[OPINION] “Adventure tourists, where’s your respect for remote tribes?” by Elliott Oakley



A cash-free quest for ‘authentic’ culture ignores the needs of indigenous people, for whom no money may mean no healthcare or education

Mon 21 May 2018 11.49 BST Last modified on Mon 11 Jun 2018 14.49 BST

Every night during a 600-mile kayak trip, adventurer Pip Stewart asked her team members for their highlight of the day. In an Instagram post, she recounted how one, a Wai Wai guide named Romel, would give the same response each day: “It was good. I enjoyed the paddling. We had good food.”

For the trip – which was the first ever descent of the Essequibo river in Guyana – Stewart and fellow adventurers Laura Bingham and Ness Knight recruited their guides from a village I know. As an anthropologist working with the Wai Wai, an indigenous people in the rainforest villages in Guyana and Brazil, I was struck by Stewart’s account. She observed that Romel and the Wai Wai “are better at accepting and appreciating what is”. Her post led me back to a question related to my own research: what do indigenous guides get out of adventure tourism?

I lived with Wai Wai people for more than a year and participated in everyday village practices. I encountered a strikingly similar evaluation of conservation work. After days working as a guide for sport fishermen on nearby rivers, one Wai Wai friend complained these visitors from the US and Europe had not stopped for lunch. Even worse, they did not want to share the food they had brought for breakfast and dinner. He did not plan to work with that company again. But, for guides, are good and bad tourist trips just about food? What does this say about living a contemporary good life in the rainforests of Guyana?

Some people might find it counterintuitive that indigenous people use these expeditions to obtain money and other resources for their lives in remote places. As adventurers are challenged by and overcome extreme environments and personal barriers, their guides receive much-needed wages. For the men I met who had worked with tourists, these trips were equally exceptional – and unpredictable – opportunities to work.

British and European explorers have visited indigenous people in Guyana for centuries. In 1837, Sir Robert Schomburgk met the Wai Wai while searching for the colonial territorial boundary on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society. The botanist Nicholas Guppy, who founded what is now Survival International, still believed his Wai Wai guides were “untouched by civilisation” in 1952.

Many representations of indigenous people in Amazonia portray them as “natural conservationists” who are experts in finding food, making shelter and surviving what often seems to be a harsh environment. Often this is true: the Wai Wai people I know calmly act on their intimate connections to place, plants and animals, which has been called their indigenous knowledge.

But these portrayals of “natural conservationists” also hide why indigenous people want to work with environmental conservation and tourism in the first place. In my understanding of the Wai Wai, conservation and tourism are less about the environment and more about local ideas of development.

For Wai Wai people, development means access to income-generating activities, like guiding, and certain desired commodities such as bulk foodstuffs. But it also means the provision of healthcare and education services and new types of expertise. Connections with international conservation NGOs, government officials – and perhaps also high-profile adventurers – are seen as more effective ways to realise this version of development.

Wanting, needing and using money for everyday goods does not make people less indigenous, even if it challenges some imagery of tribal life and westerners’ ideas about the “authentic” indigenous person. This tension plays out in the recent BBC series where, despite noticing local demands for money from filmmakers and prices for performing cultural activities, presenter Will Millard continues in search of an authentically “traditional” family.

In a context where westerners seem only to value “traditional” culture and knowledge, it is essential to acknowledge and respect the ways in which indigenous people value access to money and material goods. Taking this insight seriously means thinking more critically about western desires to or take “voluntourism” trips.

Wai Wai lives are very much part of the modern world, but they shared with me experiences of being far away from markets to sell crafts and local forest products, or buy much-needed goods. If environmentalism, adventure tourism and documentary interests in tribal society can conserve anything for the Wai Wai, it is their ability to keep living in the remote place they call home. These futures require money, which remains difficult to earn within the village. For Wai Wai people it is important to build meaningful relationships with outsiders; a category that adventure tourists, NGO and government staff, and researchers like me fall into.

Which brings me back to food. While local ideas of development are important to Wai Wai interests, access to money does not equate to a contemporary good life. In my experience, for Wai Wai the act of people eating together – as households and in communal village meals – is fundamental to building relationships. If relationships with outsiders are important, as I have suggested, we can think of Romel’s “good food” highlight from his time with Pip Stewart as a hopeful statement about what tourism can provide for his family and his community.

Elliott Oakley is a PhD candidate in social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh

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