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The Ecological Problems Associated with Ecotourism and Ecoresort Developments in Delicate Forest Ecosystems (for example, Mountain Forests and the Tropical Rainforests)

 

Itam Ekpenyong Bassey,

Volgograd State University of Architecture and Civil Engineering, Volgograd, Russia,

Ita Ekpe Esien,

Dept. of Civil Engineering, Cross River University of Technology, CRUTECH, Calabar, Nigeria.

 

The rise of ecotourism in the world, since the last quarter of the 20th century, has created very attractive economic opportunities for the developing countries; many of them have been rushing to take advantage of these opportunities. Ecotourism often leads large numbers of international tourists to fragile and pristine natural environments in the rural regions of the developing countries, where the foremost attractions of ecotourism are located. In this paper the ecological problems of ecotourism in a specific group of fragile and pristine natural environments (mountain forest and tropical rainforest ecosystems) are discussed with specific reference to the problems of formulation of appropriate architectural conceptions for ecoresort developments in such circumstances.

 

Introduction Trends in the Evolution of the Concept of Ecotourism

 

Ecotourism is a relatively very new direction in international tourism; it emerged about the 1980s as a distinct arm of the global tourism industry. According to D. A. Fennell [6] the term ecotourism is a very recent term in the lexicon of the world. According to D. Weaver [17], the term ecotourism was unknown in the English language until as recently as the mid 1980s; yet by the beginning of the 21st century, this form of recreational activity had emerged as a major component of the global tourism industry and an important focus of academics within the field of tourism studies. According to Fennel, there has been some confusion surrounding the etymology or origin of the term ecotourism. There is, however, considerable consensus on the view that the origin of the term ecotourism is attributed to Ceballos-Lascurain. According to G. Wall [16] (in Jafari, J., editor; Encyclopedia of tourism; pp. 165-6):

The term 'ecotourism' is usually attributed to Ceballos-Lascurain, who defined it as 'tourism that consists in travelling to relatively undisturbed or uncontaminated natural areas with the specific objective of studying, admiring, and enjoying the scenery and its wild plants and animals, as well as any existing cultural manifestations (both past and present) found in these areas.' (Wall 2000: 165-166).

According C. W. Shanklin [13], ecotourism is defined as trips taken in which travelers learn about and appreciate the environment or trips taken to advance the cause of conservation. This definition explicitly sets out two principal attributes of ecotourism. Firstly, it is directed towards the purpose of creating the possibilities for the tourists to learn. Secondly, it should be directed towards the purpose of conservation of natural and cultural heritages of the region; thus expressing the expected ecological benefits of ecotourism. A more recent and more comprehensive definition proposed by M. Honey [8] categorically emphasizes four fundamental attributes of ecotourism:

                     it should satisfy the quests of tourists for knowledge about the natural and cultural heritages of the region;

                     it should become a means of generating funds for conservation;

                     it should grant direct benefits to local communities in specific respect to their economic development and political empowerment;

                     it should foster respect for cultures and the rights of the indigenous peoples.

The review of the contemporary definitions and concepts of ecotourism has revealed that learning, environmental sustainability, conservation and the well being of the indigenous peoples constitute its major platforms [6, 8, 13, 16, 17].

 

The Ecological Problems of Ecotourism in Delicate Forest Ecosystems

 

Mountain environments are very sensitive to change because the cold temperatures result in short growing periods of the vegetation. In the event of damage to vegetation, subsequent regeneration of damaged vegetation is difficult. Mountain environments are now very attractive for ecotourism and sporting activities: trekking, snowboarding, mountain biking and winter sports. Immense economic benefits accrue from mountain tourism for the development of rural areas located on mountains. The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) estimated that in 1997, 24 million tourists (3-4 percent of the international tourism arrivals worldwide) were directly associated with winter sports on mountains. However, mountain tourism has been responsible for the ecological degradation of mountain environments in many parts of the world. Deforestation of the sides of the mountains could result in the significant ecological threats: the risk of avalanches, landslides and disruption of ecosystems, resulting in the loss of habitats and the destruction of wildlife [7, 14, 15].

