“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.” – Paul Theroux
It is in amazement that I look back on the last three years, and where this journey of founding an eco-tour company has taken me. Three years ago, on a freezing winter day in January, I was on my way to Costa Rica, a place I had visited many years before and had fallen in love with during a 5 week long visit, back in 1997. I was at the beginning of a 6 month trip of Latin America, which took me from Guatemala all the way down to Peru. This is the trip where I had both gotten the travel bug, and decided I wanted to study environmental science – a trip that defined the path I took in life.
True, I was aware of environmental degradation in my home county of Israel, as well as the unsustainable consumption of resources going on in the world, but I was at the beginning of my journey. Having just finished four years in the military, I was ready for both adventure and an education.
Nothing really prepared me for both the beauty of the tropical rainforests I visited in Guatemala, Costa Rica and Ecuador – and nothing had prepared me for the impromptu visit I made to an American oil field in the Amazonian part of Ecuador. At that point in time I was traveling with Anke, a German environmentalist who was writing her master thesis on the environmental impact of such oil fields in the Amazon. We had observed that close to these flaring fields (I forget if it was Texaco or Chevron) it was eerily quiet, the rainforest birds gone. We had also talked to dislocated indigenous people, on our voyage up one of the mighty Rio Napo tributaries. These poor people were resettled in what looked like concrete (or asbestos?) huts, languishing away from there traditional homes in the rainforest. Many succumbed to alcohol and disease , some working for a pittance at the oil fields. Is this sustainable development?
With my brash Israeli chutzpah, I helped talked our way into visiting the main oil field. We were hosted by some of the American managers, and had lunch with them in an air-conditioned executive dining hall. “Sure, they were for the environment, but how is this poor country supposed to make money?” they told us, and went on to show us the environmental safeguards put in place – including a shiny recycling bin for bottles. Though I did not know the word at the time, I was being green-washed. The jungle around us was still silent, the pollution and oil will remain in the ecosystem for years.
Traveling through the Amazon on a dugout canoe was an amazing experience - we camped on the bank of the tributary, under the massive canopy, swam in the river during the day, and took late-night walks and observed the different set of wildlife that comes out at dark. Our indigenous guide shared his wisdom with us, and prepared a traditional stomach pain remedy from some leaves he collected from a tree.
I thought to myself, there must be a way to both preserve the rainforest, and provide for the local peoples, no?
Though I did not know it at the time, eco-tourism is one of many ways to benefit both people and the planet. This was the first step in the journey for me - a journey that would bring me back to the rainforest many times - though each time I visit the rainforest, I am amazed all over again by the amount of life it harbors.
Ami Greener, Director
Greener Travel LLC