Ecotourism provides Colombians with a livelihood
By Diego Alvarez
5 May 2008 - From the window of the approaching aircraft you can make out the blue seawater, the white beaches, the cliffs and the luxuriant forest of el Chocó, inviting visitors to come and relax. Not far off, Capurganá shows up as a small settlement by the seashore where there are neither cars nor motorcycles; the only means of transport on land are horse‑drawn carts.
After ten minutes riding through the little village, visitors turn off onto a path lined by tropical trees and flowers. This path leads to the Iracas de Belén Ecotourism Centre - a project of Colombia's Presidential Agency for Social Action and supported by UNODC. This Centre provides 32 families with a novel, productive, legal and sustainable livelihood.
"This is a further result of Colombia's Forest Guardian Families Programme and of the efforts of many people who had to face many challenges during six years of hard work," says Sandra Alzate, Director of International Cooperation at the Agency. "So far, over 88,000 families have been participating in our programme," she adds
Capurganá has long been famous as a tourist destination for nature lovers and people who want to relax by the sea, far from the hustle and bustle of the big city. It stands for a different kind of tourism, without the traffic chaos and noise levels of some coastal towns.
And Iracas de Belén really provides another option. People go there to rest amidst luxuriant scenery, enjoying the comfort of lodges built and decorated with local materials and run by the owners - families trained to meet the needs of tourists.
In the words of Manuel Julio Rodríguez, Chairman of the Capurganá Ecotourism Association (Asecotuc), "This is the most important lifelong project to have been launched in our region, and I am very proud of it. Thanks to this project, we can look forward to a brighter future for all."
There are five lodges in this enclave on the Caribbean shore. The view is impressive; the wild forest and the blue sea can be seen even from inside the lodges. And the beach is only ten metres away.
At Iracas de Belén, all beneficiary families have played a part in constructing, equipping and looking after the lodges. For the project to become possible, these protectors of the environment had to train themselves in various technical, environmental and social disciplines. They outlined their priorities, saved money, got organized and set up Asecotuc.
For Ramón Mejía, the treasurer, the fact that the community itself donated the land makes the success of the project all the more important. "We are 32 families ready to take care of tourists and other visitors, and we hope to compete in the Capurganá tourism market, cooperating with local hoteliers for the benefit of our children," says Ramón.
The Gulf Guardian Families Project
Iracas de Belén is part of a broader initiative against drug cultivation. Victoria Eugenia Restrepo Uribe, Director of the Presidential Programme against Illicit Crops (PCI), explains: "The Gulf Guardian Families Project is one of our finest projects. It is a highly inclusive project, with the participation of demobilized youths, of forest guardian families, of displaced people and of peasants who have never engaged in illicit crop production."
The Gulf Guardian Families Project aims to protect and keep the Gulf of Urabá free from illegal trade in narcotic drugs. The three components of the project are ecotourism (such as Iracas de Belén), handicrafts, and traditional fishing. Already, more than 6,700 families living in the Department of el Chocó are engaged in production activities and in environmental restoration and protection.
In addition to UNODC, Italy, the United States Agency for International Development and the Autonomous Community of Madrid have been supporting Colombia's Forest Guardian Families Programme.