Community based tourism (where local communities deliver and benefit from tourism) to indigenous communities is not only a way to increase economic development, it is a way for indigenous communities to finally tell their history themselves. In the case of Quinquén, a Mapuche community in the mountains 8 hours South East from Santiago Chile, their history spans thousands of years and centers around the Araucaria (or Monkey Puzzle) tree.
I had the opportunity to visit this community after attending the Adventure Travel World Summit in Chile, thanks to Juan Ignacio Marambio of Travolution – a Chilean company that connects international travelers to indigenous community based tourism. Juan has been working with the Quinquén community for several years and assisted them in developing a program that shares their story and specificaly their work to save the Araucaria tree from being wiped out.
The Araucaria produces a piñon, or seed, that people in this region have depended on forever as part of their diet. That is why this groups name for themselves is Pehuenche. Pehuén is the Mapudungun (the Mapuche language) word for Araucaria, so they are people of the Araucaria. The Araucaria is sacred and viewed as brothers and sisters.
In the late 70’s and into the 80’s Chile was in the midst of its neo-liberal experiment, where corporations were given lots of power to reap profit from Chile’s vast natural resources. The timber industry expanded rapidly during this time and the ancient Araucaria forests were a prime target. Without any recognition that the land they were clearing was home to communities that have cared for and depended on these trees for millenia, the loggers moved in and spared no tree. After the pain of seeing their sacred tree nearly eliminated from the landscape, the community of Quinquén had enough. In the mid 80’s, with the support and advice of some international conservation organizations, they placed their own bodies on the line. Litterally forcing the logging companies to kill them if they wanted the trees. The military dictatorship sent the army in to do just that, but the Pehuenche people asked the powerful Araucaria trees to bring a snowstorm to stop the military. That night clear skies turned dark and it snowed more than anyone had ever witnessed in one night, and the army was prevented from committing their atrocities. This gave the community and their NGO allies more time to save their remaining forests.
The Araucaria is now a protected species in Chile, but the powers that be have a way to turn this against those that fought to save the tree. First, the loggers, upon leaving the territory committed numerous acts of deliberate sabbotage – felling trees that they had no intention of using, setting forest fires, etc. Additionally, the law says that no part of the Araucaria can be used. So it is officially illegal for Pehuenche people to harvest the Piñon or the downed trees and branches, as they have done for milenia. The final dagger in the gut is that their is no mention of this struggle in the conservation of the Araucaria. The official story is that the governement realized the importance of the tree and decided they should be saved.
Responsible and sustainable tourism is more than just creating economic benefits to communities. It is about giving voices to people whose history has been excluded from history books and whose contributions have the power to inspire future generations to conserve and respect the balance of nature.