April 07, 2022

Panama Tourism Expo 2022: A tasting of unforgettable experiences


© Marcela Torres

by Marcela Torres

Visiting the Panama Tourism Expo 2022, held between March 25 and 26, was a revitalizing experience after two years of not being able to attend any event due to the pandemic. In this eleventh version, the Expo had 138 exhibitors that arranged more than 300 business appointments with approximately 150 buyers.

Since my objective was not to do business, but to learn about Panama's tourism offer, I decided to attend on Saturday, March 26, when it opened to the public. I was impressed by the diversity of products especially aimed at nature and promoting sustainability, from ecolodges to excursions to visit Indigenous communities in different areas of the country.

© Marcela Torres

In fact, what I enjoyed the most was my experience with two exhibiting artists from the Emberá people. In addition to showcasing their handicrafts made with fibers, seeds, and natural dyes, they offered visitors temporary tattoos with traditional motifs from their culture using the black ink of the jagua or genipap (Genipa americana), a tropical fruit. In my case, they painted a design that represents the tail of a monkey.

© Marcela Torres 

As I waited for my turn, I talked a lot with them about their culture and communities. The Emberá people live mainly in the southeast of Panama, in the Emberá-Wounaan Comarca (a type of Indigenous reserve), which covers 500 hectares and is divided into 42 communities with a total of approximately 9,000 inhabitants of both Emberá and Wounaan origin. Although the Wounaan mainly live in the province of Darién, which borders Colombia, the Emberá are settled along different rivers and some communities have even moved to sectors of the province of Panama, mainly in the vicinity of the Chagres and Gatun rivers.

After meeting these artists, I continued touring the Expo to identify other attractions that caught my attention. The variety is very attractive, from private islands to the Panama Canal visitor centers and museum. Having taken note of all the information that the exhibitors gave me and enjoyed delicious mountain-grown coffee, I realized that this country has much to offer and that, if the international trend of reducing post-pandemic travel restrictions continues, tourism can be enhanced to achieve a multiplier effect towards other sectors of the national economy.

The positive results of this eleventh version of Tourism Expo - and of the parallel Trade Expo and Logistics Expo - lead the organizing committee to have high expectations for the next event, to be held in 2023 between March 24 and 25. Indeed, Panama has reasons for being optimistic. And so do I!

March 23, 2022

World Water Day: Groundwater sustains nearly 50% of world population


by Marcela Torres

Growing up in central Chile, I remember visiting my grandma’s summer house in a small beach town. For many years, this locality was not connected to the sanitation grid and whenever we needed water, we would have to get it from the well in the back of the house. Being a child, I was proud each time I was able to lift the bucket by myself! As the town grew, the houses were eventually linked to pipes distributing potable water. But many people around the world still rely on groundwater and wells for their water consumption.

According to the United Nation’s World Water Development Report 2022, launched earlier this week, it is estimated that nearly 50% of the global urban population is supplied from groundwater sources. The publication is the latest in a series developed each year by the organization to mark World Water Day. In 2022, the Day’s celebration focuses on groundwater under the slogan ‘making the invisible visible’, in reference to the fact that groundwater is invisible, but its impact is visible everywhere.

The report highlights that “in countries such as Costa Rica and Mexico, groundwater supplies 70% of households in urban areas, and practically sustains all domestic demand in rural areas.” The publication also states that the Asia-Pacific region is the largest groundwater abstractor in the world, encompassing seven out of the ten countries that abstract the most groundwater: Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey. These countries alone account for approximately 60% of the world’s total groundwater withdrawal.

Why is groundwater important?

Almost all the liquid freshwater in the world is groundwater and most arid areas of the world depend entirely on groundwater. Rivers, lakes, and wetlands are surface manifestations of groundwater. They exchange flow with the groundwater reservoir that feeds them when they need water and takes some of their flow when surface water is present in excess. Additionally, groundwater supplies a large proportion of the water we use for drinking, sanitation, food production, and industrial processes.

