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Ecotourism and Spirituality

Photo Ron Mader,: Bosque (Some rights reserved)

From the archives
This article first appeared in the June/July 1999 issue of Radical Grace magazine.

The cackle of parrots draws my head to the auburn sky. Circling overhead this mountain in Mexico’s Eastern Sierra Madre, the birds are searching for a place to spend the night.

“They are Maroon-fronted parrots (Rhynchopsitta terrisi), a species which has evolved to live only among high altitude conifer forests in Northeastern Mexico,” says biologist Jose Sanchez de la Peña.”

It’s hard to believe. I had always thought of parrots as a tropical species, but here we are just three hours south of the U.S.-Mexico border in the state of Nuevo Leon. There are many surprises here. I am learning so many things about this country and its environment that have shattered countless media stereotypes and preconceptions.

Biological Wealth
Mexico is poor only in terms of economic wealth. In terms of biodiversity – the number and variety of species of flora and fauna – Mexico is a global power. It is among five nations on this planet which scientists have found the majority of the worlds life forms.

The parrots nest on the limestone cliffs in this area of the Sierra Madre Oriental. The area is recovering from a regional wildfire that destroyed 8,000 hectares in 1975. The major source of the parrots’ diet – conifer seeds – was destroyed in the forest fire. Jose’s family runs a small lodge, Renacer de la Sierra (Rebirth of the Mountains) in the heart of the Sierra.

The family has been responsible for a major reforestation project undertaken with proceeds from tourists. The work is slow, Jose acknowledges. It may take 800 years for the ecosystem to return. But given the 400 years his family has already lived on this mountain, recovery is a long time away, but not unthinkable.

Notions of Development
In many ways environmentalists have chosen the path of criticism. Perhaps this has been done so for all the right reasons, but when condemnation is made without also giving hope, it leads us all into a spiraling path toward negativity. How many conversations have I had with fellow environmentalists that turned into competing scenarios of global doom?

I’ve come to this mountain retreat with a colleague I’ve met via the Internet as we both write about borderland environmental issues. Jose’s love of the desert and mountains always impressed me. Now I get to see where his family has lived for centuries.

Strangely in these Mexican mountains, I am reminded of Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy’s thoughtful collection of essays, Earth as Lover, Earth as Self. The environmental problems we’re witnessing today require as much spiritual transformation as economic change. And it’s not a question of “getting religion” as much experiencing the vulnerability and sacredness of place.

Macy writes about the Buddhist practice of “Sarvodaya” – which means “everybody wakes up.” She writes:

“In my mind I still hear the local Sarvodaya workers, in their village meetings and district training centers. Development is not imitating the West. Development is not high-cost industrial complexes, chemical fertilizers and mammoth hydro-electric dams. It is not selling your soul for unnecessary consumer items or schemes to get rich quick. Development is waking up – waking up to our true wealth and true potential as persons and as a society.”

We’ve heard so much about development in this decade, usually in the form of “sustainable development.” But most of what I’ve seen is rhetoric or good-intentioned tinkering of the status quo, advanced by international banks, A-list foundations and wealthy entrepreneurs. I don’t see that much has changed. It’s only when I come to places where the ideas are being worked out on the ground that I find my spirits lifted.

I wonder what the Mexican equivalent of “Sarvodaya” might be. There are a lot of good-natured development projects, but rarely do they involve the entire community.

New Ideas
I’m going back to the basics now and asking myself some simple questions – How do we connect to a place? How do we value our work? What is meaningful travel?

There are several examples of ecotourism that offer a glimpse of the path ahead – Renacer de la Sierra is but one. This family has a multi-generation commitment to reforestation and to the biological understanding of their corner of the Sierra. This work alone may not provide all of the answers needed for sustainable living, but it does provide one of the keys to rethinking our relation to the environment.

Issues hidden beneath the lure of the Sierra and the luxuriant cloud forests come to light when we learn how to see. There are real campesinos attempting to feed their children by burning the forest and planting corn, there are real environmentalists who sometimes give their lives in service to their beliefs, and there are real decisions that caring and educated travelers can make either to improve or degrade the delicate environments through which they pass.

Circulos Virtuosos
Ecotourism will never be THE solution for environmental conservation or job creation, but it often serves as a catalyst to other practices critical to sustainable development, including the development of environment-friendly lodging, interpretative tours respectful of people and place, organic agriculture, local culture and handicrafts and environmental education. In Spanish this is called un circulo virtuoso or a ‘virtuous circle.’

These are ideas that need to be absorbed and they’ll be what I’ll be looking at over the next few years. I certainly don’t have the answers I’m looking for, but I like these questions. I have faith that I will continue to meet people who will share their experiences as we attempt to not only cross borders but forge new links that unite us.


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