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Toledo Ecotourism Association - Local Participation
The power relations concerning ecotourism in Toledo are crucially important when considering ecotourism’s future prospects and sustainability. The Maya communities throughout Central America have traditionally been politically, socially and economically marginalized. Ecotourism in Toledo gives the Maya communities the opportunity to reverse their marginalization and empower themselves.
As noted in Section II, great importance is attached to the need for local participation in ecotourism. Boo [1991, p.189] notes that failure to incorporate local communities into ecotourism planning “…may prove disastrous for the tourism industry”. Analogies can be made with Pretty’s [1995, cited in Mowforth & Munt, 1998, p.241] typology of participation to demonstrate the differences between the power structures of the TEA and TIDE. For TIDE, the level of local participation is what Pretty  refers to as participation by consultation whereas for the TEA it can be considered interactive participation or even self-mobilisation.
X. I. Local participation – the TEA
The TEA’s theoretical power structure is outlined below, although I later show that, in practice, the power relations are more complex. The TEA programme was jointly conceived by American Chet Schmidt along with members of the local community in 1989 (see Appendix A). Now the TEA has approximately 180 members who actively participate in the program. All TEA members are indigenous people – Mopan Mayas, Ketchi Mayas and Garifunas. The villagers who are not TEA members can pay a small fee of to $3 BZ ($1.50 US) to join the program. Every two years, each member elects both a village chairman and an executive chairman who organizes the programme. There is both an annual general meeting attended by all TEA members and a monthly chairmen’s meeting where various issues are discussed and voted upon. When interviewees were asked who determined how local ecotourism was organised, all respondents acknowledged that the TEA members wielded some degree of power, although many noted that most power was held by the village chairman (see Appendix A). Local participation in the TEA program is clearly at a very high level: it is run entirely by members of the indigenous Maya and Garifuna communities. The overall result of this local participation is that the negative impacts of tourism have been minimized while its benefits have been widely distributed. The level of local participation has been a key factor in the TEA’s success in the past.
X. II. Power abuses and problems faced by the TEA
However, some cracks are beginning to show in the TEA. The failure of TEA members to be properly paid to reconstruct the guesthouses following Hurricane Iris (as noted in Section VII.I.) has meant that many of the chairmen are now reluctant to allow new members to participate in the programme. Many TEA members feel that because they had to voluntarily rebuild the guesthouses, they should be the ones to benefit most from local tourism in the future.
There are examples of villages where the TEA programme has already been abandoned. San Pedro Columbia was one of the founding TEA villages but the programme is no longer in operation there. Problems arose due to local politics: when Mr Mas was elected as the regional Minister of Rural Development, he attempted to interfere with the TEA programme in his home village by setting up an alternative group of TEA members consisting of his friends and PUP (People’s United Party) voters. The original TEA members vehemently objected and no agreement could be reached. The village Alcade (the village council) feared the dispute would end in violence and so terminated the TEA programme. Similar problems have arisen in both Santa Cruz and Indian Creek where the TEA guesthouses were built on private rather than communal land and benefits were accrued by just one family. The TEA programmes were terminated in both villages because the people involved were not adhering to the TEA regulations. The problems in these three villages arose because of the greed and monopoly of a few local elites. Without strict regulations imposed on the TEA’s operations, the program may continue to collapse.
The TEA has not learnt from its problems in the past. Some families continue to have a monopoly of the business obtained from tourism in their villages. In San Miguel, home to the TEA executive chairman P. Ack and his extensive family, other families have been sidelined from the TEA programme. Craft sellers are all members of the Ack family – those who are not Acks and wish to sell crafts to tourists have to pay the chairman’s family for the right to do so. The village shop-keeper had to quit the TEA programme because the rotational system had stopped operating and he was not receiving his fair share of income. Widespread tension has resulted in San Miguel due to the Ack family’s monopoly of the TEA and their unwillingness to share the benefits provided by tourism. The village shopkeeper told me how he no longer talked to P. Ack, his brother-in-law, as a result. His family noted that ecotourism was now “an Ack family business” but stated that it hadn’t been so in the past when Chet Schimdt had been involved in the organisation.
Recent TEA plans to build a cultural centre in San Miguel with the aid of the Mundo Maya organisation have had to be abandoned because the plan did not have the village’s support – members of the local population were threatening to steal any computers that would have been in the cultural centre to place them in the proposed village library instead. The 10% community fund seems not to be in operation in San Miguel and as a result only the Ack family benefit from local ecotourism, hence the lack of general support for the TEA. This is an example of what the World Wildlife Fund [1992, cited in Wearing & Neil, 1999, p.81] means when it states that “Flourishing employment, living standards and consumption levels for some, added to the unequal distribution of benefits to a portion of the population, can contribute to social tensions and hostility”. The TEA programme in San Miguel does not meet any of the criteria required of ecotourism – in addition to impacts on the environment not being minimized, educative input on the tours was minimal, widespread social tension has resulted, economic benefits are received by one family and only the Ack family now participates in the programme. The past failures of the TEA program in San Pedro de Columbia , Santa Cruz and Indian Creek suggest that ecotourism in San Miguel is not socially sustainable.
Key to the success of the TEA programme is its management. In the past, Chet Schmidt was the founder, organiser and subsequently advisor to the TEA but he has now been forcibly sidelined due to external pressures concerning the securing of funding. Some of the past and present TEA members believed that the organisation had gone downhill since Mr Schmidt was no longer involved, partly because he had ensured that the economic benefits of tourism were fairly shared throughout the community. It is notable that all TEA members speak favourably of Mr Schmidt while many have negative opinions of the current executive chairman. Considering that the TEA executive chairman is no longer adhering to what was the underlying principle of the TEA – that it is a community project – the TEA programme’s long-term sustainability is threatened.
A further problem encountered by the TEA in the past has been now been resolved, at least temporarily. Mowforth and Munt  and Patullo  note some problems experienced by the TEA that were caused by competition from independent guesthouses. Once such guesthouse was built in Laguna by BEST (Belize Enterprise for Sustained Technology) with funding coming from USAID (United States Agency for International Development). Mowforth and Munt [1998, p.254] note that the USAID initiative was a “…misguided attempt…(to) promote the benefits of competition.” The problem noted by villagers in Laguna was that it took away business from the TEA and did not operate in a rotational system. Ironically, the solution to this problem came in the form of Hurricane Iris – the BEST guesthouse has not been rebuilt. However, some TEA members in other villages have plans to develop their own private guesthouses that would once again result in local competition.
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