Unfortunately, many major aquifers - groundwater reservoirs – around the planet are being depleted or polluted. Depletion can lead to decrease in stream flow, drying of springs or wetlands, loss of vegetation, water-level decline in wells, and land subsidence. Overexploitation of groundwater can lead to land instability, and, in coastal regions, to sea water intrusion under the land. Pollution resulting from human activity, generating chemicals, and wastes that have leaked into the subsurface degrades the quality of groundwater and poses a threat to human and ecological health.

Women and water

Across low-income countries, the availability of a safe and sufficient water supply and improved sanitation facilities has a disproportionate effect on the lives of women and girls for three main reasons. First, women and girls usually bear the responsibility for collecting water, which is often very time-consuming and arduous. Second, women and girls are more vulnerable to abuse and attack while walking to and using a toilet. And third, women have specific hygiene needs during menstruation, pregnancy, and child rearing.

Additionally, as many women are responsible for finding a resource their families need to survive, they may stand in line and wait for water, they may walk long distances to collect water, or they may pay exorbitant amounts of money to secure water. In their efforts to get water for their families, they often face an impossible choice: certain death without water or possible death due to illness from dirty water. Hence, the presence of groundwater has a direct impact on the availability of water and women’s well-being.

Their daily experience is far from the exciting adventure it was for me to extract water from the well in my grandma’s summer house. Protecting groundwater sources is a global obligation, in order to ensure each day fewer people and ecosystems are faced with life-or-death situations that may bring about demise and extinction.

June 05, 2020

World Environment Day: Wildlife and People in the Struggle for Survival and Sustainability

As people throughout the world have been forced to stay home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are many lessons we’ve learned (and are still learning). One of them is that the destiny of people and nature go hand in hand, and we simply can’t ignore that fact. The celebration of the 2020 World Environment Day is a good moment to stop and reflect on some key aspects of the relationship between people and wildlife that have been highlighted by this global crisis.

Bat shaming

During the first weeks since news of the coronavirus emerged, several reports pointed to bats being the origin of this novel contagious disease. Led by misinformation and fear, many people throughout the world attacked bats to avoid the spread of COVID-19. However, as more research was conducted, scientists and conservation leaders warned that this link was not 100% proven and launched communication campaigns to remove the stigma on bats and highlight their important environmental benefits including pollination, seed dispersal, and pest and disease-vector control. Although COVID-19 has indeed been identified as a zoonotic disease - a human disease of animal origin - its exact animal source is yet not clear.

Nevertheless, zoonoses have been an increasing problem for many years. According to the UN Environment Programme, 75% of all emerging infectious diseases are transferred to people from wildlife. They include Ebola, avian influenza (or bird flu), H1N1 flu virus (or swine flu), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), Rift Valley fever, sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), West Nile virus, and the Zika virus. Evidence shows that the emergence and re-emergence of zoonotic diseases are closely interlinked with the health of ecosystems, and their spread increases with the intensification of human activities surrounding and encroaching into natural habitats, enabling pathogens in wildlife reservoirs to spill over to livestock and humans.

Reclaiming lost habitat?

When the lockdown and isolation began across different countries, we were impressed to see how wildlife quickly appeared in cities and other places where they would previously not dare to go, because they had been occupied by humans. Dolphins in Turkey, boars in Israel, and pumas in Chile are examples of animals touring largely empty city streets, fascinating -and sometimes scaring- urban dwellers.

Explanations given by experts vary. Some claim that these species are once again roaming what used to be part of their original habitat, while others attribute this behavior to dire conditions in their natural environment, such as the megadrought in Chile, which would drive them to leave their comfort zone in search for food and water.

Wildlife abandoned by tourists

While some wildlife species have seized the opportunity to explore new horizons, others are not so lucky. Many zoos and other wildlife attractions across the globe have been hardly hit by the drop of tourism as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve written before about the risks of feeding wildlife and other impacts of wildlife tourism, including buying souvenirs made from endangered species and observing whales and dolphins. However, the crisis in the tourism industry caused by the spread of this new coronavirus brings this issue into the spotlight once again.

From the monkeys at the Prang Sam Yod temple in Thailand to Neumünster Zoo in Germany, animals in captivity are starving as a result of lower revenues from tourism, which affects the capacity of the facilities to provide food for them, and, in some cases such as the temple in Thailand, less tourists to bring snacks to feed them. In Chile, zoos are working together with authorities and reaching out to the community for help through the advanced sale of tickets for when the facilities are able to open once again.

