, about 20 per cent of all international tourists make their way to Africa and other Southern countries. Is this good news for East Africa’s Maasai, forced to watch as 70 per cent of their pastoral lands were transformed into game parks and tourist resorts?

Not likely

Unlike Dumi Africa – too real, too black, too poor for pay-per-view paradise – the Maasai, for instance, constitute an important aspect of the tourist experience: tastefully garbed in clean tribal dress serving tea and champagne, using their fine sense of direction to lead the tipsy back to luxurious high-tech jungle-coloured huts. “Look darling, this is how they used to live before we brought them cans and cars,” tourists would observe in fascination.

Globalisation has channeled mass tourism, whether of the young Western mold, seeking travel-tourism as ritualised passage; middle income families – heading to ‘discover’ a sure commercial thing, such as Inca trails complete with tokens and Coke stands; or the elites, with their private luxuries. Both new and old colonialists are gung-ho for it. And in developing countries, landscapes pegged as perceived aesthetic capital even constitutes a critical part of the strategy backed by the World Bank’s umbrella of growth: economically-valued conservation.

Sacralisation of sights, edifices, cultures and the like, valorising primitivism, has brought with it a deepening of social reproduction of inequality. Backwardness here becomes beneficial. But who cashes in?

Land ownership, security and use in Africa comprise a tenuous affair. The US-based Oakland Institute has revealed both how land is grabbed from traditional owners, for a bottle of whiskey given to receptive chiefs, as well as how institutions such as the Bank create ‘one-stop-shops’ for foreign investors, access land often for 99 year leases at little or no cost, from Sudan to Ethiopia.

We should not be surprised: the capitalist’s conception of conservation has become the mainstream. Though capitalism has traditionally hushed down criticism through charitable ventures, globalisation has spawned a model neutralising criticism through buying off the opposition, NGOs. These days, most NGOs are not only funded by the same multinationals as extensions of such ideologies, they have also become players in the corporate landscape.

The report, ‘Cultivating the Grassroots’, authored by Sarah Hansen, former executive director of the Environmental Grantmakers Association (1998-2005) revealed that while big foundations comprise just 2 per cent, these organisations – lobbying for narrow interests such as carbon trading, receive more than half of all funding. The report described how the $10 billion in ‘green funding’ during the past decade had failed to generate any ‘significant policy changes at the federal level in the United States since the 1980s.’

Just 11 per cent of funds was connected to social justice issues, from which most ecological degradation usually stems. But large funds largely elided the impacted communities, primarily those of color.  “It is arguable that any push for environmental change which fails to prioritise communities of colour is a losing strategy,” stated the report.

White NGOs

In an interview with The Africa Report,  Tom Goldtooth, head of the Indigenous Environmental Network, spoke of the battle between frontline communities and large green organisations, including that of green heroes such as Bill McKibben of 350. “McKibben, the ivory tower white academic, didn’t even want to take the time to bring people of colour to the organising. If you look at the NGOs, these are European ‘white’ NGOs, and there is tremendous racism and classism woven into that. When an ethnic person speaks up, they get offended they don’t want a solution from the marginalised.”

Is it any wonder then that intelligent voices of the left, such as Naomi Klein, falling into  the habitus of certain criteria  – acceptable radicals that do not threaten the system but want to seek measures of justice within it –  are celebrated by the ‘bibles of capitalism’ such as the New York Times?

“Climate change is not a big issue for the Left,” she said in a recent interview with Solutions Journal. When asked her vision for the future, she stated, “It’s largely about changing the mix in a mixed economy. Maybe one day we’ll have a perfect “ism” that’s post-communism and -capitalism. But if we look at the countries that have done the most to seriously meet the climate challenge, they’re social democracies like Scandinavia and the Netherlands. They’re mixed economies. Markets are a big part, but not the only part, of their economies.”

Countries like Norway may possess strong social spheres, but it has not stopped them from exploiting the oil reserves burning up the planet- the country is the third largest oil exporter in the world, while Norway’s climate solutions such as CDM plantations in Africa, constitute green-washing.

Meanwhile the Netherlands has acted as a wonderfully stable secrecy jurisdiction facilitating unchecked looting of revenue from developing countries, primarily from the extractive industry corporations. In fact, the Netherlands is the world’s second leading secrecy haven, hosting over 358 dirty industry companies. (Example, over 50 per cent of Chevron, Exxon and Conoco’s 536 subsidiaries are based in tax havens.

Put simply, laws preventing capital flight would significantly damage the Netherlands economy. Overall, the myth of a functioning mixed system largely depend on exposure to capitalism’s ugly realities – and the portion of sovereignty ceded to multilateral institutions (WTO, IMF, World Bank etc). Norway has not been forced to cede such because there is no debt. The same mixed economy could not function in most African contexts.

The language of such celebrated voices of ‘the Left’ – manipulated and propped up the ‘Right’ media as a legitimate narrative, has long been predicted by marginalised communities.

“They want to devise the solution they feel is best for the whole system – and we have to ask ourselves what the system they actually represent, entails,’ said Goldtooth to The Africa Report.

Khadija Sharife is a journalist; visiting scholar at the Center for Civil Society (CCS) based in South Africa and contributor to the Tax Justice Network. She is the Southern Africa correspondent for The Africa Report magazine, assistant editor of the Harvard “World Poverty and Human Rights” journal and author of Tax Us If You Can (Africa). 

This article originally appeared in Africa Report.