This is a guest post from Sam Borchard of Princeton University who has been studying community conservation at Soysambu for 5 days as part of an undergraduate conservation course taught by Paula Kahumbu
Enjoy and please feel free to comment.
Eco-Tourism and Poverty
On our first day at the Soysambu Ranch we were given a tour of a brand new ecotourism resort being built on one of the hills of the conservancy. A series of thatched roof private cottages already dot the hillside, and more are currently under construction.
Although this resort is still a ways away from completion, some idea of what the final product may look like can be seen in a similar ecotourism area just down the road. Here the same thatched huts are filled with stunningly beautiful furniture, and are surrounded by luxury facilities including a pool, restaurant, and bar.
Ecotourism is often touted as a way to bring money in to an area and improve the lives of local people. Visitors to these resorts pay 11,000 shillings ($140) per night, money which ideally would trickle down to those in the lowest depths of poverty. Later that afternoon we had a chance to visit and speak with just such a community – a group of Maasai women and children living on a small patch of land outside the conservancy. The men in the group had left to find better grazing land for their cattle, and would likely be gone for a month or more, leaving the women with no animals and no source of income while they were gone.
The bare degraded landscape and uneven, ramshackle homes stood in stark contrast to the beautiful cottages on the hillside we saw earlier that morning. None of the Maasai women spoke English, and only one spoke Swahili. Of the thirty children we saw only three were enrolled in school, the others having been forbidden by their fathers. One of the women said to us, through a translator, that without education they would be nothing.
I began to wonder how on earth these people could be helped by the creation of the lodge – breaking from their pastoralist culture to work at the lodge would be difficult, and the chance of them getting a job there without knowing English or Swahili is almost zero. Capitalizing on tourism opportunities by selling beadwork and other goods is also impractical – although they live only a few kilometers from the resort their settlement isn’t easily accessible by car, and most tourists don’t enjoy going out of their way to look poverty in the face.
The unfortunate truth is that the problems facing these communities are far too complex to have easy solutions, and the hope that ecotourism alone can lift them out of poverty is fanciful. However there is some good news – with a mindful focus on community improvement, outfits like the future ecotourism resort can be a piece of the solution. One of the last things to come up during our discussion with the Maasai women was the fact that the resort, even though it has yet to generate any income, is paying for six of their children – four girls and two boys – to attend a boarding school. It may be a small start but at least it’s a move in the right direction.