Indigenous Ecotourism and Sustainable Development:
The Case of Río Blanco, Ecuador

David T. Schaller
Department of Geography
University of Minnesota


Section 3: Río Blanco's Ecotourism Project

Because it is more distant from Puerto Misahuallí, and access is more difficult, Río Blanco had received far fewer visitors over the years than had Capirona. The people of the community were not sure what ecotourism development would entail, nor whether they were capable of doing it well. Many respondents admitted to feeling timid about meeting groups of foreigners. However, they discussed the matter in a number of community meetings and, encouraged by Capirona's success, agreed to try it. This chapter examines the structure of Río Blanco's project and then compares Quichua perceptions of the project with those of tourists visiting the community.

Communal by Design Once the decision was made, the people of Río Blanco organized a committee, which included the president and vice-president of the community, to coordinate their ecotourism project. The committee drew on the Capirona model while trying to improve on that community's experience. For example, instead of depositing tourism income in a fund for community projects, it is distributed equally to all members, so each can directly benefit from the project. In its first year of operation, Río Blanco's ecotourism project received 158 tourists and about $6000. Over sixty percent of the earnings were reinvested in the project itself--for food, for gasoline for the canoe, and to pay off loans for beds, sheets, dishes and other furnishings. The remaining $2200 was divided equally among the twenty-one resident households, all of whom were involved in the project. Each family received about $100, though many earned another $20 to $30 in the year selling crafts. With the initial investment paid off, additional earnings are expected to follow about a 50-50 split between tourism expenses and infrastructure, on the one hand, and payments to members, on the other.

In another modification from Capirona's program, Río Blanco's tourist cabins were built almost a kilometer from the center of the community rather than adjacent to it (Figure 4.1). This was partly because tourists were thought to prefer to stay amidst primary forest rather than near the hubbub of the community, but also to eliminate unstructured interactions between tourists and the general population of the community. In Capirona, unrestricted contact had led to drinking problems and sexual relations. One kilometer of tropical forest, especially during the twelve-hour equatorial night, was considered an adequate buffer zone.

However, the foundation upon which Capirona had built its ecotourism project--communal control--was only strengthened in Río Blanco. Tourist cabins, trails, and bridges across the Huambuno were all constructed during mingas, a Quichua tradition in which each household donates the labor of one member for a single project, be it a member's house, a health clinic, or tourism infrastructure. Construction of the tourist facilities required fifty-one days of mingas, each involving about nineteen people, or almost a thousand person-days of work (Rivera 1995:53).

Once tourists began coming to Río Blanco, the cooking, cleaning, and cultural demonstrations were assigned according to a rotation schedule to ensure that the workload was shared equitably. (The exception to this cooperative arrangement was the guide--a 39-year-old man, one of Río Blanco's shamans and a leader of the ecotourism project, who meets the tourists in Tena and accompanies them for the duration of their tour.)

Of the 158 tourists who visited Río Blanco in its first year, 85 percent were on educational tours operated by Fundaci—n Jatun Sacha, which had added several RINCANCIE communities to its itinerary as alternatives to Capirona. Most of these groups split into two smaller groups which each spent one night at Río Blanco. The rest were small groups of tourists which came to RINCANCIE independently. With about 200-tourist-nights in its first year, the project remains a relatively minor part of daily life in Río Blanco. If averaged for the entire year, the tourist cabins were occupied for less than two nights per month. This figure is deceptive, since more groups visit in July and August than in other months, but it does indicate the current scale of Río Blanco's ecotourism project.

Because of the rotating work schedule, each member of Río Blanco usually need spend only four or so hours a day working in tourism, and only when tourists are visiting. For example, there are six cooking shifts, each composed of three women. Their husbands and other people usually join them, however, partly to help out and to serve the meals, but also simply to socialize (with each other more than with the tourists). Arrangements for the cultural program are similar: eight men and two women are assigned to perform the dances, but many other members turn out to meet the tourists and to enjoy the show. Thus, although members have established some boundaries between the tourists and themselves by siting the cabins so far from the community, they also treat tourist visits as a social occasion. Excluding the many mingas required at the start to build the tourist compound, and any additional ones to improve the facilities, most members need spend only a dozen or so hours per month working in tourism. (Again, this figure is an average; in reality visitation is higher in July and August.) How much time they actually spend engaged in tourism activities is an interesting reflection of their perceptions of such work.