Nepal possesses one the most outstanding natural resources for mountain tourism: the Himalayan mountain range, which has become a foremost destination for international tourists. According to A. Holden [7], and also J. Sparrowhawk and A. Holden [14] between 1962 and 1996, the international tourist arrivals in Nepal increased, more than 63-fold, from 6179 to 393613. The most popular form of recreation in the mountain regions of Nepal is trekking; and it attracts about 23 percent of international tourist arrivals in Nepal. The most popular destination for trekkers is Annapurna, which attracts about 59 percent of the tourists. Improper and uncontrolled developments of resort facilities, to cater for the 40000 trekkers who visit Annapurna annually, have resulted in extensive deforestation of the mountains. Trees are cut down at random in order to build cabins for trekkers; and also to provide fuelwood for the constant supply of hot water to tourists. The ecological consequence of this deforestation of the mountains has been the prevalence of landslides [7, 14].

A. Holden [7] has cited the case of Tatopani in Annapurna tourism zone of Nepal. The landslide that once occurred was of such magnitude that it completely blocked the flow of the Kali Gandaki River; and subsequently it became necessary to dynamite the blockage in order to enable the river to flow. Another case of avalanches, which occurred in southern Switzerland and northern Italy, in 1988, has also been discussed by A. Holden [7]. The avalanches of mud that swept down the sides of the mountains killed 60 people and rendered about 7000 people homeless. The cause of the avalanches was traced to the removal of mountainside forests for the purpose of ski developments. According to L. Mastny [10], it has been estimated that in one Nepalese mountain village, an estimated hectare of virgin rhododendron forest is cut down each year for fuelwood to support the countrys booming trekking tourism industry, leading to the erosion of some 30-75 tons of soil annually. Similarly also, in Tanzania, the number of trekkers on the trails of Mount Kilimanjaro has risen so dramatically that the government doubled the climbing fee to $100 per person in September 1999 to slow serious erosion and other environmental harm [7, 10].

The tropical rainforests constitute another rich and vulnerable ecosystem that is presently becoming very attractive in ecotourism; its rich biological diversities constitute its foremost attraction to international tourists. R. Akinyemi [1] has reported a comparative analysis of the biological diversities of the tropical rainforests with a typical ecosystem in the temperate regions of the world. Great Britain, with a total land area of 244,100 square kilometers contains 1443 types of plants. On the other hand, 1 square kilometer of pristine tropical rainforests could contain more than 75,000 different species of plants. Apart from biological diversities, another major contribution of the tropical rainforests is in the sphere of addressing the contemporary problems of global warming. Scholars have also revealed that the contributions of the tropical rainforests towards the maintenance of the balance of the world climate are very immense. About 40 percent of the worlds oxygen supply comes from the leaves of the rainforest trees. However, the tropical rainforests have been disappearing very rapidly. In 1950 tropical rainforests covered 15 percent of the land surface of the earth; and by the end of the 20th century, more than half had been destroyed [1]. Ecotourism development is thus very essential in the regions of the tropical rainforests in order to provide the revenues needed for conservation activities in the national parks [1, 11, 12, 15].

A. Holden [7] has demonstrated the contributions that ecotourism and ecoresort developments are capable of making towards the preservation of biological diversities in the tropical rainforests of sub-Saharan Africa; citing the example of the gorilla project in Rwanda. The national park (Parc National des Volcans) is the home of more than 300 of the estimated total population of 650 mountain gorillas in the world. These species were under the threat of extinction by reason of the illegal activities of local poachers because trading in the hands of mountain gorillas is lucrative business in the Middle East. Before the civil war broke out in Rwanda (1990 - 1994), ecotourism had greatly prospered in this national park and 5000 to 8000 tourists visited the park. The ecotourism project proved to be very beneficial to the local people. In circumstances such as this, real and potential poachers find it more profitable to apply their vast knowledge of the jungles in the ecotourism project, for example as tour guides and other categories of operators within the tourism sector. When this point is reached (as it was the situation in the Rwandan project) the local people derive very substantial parts of their livelihoods from conservation, and they consequently emerge as foremost advocates and proponents of the cause of nature conservation in the national parks [7].

