Reclaiming our world through sharing it with others: A few notes on the Saraguro people’s community based tourism model

Lily Acevedo is a second year Master’s student in Communication and  Development Studies and a first year PhD student in Mass Communication. Lily is attending the Tropical Disease Institute summer program in Ecuador. 

As soon as I arrived to Ecuador I began my work with the Healthy Living Initiative, a community development project facilitated by OHIO’s Tropical Disease Institute and the Center for International Studies. My first assignment in the field was to accompany two other team members who are looking into eco-tourism as a sustainable alternative for community based income generation. We went to Saraguro, Loja, a small town in the northern part of the province, inhabited primarily by the Saraguros, a tribe by the same name. The Saraguro people are a sub-tribe of the Quichua, the biggest indigenous nation in Ecuador. They are notorious for combining aspects of modern living with the upholding of their traditional customs and attire. It was interesting to see young girls going to school wearing traditional attire, while carrying cell-phones and book bags with motifs from contemporary pop culture.

The coexistence between indigenous tradition and contemporary living conditions makes Saraguro appealing to visitors. Saraguro’s appeal as a tourism site provided a good opportunity for income and work generation. While this was certainly great news for the primarily indigenous community, it also meant having to secure the protection of their land, resources and cultural heritage. Protection of the local community’s ownership and self-determination was crucial since economic opportunities generated by tourism often result in the co-opting of the community’s space by private individuals and corporations, and eventually in the displacement of natives and their relegation to touristic attractions.

How could the Saraguros protect themselves and fight this menace? Community based tourism!

Community based tourism is a sustainable and culture centered strategy that allows communities to draw income from visitors while maintaining the integrity of the local environment. This idea has been present in Ecuador since the late 1980s, also the time when the Saraguros begun working towards implementing it in their community. We talked to Mr. Darwin Japon, a member of the Saraguro people himself, the liaison between the Saraguros and the Pluri-National Federation for Community Based Tourism, the Saraguros’ main partner and supporter in efforts to harness the appeal of their culture and natural environment in a sustainable way.

Mr. Japon explained that, for the Saraguro model at least, community based tourism “is not an end in itself. Instead it is a means to revitalize and strengthen the community and bring them together in an organized and collaborative manner”. The main goal of community based tourism is to protect the community’s cultural heritage and their self-determination. For the Saraguros, the first step towards doing this was replacing Spanish and Catholic celebrations with the traditional festivities from the Quichua Nation, and incorporating what Mr. Japon calls “traditional wisdom” into the modern education system.

The second step is developing a self- sustained economic system. Community based tourism helps the Saraguros take this second step by providing them with an alternative for income generation in the face of growing threats like oil-drilling and mining and an expanding corporate presence in the region. In order to assure the sustainability of tourism based income, they have established a distribution system called “Solidarity Economics”. In solidarity economic systems individual and collective business owners retain a portion of the revenues and the rest is redistributed throughout the community.

Finally, Mr. Japon highlights empowerment of the community as the key benefit of this model, since now the Saraguros were able to take ownership and make the best of the cultural and natural wealth that is rightfully theirs, but was previously being exploited by corporate and other private interest. “We want to stop being the objects of tourism and become its subjects” he said with a determined tone of voice and a proud look on his face.

The Healthy Living Initiative is looking at the Saraguros as a potential role model for the community based eco-tourism project it is facilitating in Chaquizhca, Guara and Bella Maria, three rural communities in southern Loja. These communities are surrounded by a wealth of untapped natural beauty, including the Ahuaca, one of the tallest and most legendary mountains in the region, and the dry forest, a breath taking sight. Healthy Living aims to encourage the community’s efforts to harness these resources and thus improving their quality of life, while reducing risks of damaging the environment.

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