Based on their experiences in the first year, most Quichua respondents felt positively about ecotourism. Of the thirty members surveyed, all but two believed it had been good for the community. A middle-aged man, however, had mixed feelings about it, and an elderly woman felt it had been bad. Even among the first group, not everyone was unequivocally positive about the project. One-fifth of all respondents still expressed some concerns about ecotourism development. These varied from respondent to respondent. A 39-year-old woman worried that tourists might like Río Blanco so much that they would never leave--a concern which perhaps speaks more of her own contentment with life in the community than with actual risks posed by this particular ecotourism project. Others worried about the cash brought in by tourism--that some members might use it to buy more alcohol, or that it was risky to keep such sums in the house since no one had any kind of security devices. One man observed that, although the project is communal, there are times when not all members join in the effort when tourists are visiting. Another concern, from an elderly woman, regarded photography: "Tourists come and take pictures as if we were animals, as if we were in a zoo." She suggested that tourists be charged for taking photographs.1

The great majority, however, said that their initial fears had disappeared after working in tourism for a year. "Tourists are good people," said many respondents. While several respondents (particularly women) admitted that they are still timid in their interactions with tourists, they no longer feel as apprehensive as they did originally. In the second year of the project, they plan to improve the quality of their facilities by making the tourist cabins more comfortable, beautifying the grounds of the tourist compound, and piping in potable water. They also hope to host more tourists--most members would like about 300 per year, twice the number which came in the first year. These goals indicate Río Blanco's general satisfaction with its ecotourism project. Even those who expressed continuing doubts or concerns about the project participate in it--most of them not only cooking and cleaning but also demonstrating traditional crafts, playing an instrument in the band or dancing in the cultural program.

These latter activities are not common pastimes in the community, but they form a key component of the tourism program. Indeed, much of what the tourists do and see is not an accurate reflection of daily life in Río Blanco. In designing the project, the people of the community, perhaps unknowingly, faced a choice. Should they show tourists what they think tourists want to see, or should they focus on their contemporary way of life? While the question might seem absurd in the context of mass tourism, ecotourism's emphasis on education and authenticity make the tourist experience central to a proper understanding of the project.

Case Study Methods: Tourist Interviews
Information about tourist expectations, experiences and perceptions is based on face-to-face interviews with fifteen tourists to Río Blanco in October 1995. The interview schedule asked tourists about the tropical forest, the community, what they liked and disliked about their visit, and the authenticity of their experience.

Respondents were college students from the United States who were on a study abroad program in Quito in the fall of 1995. As part of their program, they spent four days in the Oriente. Their base were the Caba–as Ali–ahui, a tourist hotel purchased in 1994 by Fundaci—n Jatun Sacha and a California non-profit organization, and operated as an eco-lodge benefiting the field station. The group of fifteen students and four guides was split in two; each small group came to Río Blanco by canoe and foot, arriving in the morning and leaving the following day after breakfast. All fifteen were interviewed at Caba–as Ali–ahui after their visit.

The small size of the sample was a result of several factors. September and October are not Ecuador's high season, so fewer potential tourists were in the country. More importantly, during the fieldwork period, RINCANCIE was reevaluating its tourism projects as well as negotiating with the national government for permission to operate without being licensed as a tourist agency, and it was not actively seeking tourists. Nevertheless, based on the author's many personal encounters with tourists in Ecuador, these respondents are probably fairly representative of Río Blanco's visitors. Likely differences are in age and nationality. Respondents are probably slightly younger than most budget tourists touring the country. They also did not include any Europeans, who comprise between 17 percent and 48 percent of Ecuador's foreign tourists (estimates vary--these are from CETUR and the World Tourism Organization, respectively) (CETUR 1994). This group of respondents also differs from many groups to Río Blanco which include teachers and other older adults. Furthermore, these students had been living with Ecuadorian families in Quito for six weeks, which, though not unusual for budget tourists in Ecuador, is far from the rule. Finally, because their tour of the Oriente was planned by program leaders, questions regarding motivations and expectations were of limited use. These visitors, thus, are by no means a true random sample, but their responses are nevertheless interesting and useful windows into the touristic experience.

Perceptions of the Tropical Forest
The tropical environment is the primary attraction for most ecotourism projects in Latin America; in one study, 76 percent of foreign visitors surveyed at Ecuador's airports cited natural history as an important motivating factor for their trip (Boo 1990:xvi). While tourist respondents were not asked about their motivations (their itinerary had been designed by the leaders of their study abroad program), their interest in tropical nature was obvious. All fifteen were eager to describe the jungle, and many used words such as "intense," "awe-inspiring," "incredible," and "overwhelming." However, even some of those most enthusiastic about the forest were apt to qualify their responses. "It's not like all the hype you hear," said one. "It's very, very different, but at the same time not all that different, either." In fact, over half of the respondents commented that in some ways the jungle had not met their expectations, particularly in regard to animal and bird life. Three respondents said that the jungle was not as different from North American forests as they had expected. "It's really just a forest," said one, "but with different trees." Another observed, "I thought there would be more overabundance, but it's kind of like, well, a forest."