The drop in tourism has also affected protected areas in many countries, where it has resulted in less stress to local wildlife, but at the same time has reduced the number of potential witnesses or casual guardians against criminal acts. With parks closed and law enforcement personnel diverted to other duties related to COVID-19, poachers have taken advantage of reduced human presence to increase their activities.

What can we do?

This is a huge question. In fact, during this worldwide health, economic, and environmental crisis there are many things society as a whole needs to reflect on if we want to be successful in the common struggle of humans and wildlife for survival and sustainability.

How can we avoid the outbreak of new zoonotic diseases? How can we halt and mitigate habitat fragmentation to allow healthy wildlife populations to flourish? How can we reduce poaching to save species from extinction? What will be the role of wildlife tourism when travel resumes? What should be the role of zoos and wildlife attractions? Should they still exist, or should they be eliminated, following the lead of countries such as Costa Rica? 

Nature is making a clear statement! As countries start to plan ways to build back once the COVID-19 pandemic is under control, getting nature at the heart of all decision making  must be our top priority. We need to act now to make the world a better place for people and for nature!

January 13, 2019

Damage to Ancient Giant of Tarapacá Geoglyph: Who’s Accountable?

© Hernán Torres

By Marcela Torres

It is the most imposing geoglyph in our country and last week it suffered irreparable damage. It is the Giant of Tarapacá (Gigante de Tarapacá), located on Unitas hill, approximately 100 kilometers away from Iquique, in the Atacama Desert, in the Tarapacá Region in northern Chile. The figure, which measures 119 meters, is the largest in Chile and was presumably created by ancient indigenous cultures inhabiting the area more than 1,000 years ago.

What is most sad is that the damage was caused on Saturday, January 6 by three irresponsible tourists who drove a 4x4 vehicle on the figure’s feet and head, not heeding the signs that indicate the limit for proximity to the geoglyph and the prohibitions to damage it. Three people with Belgian passports were involved – one Chilean woman who obtained Belgian citizenship, one Chilean man born in Belgium, and one native Belgian woman – and they visited the area with the help of a Chilean.

Photograph obtained from Twitter.

Other tourists visiting the place, outraged because of the lack of respect and culture, reported the incident on social media and the authorities acted quickly, taking the three Belgian citizens into custody at the Santiago airport as they were preparing to board their plane back to their country. After their arrest in Santiago, the tourists will be sent to Pozo Almonte, in northern Chile, to face charges for the crime of damaging a national monument, and they risk a sentence that could range from short prison, from its minimum (between 61 and 301 days) to maximum degree (between 302 and 540 days), to the payment of a fine that could go up to approximately USD $ 14,230).

Lack of protection and education

The news turned my stomach. The first thing I asked myself was: Who would do something like this and why? I hold special affection for this place, which I’ve visited several times, and which has a special symbolism for the Tarapacá Region. In fact, in January 2010 I was proud to be given the opportunity of leading a tourism exercise of the Pressure-State-Response model on this site as part of a Sustainable Tourism workshop organized by Universidad Arturo Prat for tour operators of the region.

The exercise was very fruitful and allowed participants to analyze the pressures (threats) faced by this cultural heritage, the state (condition) it was in, and the evidence of society’s response (actions) in the area. Although the geoglyph itself was not damaged, there was a lot of trash around it (we picked up several bags full of paper, plastic bottles, and other waste), there was no infrastructure for visitors, and there were few signs.

© Hernán Torres
Marcela Torres leading a sustainable tourism exercise at the Giant of Tarapacá.

Even though the Giant has been exposed for centuries and has suffered previous damage on other occasions, none has been as serious as this. The worst part is that it is hard to understand what these people were trying to accomplish. The geoglyph was created to be admired from a distance. The truth is it cannot be seen well up close. Therefore, the only explanation is that this criminal act was exclusively meant to cause damage.

Who’s in charge of protection?

Because of its location, the direct responsibility for the protection of this important site lies in the Municipality of Huara, with a population of approximately 3,000 people. True, but we all know that in Chile all municipalities don’t have the same financial resources and, in my opinion, leaving the protection of such an important ancient heritage at the hands of a municipality shows a lack of vision.

