El Apompal Ecotourism • Mexico

El Apompal Ecotourism
Ecoturismo Lago Apompal
   

Initiative of a group of rural communities that organize services and activities to attract tourism, while taking care of the local nature and culture.

Catemaco, Veracruz, Mexico 

Website

Lago El Apompal is an initiative of community peasant ecotourism, an alternative development model adopted by several communities in the jungle region of Los Tuxtlas. The model aims to solve their economic needs without threatening the sustainability of local natural resources.

Context

Photo: Emilia Szekely

Los Tuxtlas, in the state of Veracruz, Mexico, is a region recognized for the beauty of its forests, the richness of its historical legacy, and the value of its natural resources. The overexploitation of its resources led to the creation of the Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve in 1998. The reserve significantly intensified the regulations for livestock and extractive activities in the area, which in turn affected the economic opportunities of a significant portion of the population. As such, many local inhabitants were forced to emigrate in search of work. Others stayed and began to look for alternative economic opportunities, which is how community peasant ecotourism began to grow.

In 1997 several communities joined together to form the Community Ecotourism Network of the Tuxtlas S.C. (RECT, its Spanish acronym). This legal constitution would allow them to obtain government funds to promote a joint ecotourism project in the region. RECT has since allowed the communities to make new use of their natural and cultural resources, without threatening their sustainability and adjusting to growing governmental restrictions.

Photo: Emilia Szekely

Proposal

Organization and collaboration between local communities

RECT’s development plan focuses on community peasant ecotourism. The communities, each organized into cooperative societies comprising several families, analysed which local resources could be used. They carried out environmental impact assessments to identify the number of visitors that could be received without affecting the environment. They have trained the participating villagers and have distributed responsibilities so that all aspects of the eco-tourism industry are covered.

Photo: Emilia Szekely

This organization allowed them help drafting of the national norms for sustainable ecotourism, NMX-AA-133-SCFI-2006 SEMARNAT on “certified ecotourism”. Also, they received a national honourable mention as part of the Recognition for the Conservation of Nature 2008 of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT by its Spanish acronym).

Families from the Miguel Hidalgo community formed the El Apompal Ecotourism cooperative society. The cooperative split itself into different commissions – guides, lodging, food, monitoring, administration – and started collaboration with other community companies.

Photo by: Emilia Szekely

Up until now, they help selling each other’s goods, and coordinate lodging, food, and a quite rich entertainment offer for visitors, taking advantage of the varied resources and landscapes of each community – visits to the volcano, bird watching, hiking, son jarocho music events, horseback riding, campfires, observation hikes to the core area of the reserve, boat rides with visit to the archaeological site of Las Margaritas, etc.

External support in local capacity building

El Apompal Ecotourism, and its wider network, consolidated their first efforts with the support of many governmental programs, state and federal, such as SEMARNAT and the National Commission for the knowledge and use of Biodiversity (CONABIO by its Spanish acronym). This support allowed them to:

  • build cabins to receive visitors
  • pay for the training of staff (in cooking, tourism guide, languages, hiking, project management, entrepreneurship, customer service, conflict resolution, digit-puncture, first aid, etc)
  • learn from other similar initiatives in the country through government programs designed for exchange, collaboration and feedback between peers (with different ecotourism projects in Oaxaca and Guerrero states, etc)
  • disseminate their projects at tourism promotion fairs.

The initiative has also been supported by external researchers and professionals who have helped it to formulate alternatives to become self-sustainable. Several of the external experts are part of the “Friends of the Community Ecotourism Network of Los Tuxtlas” group. The group first met during a visit to the community, and supports the initiative by promoting it through social media, inviting people, etc.

Photo by: Emilia Szekely

Some national universities, such as UNAM, UAM and Universidad Veracruzana, as well as others from abroad, collaborate with the initiative by sending students to do their social service in the communities. Student work includes:

The volunteers do not receive financial compensation but can stay in the community, paying only for their food.

Photo: Emilia Szekely

In the past, the government program that promoted exchanges between rural ecotourism initiatives from different parts of the country allowed active communities to provide support and feedback to each other.

Financing

By 2018, when we visited the initiative, interviewees suggested that the project’s development has been hampered by reduced government support to community peasant ecotourism initiatives, and also by alleged irregularities in the political management of funds by some government agencies.

Photo: Emilia Szekely

El Apompal Ecotourism now survives on income from tourists and the voluntary work of external agents and members of the cooperative, who don’t receive a fixed salary, and provide also material contributions (the land where the lodging cabins were built for example).

Future steps

Since ecotourism does not have much history in the region, which has lived to date on agriculture, livestock, and extractive activities, several communities have now abandoned the RECT’s ecotourism project. Apparently, many doubt the viability of an ecotourism industry in the region, and see no real cost-benefit in this economic alternative.

Few communities now participate. According to one member of El Apompal Ecotourism, this is because so much of the work is voluntary. Also, the ecotourism model is culturally alien and unprofitable compared to field work.

One interviewee thought that for ecotourism to make a profit “you must invest time”. The organization through cooperative societies has allowed them to gradually build their capacity for operation. Each cooperative has now commissions (for lodging, food, surveillance, administration, etc.) that have been strengthened by experience and education. The cooperation with experts and university researchers have helped the project develop step by step.

Photo: Emilia Szekely

Although the initiative is in serious economic difficulty because of reduced government support, surviving members believe that ecotourism is more sustainable than the sale of natural resources or agriculture. They believe that local resources, such as waterfalls, and wildlife, are a form of capital that can attract visitors.

Surviving members are now negotiating with new communities to involve them in their ecotourism route. They hope that this will allow them to diversify their offer to tourists, as well as their sources of income and support.

Photo: Emilia Szekely

Perhaps it is this conviction that has motivated El Apompal Ecouturism members’ persistence: contributing with resources, infrastructure, land or voluntary work. The one that has motivated their unstoppable efforts to create bonds with new communities and towns of the area, aspiring to consolidate an ecotourism network that becomes a profitable economic alternative, that allows reducing the abuse of the resources of this precious, rich, and environmentally sensitive region.