While these mixed reactions may be linked to the Western media's hyperbolic focus on tropical forests in recent years, the expectations behind them predate National Geographic television specials. The image of South America as primal nature goes back to the nineteenth century, when explorer and biologist Alexander von Humboldt "reinvented South America first and foremost as nature. Not the accessible, collectible, recognizable, categorizable nature of the Linnaeans, however, but a dramatic, extraordinary nature, a spectacle capable of overwhelming human knowledge and understanding" (Pratt 1992:120). Contemporary Western media perpetuate this view with the help of modern technology. Since much of the current hype is fueled by biological discoveries about tropical forests rather than their value as spectacle, a certain amount of disappointment seems inevitable for tourists without the time or knowledge to appreciate more subtle aspects of the forest.

In contrast to Western perceptions, Quichua respondents were more sedate in their descriptions of the forest. While this may in large part be due to cultural and linguistic barriers which limit the usefulness of their responses, a few interesting points can be made. For example, while eleven of the fifteen tourists interviewed said the forest was hot or humid, no Quichua respondents said such things, and many described the forest as cool and shady. Clearly the Quichua distinguish between the forest itself and the environment in general, while tourists are more likely to perceive the forest as the environment. Furthermore, while few Quichua can spare the time from their crops to walk in the forest regularly, those who do often commented that they enjoy it because they can spot birds and animals; in contrast, nine out of the fifteen tourists said they saw less wildlife ("just some birds and a poisonous snake," noted one) than they had expected.

These differences are due in part to the degraded nature of Río Blanco's forest; the forests in eastern Napo support a greater diversity and number of wildlife than do the forests in the Tena/Misahuallí area (Espinoza 1995). However, they also point to notable perceptual and experiential differences between tourists and the Quichua which stem from each group's identity as visitor and native. Tuan (1974) notes that, "we may say that only the visitor (and particularly the tourist) has a viewpoint.... The native, by contrast, has a complex attitude derived from his immersion in the totality of his environment...[which] can be expressed by him only with difficulty and indirectly through behavior, local tradition, lore and myth" (ibid.:63).

According to some observers, such a close identification with place prevents an indigenous group such as the Quichua from recognizing, not to mention capitalizing on, opportunities for ecotourism development. Zurich (1995:145) writes that "native people who have lived in the same spot for centuries...rarely see the land in objectified or even romantic terms." Because of this, he says, "I think that it would be unlikely to discover a hunter-gatherer conducting Amazonia rain forest river trips" (ibid.:140). It may be unlikely (not to mention ill-advised) for a true hunter-gatherer people to seek out tourist business, but Zurich's comment slights the myriad indigenous peoples, such as the Quichua, who maintain many of their traditional ways and beliefs while participating in the national market economy.

The people of Río Blanco, at least, understand well the appeal of their environs. When asked why tourists come to Río Blanco, half (twelve of twenty-four) of the Quichua respondents said it was to see the forest or, more generally, nature. Similar views, with a local bias, are also common; almost two-thirds said tourists came to learn about medicinal plants, a specialty of Río Blanco, and nearly half said they came to see the waterfalls on the Río Huambuno. Only four respondents said tourists came to see or learn about Quichua culture. (Responses total more than twenty because many respondents gave more than one answer.) In fact, the people of Río Blanco understand touristic interest in the tropical forest so well that their tourist program focuses on the forest to the exclusion of other aspects of contemporary Quichua life.

Accuracy of the Ecotourism Experience
Tourists to Río Blanco spend virtually their entire visit in primary tropical forest. They stay in cabins surrounded by primary forest. Their walks take them almost entirely through primary forest. They visit a waterfall and the medicinal plant garden, both surrounded by primary forest. Not until their last evening do they visit the center of the community, where they see a program of traditional Quichua music and dance. These activities completely fill the schedule for most groups, who come for only a day or two. The rare group which stays longer may also participate in a minga, helping with a community project or working in the fields. For the great majority of tourists, however, the overwhelming impressions are of primary rain forest, medicinal plants, and traditional music and dance.

