In our news update last week we took you to the Northern hills of Thailand, where the Kayan people have been living as economic refugees in guarded villages for over two decades, selling handicrafts and photo-ops to tourists who are fascinated by the so called ‘long-neck-women’. Without being granted an ID-card, the Kayan aren’t allowed to leave the area and not able to make autonomous decisions. Therefor we questioned the ethics of such live-in gift shops and the presence of mass-tourism in the face of customs becoming a commodity and potentially even a threat to their wellbeing.
As global citizens and travellers it is only natural to be curious about these marginalized groups. However, when connecting with indigenous people, it is advised to become fully informed about the circumstances under which tour operators make their profits and whether the tribe concerned is interested in contact with the outside world in the first place. Case in point being: not all indigenous tourism is bad. There are some communities that arrange all visitors and tours coming in and out of the village completely independently or by seeking collaborations with local and ethical operators. Ethical tourism means: with respect for ancestral customs and the land, and a reciprocal engagement that benefits the indigenous communities itself. Tourism can raise awareness for the recognition of indigenous rights and reconciliation of natives being the age old guardians of the land. However, it isn’t always easy to bridge the gap between two vastly different worlds. To give an example, when in 1985 the Anangu Aboriginals of Australia were given back the land rights to their sacred Uluru mountain, they informed tourists that climbing the mountain violated their spiritual beliefs. However, the Anangu didn’t put a ban on climbing Uluru all together, instead they wanted visitors to choose not to climb out of respect. This means that some tourists are still climbing the mountain today, but they are also encouraged to listen and understand little by little. In this way, tourism is contributing to the creation of a greater understanding, both for locals as for tourists themselves.
The lost City – La Ciudad Perdida
Another important question to ask ourselves before embarking on a mission to visit isolated communities: should we contact the uncontacted? In Latin-America for example, many tribes have vanquished since the Spanish conquest many centuries ago, but some of them have fled to mountainous areas which were difficult for others to reach, and still are. This isolation has made it possible for them to maintain their unique lifestyle. In Colombia, the descendants of the ancient Tayrona live in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria reserve, home to the Lost City (Ciudad Perdida) are a perfect example. The Sierra Nevada Indians call themselves ‘Older Brothers’ because they believe they hold the mystic knowledge that can keep the universe in harmony, which can be achieved only through their ancient customs and the way they give back to The Mother, our creator. Outsiders are referred to as ‘younger brothers’. Up until a few decades ago, the Ika, Kogi and Wiwa were quite successful at keeping these ‘younger brothers’ out of their territory, but the lower slopes of the Sierra have been occupied by colonists growing coca for the drug trade that funds much of the armed conflict between guerrilla groups and paramilitaries in the country’s long-running civil war. As the Sierra Nevada Indians bestow upon the coka leave a sacred value, the mass- production of this plantation is a violation of their principles of balance. Moreover, illegal activities have been steadily moving up the mountain, chasing the Ika and Kogi further and further off their territory. However, the indigenous Wiwa have resorted to another resolve: tourism.
Collaborating with the Colombian Planeterra Foundation, the Wiwa have set up Wiwa tours, offering tourists guided trekking to their villages and the famous ancient Lost City (800 BC). This initiative is enabling the communities to spread their knowledge to a wider audience and grants them and their lands a new type of legitimacy. Together with Planeterra, they have developed a training and capacity-building program for the indigenous-owned tourism businesses and guides to increase employment opportunities in the area. As a result, a training kitchen, meal and handicraft experience have been developed in the Wiwa community of Gotsezhi. At the moment, there are 100 indigenous guides and people within the community of 7.000 people who are directly employed and many more who are benefiting from the sales of handwoven handicrafts, keeping the influx of tourists to a 1000 persons each year.
Copyrights to the feature image on this article go to Jaguar Siembra, local Colombian non-profit preserving the natural habitat of the Sierra Nevada Indians.