by Roland Watson
January 1997

Through these gates you enter a protected area. The animals, birds, trees, the water, the breeze on your face and every grain of sand, are gifts that nature has passed on to you through your ancestors so that you may survive. These gifts are sacred and should be respected. Whisper a silent prayer as you pass through for the protection of wilderness around you and ensure that what you see and feel is passed on to the unborn generations to come.”

- The entrance sign to Yala National Park in southern Sri Lanka.

1. In an ideal world the Earth would be turned into a park, by which I mean massive expanses of natural habitat would be preserved, subject only to the forces of natural law and the patterns of natural evolution, i.e., without any human tampering and interference.

2. The means to this end would be environmental activism, voluntary control of population and consumption, and effective land and industrial planning.

3. The rest of the life on the planet has been caught in a trap by homo sapiens. Through our rapid population growth and voracious appetites, the seemingly unstoppable evolutionary process of increasing diversity, which has been underway for hundreds of millions of years and which is responsible for the phenomenal natural beauty of the planet, has effectively been reversed.

4. This is a tragedy, and it must be corrected. All of the species that have suffered need a respite from our pressure. Indeed, they need our assistance so that they can quickly regenerate themselves.

5. The most serious environmental problems on the planet are occurring in areas where there is limited activism and planning and where overpopulation and consumption are out of control. This includes the deforestation in the Amazon, Central Africa, Southeast Asia and the equatorial islands of the western Pacific, and also the environmental catastrophes in China and in the nations of the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe.

6. Resolving these problems will be a long and difficult process. This is because the people in these areas are poorly equipped to deal with them.

7. One reason for this is education. Many of the residents of these areas have not been taught about ecology, that all elements of an environment are interrelated and depend on each other, and as a consequence they have low levels of environmental respect. Any traveler in these regions will see this demonstrated again and again, as the locals persist in littering their garbage everywhere, including in the areas of greatest natural beauty. It is apparent that the appreciation of a natural habitat in a pristine condition must be learned, and that these locals have not received this knowledge.

8. More seriously, few of these countries are democracies, where at least the enlightened few could have a measurable impact on the situation. Most of the countries are, or effectively function as, dictatorships, at least when it comes to the process of commercial development and evaluating the need for development versus the need to preserve the environment. This is because these countries are corrupt. Their leaders work hand-in-hand with local and foreign corporations to enrich themselves through the exploitation of natural resources - as quickly as possible. (This has also fueled the rise of astonishing income and power inequalities.)

9. Unfortunately, the most rapid path to riches is through clear-cutting forests, overfishing marine habitats, and encouraging industrial development with no consideration given to its consequences. The ideas of sustainable development, the need to minimize adverse environmental consequences, not to mention simple, thoughtful planning, are not part of this equation.

10. It will take many, many years for the cultural evolution that is necessary for democracy to be implemented and environmental consciousness to develop. It is highly likely that during this period the remaining habitats in these nations, as well as the wildlife species and traditional cultures that occupy them, will be severely degraded if not destroyed.

11. The crucial question is how can the process of enlightenment be accelerated, so that disasters are averted and the damage is reduced.

- Support the organizations, both local and foreign (NGOs), that assist the residents of these countries in advancing their education, political rights, health care, and other related issues.
- Bring pressure to bear on the energy, mining, timber, fishing and industrial companies that work with the local governments to destroy the environment. This can be accomplished through consumer boycotts and through lobbying the U.S. government to encourage economic sanctions of the nations and to increase pressure on the U.S. corporations that are involved. (An excellent beginning is to protest road building. The destruction of primary rain forest starts with road building, which is immediately followed by sawmills. Oppose new roads in primary rain forest areas!)
- Be a world traveler and have as a significant element of your travel plans the goal to visit as many natural habitats as possible. One reason why such habitats are destroyed through resource exploitation is that the local residents do not see that they have any other viable economic options. Environmentally-based tourism is such an option, and as more and more habitats are destroyed the remaining few will increase dramatically in value for this purpose.

12. Being an ecotraveler will lead you to the most interesting environments and experiences that the planet has to offer. Because of the impact of technology, the world is approaching a certain sameness. Cultures are dying out. One city can pass for another. Whether you are in Tokyo, Bangkok, Rome or New York, people generally act the same and the same activities are available.

13. This is not the case in the remote areas that have so far escaped commercial development. Not only do these environments have fantastic habitats that are full of beautiful wildlife, but they are also the last defenses for the thousands of traditional cultures that are struggling to survive around the world. By visiting them, now, you can have a chance to see the world the way it was before the development of the telephone, computer and jet plane. You can see the world the way the explorers saw it when extensive ocean and overland travel was the only option.

14. One proviso, though. Many people have argued that the cultural extinction of these few remaining holdouts is inevitable. This is not true! These people can be encouraged, and assisted, to preserve their traditional ways of life. As a world traveler, you can help, or hurt, this process. If you express an interest in the cultures that you visit, show that you respect them and appreciate their value, this is a large psychological boost. If you act as if you are superior, that you are visiting "primitive" cultures - much as you would visit a zoo, then you are part of the problem, no better than the mining and oil companies. The best way to travel is to have the Least Possible Impact. You should minimize exporting your values and culture to the countries that you visit. Instead, you should try to appreciate and enjoy these countries and their residents exactly the way they are.


© Roland O. Watson 2001-3