For the people of Río Blanco, life takes a different form. Members do value the places which they show to tourists--about half of respondents considered primary forest or medicinal plants (which are best found in primary forest) the most important places in the community. Another third of them cited the waterfall, for its spiritual value or because it is a valuable tourist attraction (Table 4.1).

Table 4.1.--Most Important Place in Community for Quichua
(n=25)
Waterfall 9 (36%)
Where medicinal plants grow 7 (28%)
Primary forest 4 (16%)
Personal land or lot 3 (12%)
Community center 2 (8%)

Nevertheless, on average members visit primary forest only once a week and often less. One-fourth of respondents said that they never go into the forest anymore. Most acknowledged that they used to go into the forest more frequently, but the increasing demands of commercial agriculture on their time no longer permit it.

Similarly, tourists learn about hunting techniques--reed and grass traps, and the blowgun--which are rarely practiced anymore (Figure 4.2). Use of the blowgun--a two-meter, hollowed-out palm trunk--has been on the decline for decades. Only three of the twenty adult male respondents were still proficient in the use of the blowgun and they often preferred a rifle instead. Furthermore, hunting in Río Blanco has been officially banned except against animals which eat crops. Opinion is mixed about the reasons behind the ban; three-quarters of respondents said it was to protect the wildlife, either for its own sake (one-fifth of all respondents) or to attract tourists (half of all respondents). Only one-fourth of respondents said it was simply because there weren't enough animals left to make hunting worth the effort. Thus, tourists learn about hunting techniques which have been abandoned, at least in part for their own benefit. What's more, the techniques that members demonstrate are still used in neighboring communities which, since they have not adopted ecotourism and its ecological mission, perhaps remain more "authentically" Quichua.

This incongruity between representation and reality affects tourist impressions of Río Blanco. Over half of the fifteen tourists interviewed believed that the people of Río Blanco make their living from hunting, fishing and/or subsistence agriculture; only one-fifth thought that they relied at all on cash crops (Table 4.2). Of the nine tourists who believed that the Quichua also earned a living from ecotourism, five thought it was the primary source of income, when in fact it accounts for only 18 percent of the average household income. As a result, many misunderstood the urgent reasons behind Río Blanco's ecotourism project, and its impacts on community life.

Table 4.2.--Tourist Perceptions:
How the People of Río Blanco Make a Living
(n=15)
Ecotourism/Tourist crafts 9 (60%)
Subsistence Agriculture 6 (40%)
Hunting/Fishing 4 (26%)
Commercial Agriculture 3 (20%)
Figures total more than 100% because
most tourists gave multiple responses.

The majority of tourists described the Quichua's relationship with the forest as harmonious and non-exploitative. Typical comments were: "A unity--they can live and work with it instead of going against it" and "They're not abusing nature; they're using it for what they need." Only two tourists felt otherwise, with comments such as, "It was really sad that a lot of their land was cleared, but I suppose they need to grow things" and "[The guide] is very in tune with [the forest] but he's really struggling to transmit that appreciation to the others. They're moving away from their link to the forest, though with ecotourism they're trying to preserve it." The reason for this disparity of perceptions may be largely due to the language barrier. Although these tourists were students with several years of Spanish study, many may have missed certain points made by the guide. For most of their visit, what they saw was primary forest and a guide deeply familiar with it; no wonder they generalize their experience to the community as a whole.

The aspect of the tour which most tourists did question was the cultural program. On their last evening, tourists gather in the schoolhouse with many people of the community. The tourists usually sit on benches along one wall, the Quichua on benches along the opposite wall. A band composed of five men plays traditional Quichua music, and other members demonstrate two dances--one commemorating a peace treaty with another Oriente group called the Huaorani, the other typically performed at weddings. In the former, eight men wearing grass skirts, red body paint and feather headdresses dance rhythmically in a circle, pounding their spears on the concrete floor (Figure 4.3). For most visitors it is an astonishing sight at complete odds with the modern people sitting along the schoolhouse's opposite wall.

Much of the cultural program is a revival of traditions which were nearly lost. Many members of the band only recently learned to play their instruments, in order to play for tourists. The treaty dance is rarely performed anymore--at most once a year on the anniversary of the founding of the community. And while some Quichua still incorporate the wedding dance in wedding celebrations, many younger respondents had, excluding tourist programs, performed neither it nor the treaty dance since elementary school. According to some tourism researchers, such a cultural revival is one of ecotourism's most notable benefits. Tourist interest in traditional culture revalorizes customs which might otherwise be disdained as outmoded and irrelevant to modern concerns (Dearden and Harron 1994, Healy and Zorn 1983).

