The following appeared in the In Focus column from the 2012 September/October issue of International Educator.
By Kerry O’Brien
As my classmates and I were guided through the Upper Chagres River in Panamá by a leader of the indigenous Emberá tribe, the hand-carved yet motorized canoe we sat in was a perfect example of the dichotomy that is ecotourism. I wondered: do our travels help or harm the planet and the various cultures that exist within it?
The Emberá shared their lives with us that day: from hiking and swimming to a nearby waterfall, to catching fresh fish and eating it with locally grown plantains for lunch, to teaching us native dances and giving us traditional markings with the dye of the jagua fruit. For just a few hours, we (U.S. college students) were taken out of our comfort zones and shown a simpler way of life that has been virtually unchanged for hundreds of years. After purchasing plenty of handmade goods (proceeds support the tribe members and their land ownership), each of us departed the Emberá territory with a restored connection to the earth we inhabit.
Although there are downsides of the industry to explore further, this excursion left me believing that when carried out ethically and consensually, ecotourism and ecological study abroad can be a valuable experience for everyone involved.
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