10 May 2008

A bushman's holiday

By Marguerite Finn

As this year's holiday season kicks off, it is comforting to know that, according to the United Nations (UN), tourism has a key role to play in tackling climate change. In April, at an international seminar in Oxford, the head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) told delegates: "There is now a clear understanding that the [tourism] industry can be part of the solution to climate change, by reducing its greenhouse gas emissions as well as by helping the communities where tourism represents a major economic source to prepare for and adapt to the changing climate." According to the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), the number of international tourists continues to climb, with 898 million arrivals registered last year and further increases expected as traditionally poor countries emerge as more popular tourist destinations.

In May, 3,000 delegates from across the world met at the UN Permanent Forum of Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) and announced that indigenous peoples have a crucial role in the climate change debate. Despite their role in resisting oil, gas and coal exploitation and their practice of using their lands and forests in sustainable ways, indigenous peoples have been largely excluded from the international dialogue on climate change. A report presented to the Forum also stated that the rising demand for biofuels would "destroy the tribal lands and lives of 60 million indigenous people worldwide". Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the Forum's Chairperson, said: "States and corporations must be guided by the standards set out in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007). Proper mechanisms must be developed allowing the participation of indigenous peoples in the global debate."

Far away from dreaming spires, ivory towers and exasperating acronyms, the Bushmen in Molapo in Kalahari have been forbidden to draw water from a borehole on their own land. Why? Because the Botswana government is allowing a South African-based 'Safari & Adventure Company', to build a Tourist Lodge there. Survival International say the lodge will need to sink boreholes to pump huge amounts of water from the Kalahari – but the Bushmen are not allowed to take water from their single borehole. The Bushmen, evicted by the Government in 2002, won the legal right to return to their land in 2006, but the government is making this impossible by preventing them from using their borehole and refusing to issue hunting permits.

International law dictates that there should be no development on tribal peoples' land without their free, prior and informed consent. The Bushmen of the Kalahari have not been consulted about the building of a Tourist Lodge on their land. Survival's Director Stephen Corry, said: "the government has the gall to tell the Bushmen to make the 400km round trip to collect water from outside the reserve, when tourists will be showering and sipping their drinks nearby". It's against the most basic human rights and is illegal. He hopes "many tourists will stay away when they know the background".

Will they? The Safari and Adventure Company's website says the company was launched in response to "market demand seeking product across southern Africa in the mid-tier eco-tourism and adventure market". They plan to build a suite of lodges in key wildlife and nature areas in South Africa, Namabia, Botswana and beyond. They assure us that "commitment to local community economies is integral to the Safari and Adventure Co."

The diamond industry transformed Botswana from an agriculture-based economy to one in which diamonds account for 80 percent of exports. The Government believes its National Eco-Tourism Strategy will foster "community acceptance of tourism". In a world facing food shortages, is devoting land to building air-conditioned Lodges offering jet-setters all the comforts of home, the best way forward?

The UN issues contradictory messages about tourism, development and climate change. I am a member of the United Nations Association (UNA), which exists to support the work of the UN, but I disagree that tourism provides any solution to climate change – given that most destinations are reached by air, a most polluting and unsustainable form of travel. Finding a solution to climate change and alleviating poverty seem have become irretrievably mixed up in a cauldron of growth-driven global panic. Governments, in denial about the true nature of the crisis, cast about for quick technological fixes.

At this week's 'Business Call to Action' event in London, organised by the British Government and UN Development Programme (UNDP), twelve international companies announced 'creative business initiatives' to tackle poverty in Africa. Tourism featured highly amongst them. One Chief Executive assured us: "this is not philanthropy, this is business logic". Common sense logic says the energy required to fuel tourism will cost the Earth.