Many tourists, however, were uncomfortable with the cultural program. Though most were fascinated by the music and the dances, they had difficulty interpreting the meaning and context of the program itself. In part this may be due to intercultural differences. Though many Quichua attend the program, even if they are not participating in it, they appear impassive throughout the evening. Most tourists have difficulty discerning the Quichua's opinions of the program and made comments such as, "It felt like they didn't want to be showing us that stuff--they weren't excited or proud of it." However, three-quarters of the Quichua surveyed cited the cultural program as their favorite aspect of tourist visits. (Admittedly, for many the alternatives--cooking and cleaning--are not compelling.) These differing perceptions may be the greatest misunderstanding between tourists and Quichua, but they are not the only ones (Table 4.3).

Table 4.3.--What Tourists Like Most: Differing Perceptions
According to the Quichua
(n=19)
According to Tourists
(n=15)
Cultural program/crafts 57% 7%
Getting to know the guide 5% 42%
Forest/medicinal plants/nature 31% 42%
Waterfall/swimming 36% 28%
Canoe ride 10% 14%
Figures total more than 100% because most respondents gave multiple answers.

In many cases, the Quichua misinterpret tourist preferences because they are unaware of tourists' concern for authenticity. Tourists frequently described the cultural program as feeling "forced," and many preferred the walks in the forest or learning about medicinal plants because those experiences offered personal, relatively spontaneous interaction with the guide. Most tourists expressed their reactions with some fervor, saying that the cultural program, in particular, had greatly troubled them. Their responses can better be understood by examining the concept of authenticity.

Authenticity of the Ecotourism Experience
According to MacCannell's landmark study, The Tourist, authenticity is a fundamental facet of modernity. With the crumbling of "in-group mentality built out of binary oppositions: insider vs. outsider, us vs. them..., only peoples whose lives are 'everyday' in the pejorative, grinding sense of the term may feel fully a part of their world. Modern man has been condemned to look elsewhere, everywhere, for his authenticity, to see if he can catch a glimpse of it reflected in the simplicity, poverty, chastity or purity of others" (MacCannell 1976:40-41). In touristic terms, this need leads tourists on a quest for that which they perceive to be pristine, primitive, and untouched by modernity (Cohen 1988). The objects of such a quest are often indigenous peoples who have managed to preserve their "authenticity" only through geographical isolation in remote areas (van den Berghe 1993:10).

According to MacCannell, this quest often leads to the creation of what he calls "Staged Authenticity." Tourists may believe that they have discovered authenticity--the private "back room" of a place or culture--when in fact they have merely found "a front region that has been totally set up in advance for touristic purposes" (MacCannell 1976:101). Such an artificial construction is doubly upsetting for tourists. "A false back is more insidious and dangerous than a false front, or an inauthentic demystification of social life is not merely a lie but a superlie, the kind that drips with sincerity" (ibid. 102-3).

Many of the tourists interviewed, however, expressed frustration with the concept of authenticity. One-fourth of them even refused to offer a definition of it, saying such things as "I really can't judge," and "I have nothing to base it on that's not stereotypical." Furthermore, while over half said that their visit was not very authentic, most of these respondents added that, due to the size of their group and their role as tourists, an authentic experience was impossible to achieve. Others critiqued the concept of authenticity, reflecting a common criticism which charges that the touristic quest for authenticity sees natives, as one researcher put it, "ahistorically or atemporally, as idealized and exotic, isolated...and torn out of their wider contemporary socio-economic and socio-historical context" (Cohen 1993). The tourists surveyed preferred to define it as "normal everyday life", "part of their culture that they use", "how they really live, not how they're recreating it for tourists." A brief visit is not sufficient to know exactly what "normal everyday life" consists of in Río Blanco, especially since tourists eat and sleep at the tourist cabin compound, a fifteen-minute walk from the center of the community. Several tourists noted that this itself was "inauthentic," but while three-fifths said they would have preferred to stay in the center, all respondents believed it was better to stay at the tourist compound, minimizing their impact on the community. Most tourist groups do not visit the center, where they first see Quichua houses and daily life, until the last evening of their tour. Thus they must rely on their expectations and their immediate experience to judge the authenticity of their visit.

