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From Ecotourism to Community Tourism

Does travel have a place in a future of “rootedness”?
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In an increasingly vulnerable world, we're searching for rooted communities—and what we can learn from them. Read more at our blog, Finding Rootedness.

Carl and John photo by Robin Broad

Carl and John with local "umbrellas."

Photo by Robin Broad.

Thanks to all of you who love travel, tourism is one the world’s leading industries; almost one billion people traveled abroad last year. And, thanks to many smart environmentalists, ecotourism is one of tourism’s fastest growing segments. Although there are lots of competing ideas about what defines genuine ecotourism, the International Ecotourism Society has a definition that is to the point: "Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people." 

In the heart of Trinidad’s ancient forests, we discover a concept that extends ecotourism in a direction that excites us. “We like to call it community tourism, by which we mean the tourist actually lives in the community and interacts with the people and their surrounding environment,” explains local resident Kelly Warren.

As part of our search for “rooted” communities, we are smack-dab in the middle of the mountain range covering the northern quarter of Trinidad, in the village of Brasso Seco, population 350. Kelly and her husband Carl Fitzjames are our hosts. Carl is listed in The Rough Guide to Trinidad and Tobago as the “best guide” to this area in northern Trinidad, a little explored gem of flora and fauna biodiversity.

"We don’t want bus operators bringing in 100 people a day. We want small numbers of people who are interested in conservation."

Brasso Seco is a perfect base for hiking into the forest, bathing in waterfalls, being tutored in medicinal plants, and learning about local agriculture. For us, it is a base to walk and talk and learn. One day we walk with Kelly, Carl, and their two young children down an old muddy road that once led to a cocoa plantation.  At every turn is a different bird (as a bird-bander, Carl knows them all)—probably to be expected since there are 430 species packed into this small country. Blue morpho butterflies flit in and out of the sunlight that cuts through the forests. Carl tells us about a golden frog that does not live anywhere else in the world.

But community tourism means more than just nature treks. Another day, Carl cuts huge leaves from a local palm for us to use as umbrellas as we hike through the driving rain to see his organic “garden.” Deep in the forest, they are growing everything from the root crops that Trinis call “provisions” to fruit trees and giant leafy green vegetables. Kelly and Carl combine many of these into a scrumptious and nutritious stew they call “jungle pot.” As Carl explains, his garden and its nutritious food are his “first line of defense,” the very first thing that local families here traditionally worry about.             

Carl, now 57 (but looking more like 45), was trained decades ago as a nuclear welder in Canada: “In my 30s, I’m working all over North America as a nuclear welder and I read a confidential Canadian government report on all the highly noxious metals that I’m inhaling … and I realized this isn’t really what I wanted to do with my life. That’s when I did what I call making the leap … returning to my roots.” He returned to this mountain town of Brasso Seco. “Making the leap”—it is a phrase that Carl and Kelly keep repeating.

Carl’s roots are a mélange typical of these islands. His great-grandfather was a Venezuelan tightrope walker who came to Trinidad in the circus. He was smitten by a woman in the audience, one of a small community of Amerindians that somehow survived colonialism, and he settled with her in Brasso Seco. By Carl’s own reckoning, his blood includes strains from Africa, Spain, Venezuela, and the Amerindians that originally came to Trinidad from South America. 

Carl and Robin photo by John Cavanagh

Carl showing Robin his organic "garden" in rainforest.

Photo by John Cavanagh.

As Carl’s stories reveal, he learned much of what he knows from his grandfather. Carl is passing on his knowledge, training younger people in the village to be nature guides in the hope that a growing demand by researchers and tourists for guides in this ecologically and socially rich location will be met by Brasso Seco’s own. He is a pragmatist as well as a dreamer, and believes it is very possible for the government to value agriculture, fishing, and alternative tourism as much as natural gas and giant industrial projects. 

As we walk, Kelly points out the infrastructure they have put in place to support community tourist efforts: “We have four houses that can take in visitors and one bed and breakfast. We could have 20 people come at a time. We don’t want bus operators bringing in 100 people a day. We want small numbers of people who are interested in conservation. We don’t want paved roads to the waterfall; we want to leave nature as it is.”

We stop at the modest Tourism Action Center, housed in a centrally located building that overlooks a valley where clouds blanket the rainforest. Inside the facility, we buy handicrafts made by local people and books about flora and fauna of the area and, to the delight of the couple’s children, both pumpkin and cocoa-nutmeg ice cream (homemade from local ingredients, of course). The group has received a small grant from the Ministry of Agriculture to refurbish one of the century-old cocoa and coffee estates and rebuild the small-scale processing equipment that lay unused for decades. Their idea is that tourists could come and spend time on the estate and help harvest and process the cocoa and coffee. 

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Community tourism is in part about sharing experiences. In this vein, we visit their children’s school to explain why an American couple was eager to travel to Brasso Seco. Kelly and Carl see education as the key to a different future for the village and the country, but they are not talking simply about formal education for local people. They would like to educate more government officials, in Carl’s words, to “better understand the value of environmental resources to Trinidad.”  

And they want not just short-term tourists but also researchers–both local and from around the world—to come and learn from them, as a few have already to work on dissertation research. Their longer-term vision also includes the creation of a research center that would house the collective wisdom of the local people as well as the researchers coming to study the frogs and other species. 

And, as we walk and talk and linger at night over conversations with Carl and Kelly, we tell them more about our travels and our belief that economic, social, and environmental “rootedness” is the way forward, the way to avoid the vulnerability that oil and gas have brought.  “Rooted tourism,” Carl says. “That’s what I want. Take the leap and follow your soul.”

John Cavanagh and Robin BroadJohn Cavanagh and Robin Broad wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Robin is a Professor of International Development at American University in Washington, D.C. and has worked as an international economist in the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Congress. John is on leave from directing the Institute for Policy Studies, and is co-chair (with David Korten) of the New Economy Working Group. They are co-authors of three books on the global economy, and are currently traveling the country and the world to write a book entitled Local Dreams: Finding Rootedness in the Age of Vulnerability. Over the decades, this husband and wife team has worked in a number of countries, including the Philippines, where Robin first lived in 1977-78.


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