While it’s true that the Giant of Tarapacá is a significant attraction, tourism leaves very little for the small locality of Huara, since most visitors go on day trips from Iquique, either on their own or through a tourism operator. Hence, tourism incomes mostly remain in the regional capital.

What we need to understand as a society is that any damage to our cultural and natural heritage is a damage to all Chileans. I want the people who are guilty for this to receive prison time, even if it’s short, to serve as an example and a deterrent to anyone thinking of damaging the heritage of all Chileans.

I would also like to see more actions and funds invested from the central government level on this monument, whose protection cannot be left solely at the hands of a municipality that does not have the necessary resources. It seems to me a great initiative for the ministries of Cultures and National Assets to send archaeologists to assess the damage and the possibility of repairing it, although experts indicate this is very difficult because the vehicle tracks are too deep. Anyway, I believe there is a need to evaluate how the protection of our heritage can be financed and supervised with national funds.

Unfortunately, as a result of the actions of these irresponsible tourists, future generations will never be able to see the Giant of Tarapacá in all its splendor. I hope this doesn’t happen again and that we protect our heritage the way it deserves.

October 07, 2018

70 years of IUCN - #NatureForAll

By Marcela Torres

Since 2017, I have been a proud member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Commission on Education and Communication (CEC). The organization is celebrating the 70th anniversary of its creation on October 5, 1948 in Fontainebleu, France by governments and civil society organizations with a shared goal to protect nature.

Also created in 1948, the CEC was IUCN’s first Commission. Its more than 1,100 voluntary members contribute their expertise in education, social communication and behavior change communication to create a culture of conservation. The Commission drives change for the co-creation of sustainable solutions through leading communication, learning and knowledge management in IUCN and the wider conservation community.

Among its many contributions, the CEC is supporting IUCN’s global #NatureForAll movement, which was formally launched at the 2016 International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress in Hawaii and is driven by a growing coalition of partners who represent a variety of sectors.

#NatureForAll aims to build support and action for nature conservation among people from all walks of life by raising awareness and facilitating experiences and connections with the natural world. Want to learn more about the movement? Check out this great video for inspiration!

Happy anniversary IUCN and CEC!

Living #NatureForAll

June 04, 2018

World Environment Day: Beat Plastic Pollution!

By Marcela Torres

Ending plastic pollution is the aim of the activities of two important international days celebrated this week: World Environment Day, tomorrow June 5, and World Oceans Day, on June 8.

“#BeatPlasticPollution” is a call to action for all of us to come together to combat one of the great environmental challenges of our time. The theme invites us all to consider how we can make changes in our everyday lives to reduce the heavy burden of plastic pollution on our natural places, our wildlife – and our own health. While plastic has many valuable uses, we have become over reliant on single-use or disposable plastic – with severe environmental consequences.

Although I’ve written before about plastic pollution and consumption patterns in the tourism industry, the problem persists, and it is necessary to insist on its importance.

What is being done?

Many countries, particularly those with long coasts, are taking actions to reduce plastic pollution. For example, on May 30 Chile passed a law banning single-use plastic bags in the entire national territory. The ban will enter into force in one year’s time for major retailers and in two years’ time for smaller businesses.  

On this occasion, the United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment) is calling to action in four key areas:

  • Reducing Single-Use Plastics: 50% of the of consumer plastics are designed to be used only once, providing a momentary convenience before being discarded. Eliminating single-use plastics, both from design chains to our consumer habits is a critical first step to beat plastic pollution.
  • Improving Waste Management: Nearly one third of the plastics we use escape our collection systems. Once in the environment, plastics don’t go away, they simply get smaller and smaller, last a century or more and increasingly find their way into our food chain. Waste management and recycling schemes are essential to a new plastics economy.
  • Phasing Out Microplastics: Recent studies show that over 90% of bottled water and even 83% of tap water contain microplastic particles. No one is sure what that means for human health, but trace amounts are turning up in our blood, stomachs, and lungs with increasing regularity. Humans add to the problem with micro-beads from beauty products and other non-recoverable materials. 
  • Promoting Research into Alternatives: Alternative solutions to oil-based plastics are limited and difficult to scale. This doesn’t need to be the case. Further research is needed to make sustainable plastic alternatives both economically viable and widely available.