Ten of these fifteen tourists, expecting a less "modernized" place inhabited by "very tribal people" who cooked over "small little fires in rocks," expressed surprise at the community's electrical generators, wood-sided houses, and volleyball courts. They quickly revised their opinions, however. "I was disappointed," said one, "but it's not fair for me to be disappointed and expect them to deprive themselves of electricity." Authenticity, then, became a mix of modern conveniences and traditional knowledge. Most of those surveyed considered their jungle walks with the guide to be fairly authentic because they felt they were witnessing firsthand a modern Quichua man's strong identification with his forest environment. Local traditions such as the dances which appeared atypical of ordinary contemporary dress and behavior were considered least authentic (Table 4.4).

Table 4.4.--Tourist Opinions of Authenticity in Río Blanco
(N=12*)
Most Authentic Least Authentic
Being with the guide 4 -
Seeing how the Quichua live today 3 -
Being in the forest 2 -
Blowgun demonstration 2 -
Cultural program 1 9
Presence of tourists or tourism in community - 2
Tourist cabin design - 1
*Three tourists did not give usable responses.

One tourist offered a strict definition of authenticity: "If something's not happening when it's supposed to happen, then it's not authentic. If we don't come when they normally show jewelry, then we shouldn't see jewelry." This distinction overlooks the fact that, without tourists, the people of Río Blanco would be neither making nor showing much jewelry. Nevertheless, it highlights a useful concept which Cohen (1989) calls communicative and substantive stagings of authenticity. In a communicative staging of authenticity, only circumstances are affected; the content of the encounter between tourists and their hosts has not been tampered with. In substantive staging, however, the tourist attraction itself is transformed and often even fabricated from whole cloth. Alternative forms of tourism, such as ethnic and ecotourism, usually involve communicative stagings, while substantive stagings may occur in both alternative and, more commonly, in mass tourism.

Río Blanco's cultural program does not feign to be anything other than what it is--a program expressly for tourists--but it does involve both types of staging. Neither the treaty dance nor the wedding dance is commonly performed in the community outside of the tourist project. Those occasions when they are performed--at the community's anniversary or at weddings--are precisely the times when tourists are least likely to be visiting, if only for logistical reasons. With the exception of the tourist quoted above, most respondents seemed to expect some degree of communicative staging but became upset if they suspected substantive staging. Many thought the cultural program felt "forced"--that not only did the dances seem "out of context," they seemed to lack meaning even for the dancers. "I'd like to know how normal that is," said one, while others noted that, "They seemed to be just learning their traditions," and "To show the dances to us when they have no meaning just ruins it."

Tourists also echoed scholarly concerns about the commodification of culture. "It shocked me," said one, "to see how they were marketing their culture for our benefit--the dances were pure theater." Many compared the cultural program to a museum visit in which traditional rituals are at best educational and at worst mere spectacle. For a tourist seeking authenticity, such an experience is deeply upsetting--the superlie which "drips with sincerity" (MacCannell 1976:102). Similarly, Relph offers Sartre's example of a person masquerading as a waiter: "He may do his job well and with considerable flair and ability, but the job is of no real importance to him, he does not feel personally engaged and committed to it" (quoted in Relph 1976:81). Such emotional distance more easily permits ancient traditions to be drastically transformed into substantively staged authenticity.

Quichua perceptions of the cultural program were difficult to plumb, though as noted previously the great majority cited it as their favorite aspect of tourist visits. As a people who have for centuries continually adapted to new circumstances, the Quichua probably have as complex and supple a view of authenticity and tradition as any people. The tourism industry, according to some scholars, denies this complicated reality in favor of the notion, first constructed by colonial powers to legitimize their rule, that traditional cultures are static and timelessly "primitive" (Silver 1993). For many Quichua, however, ecotourism is merely the latest adaptation in a long history going back to their migration to the Amazon region from the highlands over 500 years ago.

Some members of Río Blanco, in fact, hope that the revival of traditional music and dance will change local traditions. Community fiestas, which occur almost every week for a variety of occasions, currently use a generator-powered stereo and speakers to play contemporary Ecuadorian and foreign music at high volume. Most people dance the cumbia, a Hispanic step from Colombia. There is some interest among community members, however, in replacing the stereo with the band, which currently plays only for tourists. If this were to happen in Río Blanco, the ecotourism program would become a more authentic and accurate representation of community life--but only because of changes that ecotourism itself introduced to the community! Clearly, ecotourism development can make an operational definition of authenticity increasingly elusive to pin down.


Footnote
1 Several Quichua from other communities praised Río Blanco because, by not charging for photography and the like, it had not monetized tourist-host relations to the extent that Capirona had, but continued to exhibit traditional Quichua hospitality.


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