This World Environment Day is a culmination of years of effort by Member States aimed at focusing the world’s attention and galvanizing action around plastic pollution. UN Environment and its Member States have been developing innovative science and forging new consensus on the complex relationships between plastics, society and the environment.

May 22, 2018

International Day for Biodiversity: 25 years conserving global biodiversity

By Marcela Torres

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) entered into force 25 years ago, in December 1993. While we celebrate the International Day for Biodiversity today, it seems appropriate to highlight global achievements and pending tasks in such an important topic for sustainable development as well as the contributions tourism can make.

The achievements have been significant. As mentioned in the message by the Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General, Dr. Cristiana Paşca Palmer: “Biodiversity and its ecosystem services are at the heart of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. The Paris Climate Agreement includes biodiversity. The World Economic Forum recognizes biodiversity loss as a critical risk. The Food and Agriculture Organization has organized focal work on Biodiversity. Paris has declared itself the capital of biodiversity, and all the way around the world, countries, local governments and civil society are stepping up their actions to safeguard biodiversity.”

However, the challenges are also great and biodiversity continues to decline in every region of the world at alarming rates. So much so that at least 17 species have become extinct during the 21st century, including the Pinta Island Tortoise in Ecuador, the Eastern Cougar in the Americas, the Formosan Clouded Leopard in Taiwan, and the Baiji Dolphin, in China, among many others.

How can tourism help conserve biodiversity?

Sustainable tourism can contribute to biodiversity conservation in several ways. As I have mentioned before in this blog, tourism can have both positive and negative environmental impacts.

Many types of tourism rely directly on ecosystem services and biodiversity (ecotourism, agri-tourism, wellness tourism, adventure tourism, etc.) to provide tourists with experiences of cultural and environmental authenticity, contact with local communities and education about flora, fauna, ecosystems and their conservation. On the other hand, too many tourists can also have a negative, degrading effect on biodiversity and ecosystems. Hence, careful planning and management are required to avoid negative impacts on biodiversity.

In that context, the European Union Business and Biodiversity Platform has identified the following seven best practices for tourism businesses:

  1. Identify the impacts and dependencies of your business on biodiversity and ecosystem services (BES).
  2. Assess the business risks and opportunities associated with these impacts and dependencies to educate employees, owners, suppliers and customers.
  3. Develop BES information systems, set SMART targets, measure and value performance, and report results. This is a key step for building trust among external stakeholders, while creating peer pressure within the industry.
  4. Take action to avoid, minimize and mitigate BES risks, including in-kind compensation (‘offsets’) where feasible. BES targets may build on the concepts of ‘No Net Loss’, ‘Ecological Neutrality’ or ‘Net Positive Impact’ and include support for biodiversity offsets where appropriate.
  5. Grasp emerging BES business opportunities, such as cost-efficiencies, new products and new markets. Business can support the growth of green markets and can help design efficient enabling conditions for biodiversity and ecosystem service markets, which may lead to the diversification of tourism product and complements the efforts to fight seasonality of the tourism offer.
  6. Integrate business strategy and actions on BES within wider corporate social responsibility initiatives.
  7. Engage with business peers and stakeholders in government, NGOs and civil society to improve BES guidance and policy. Businesses can bring significant capacity to conservation efforts and have a key role to play in halting biodiversity loss.

Likewise, the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) have developed guidelines on how to plan tourism development within the frameworks of: the ecosystem approach; Akwé: Kon voluntary guidelines for the conduct of cultural, environmental and social impact assessments regarding developments proposed to take place on, or which are likely to impact on, sacred sites and on lands and waters traditionally occupied or used by indigenous and local communities; and the voluntary guidelines for incorporating biodiversity-related issues into environmental impact assessment legislation and/or process, and the draft guidelines for incorporating biodiversity-related issues into strategic environmental assessment.

Let’s celebrate this International Day of Biodiversity by reflecting on how we can further tourism’s contribution to global biodiversity conservation!