The tropical rainforests constitute a very vulnerable ecosystem, characterized by very heavy rainfalls; estimated minimum average annual rainfall is 1750-2000mm (and the maximum could be as high as 4500-4800mm). This ecosystem is located in regions, where the annual insolation is very high at the earths surface - between 200 and 240 watts/m2 (see fig. 1 and fig. 2). The principal peculiarity of this ecosystem is that its stability is entirely dependent on its trees. Excessive deforestation exposes the soils to very intense solar radiation; the soils thus rapidly dry up and harden, resulting in the inhibition of the processes of regeneration of the ecosystem. Following the loss of the trees, floods and erosion become prevalent, during the subsequent periods of the heavy rainfalls; and these ultimately result in total destruction of the ecosystem and it rich biological diversities [1, 12].

 

Fig. 1. Insolation: 1a (at the Stratosphere); 1b (at the earths surface). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

 

Fig. 2. Distribution of tropical rainforests in the world. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

 

Ecotourism and the Cross River National Park Complex

 

In the specific instance of ecotourism and ecoresort developments in the district of the Cross River National Park complex, the intrinsic ecological values of the complex must first be understood:

a) It is a rich tropical rainforest ecosystem, with rich biological diversities, some of which are endemic and others among which are facing the threat of extinction;

b) It serves as the watershed for the immediate district and also for a large region, located beyond it.

The Cross River National Park district (including the adjoining community forest estates) constitutes the major watershed of the region. Many of the streams that feed the major rivers of this region (for example, the Cross River and Great Kwa River) have their sources within this enclave. Extensive deforestation, in the processes of ecotourism and ecoresort developments, would lead to subsidence of subsoil water levels, destruction of this watershed and ultimately could lead to another serious ecological problem water scarcity. The avoidance of ecotourism development would also result in another set of problems lack of funds to support conservation activities complex would continue to persist. The lack of funds for conservation would result in the escalation of the activities of poachers and illegal timber loggers. The combination of these two factors would result in the rapid annihilation of the entire ecosystem and its rich biological diversities. Thus ecotourism is still the better option; properly managed and executed, it would generate the funds needed for conservation and support the livelihoods of the indigenous communities, without compromising the ecological integrity of the ecosystem [1, 2, 3, 11, 12].

The Cross River National Park is a tropical rainforest ecosystem located in the Cross River State in south-eastern Nigeria; it constitutes the western edge of the Guinea-Congolian basin, which is the largest tropical rainforest complex in present-day Africa (about 2.8 million km2 of tropical rainforest). The Guinea-Congolian basin spans from the Cross River State of Nigeria, through Cameroon, into the Democratic Republic of Congo, and also Gabon. Tropical rainforests (area: about 7610 km2) constitute about 35 percent of the area of Cross River State of Nigeria (about 21560 km2), and much of these forests are located on hilly terrains (especially within the district of the Cross River National Park complex); they have been designated as tropical high forests. About 37 percent of the tropical rainforest ecosystem of the state (about a total area of 2800 km2) has been placed under conservation in Cross River National Park complex, which consists of two sectors: the northern sector Boshi-Okwango Park (that rises to a height of 1820 metres above sea-level); and the southern sector Oban Hill Park (at the height of 1180 metres above sea-level). The hilly nature of this tropical rainforest ecosystem makes it very vulnerable to ecological damage in the event of excessive deforestation [12].

Scientific investigations in this district have already revealed that it is very rich in biological diversities; with about 12 percent of the species being classified as endemic [12]. At the Earth Summit (1992), held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a virtual consensus was reached on the point that it is essential to apply nature conservation establishments for the purpose of generating the revenues necessary for their sustenance. All these continue to point to the needs to apply ecotourism and ecoresort developments as a tool for promoting conservation in the district of the Cross River National Park complex [2, 3, 11, 12].

 

Ecoresort Development in the Cross River National Park District

 

According to H. Ayala [2, 3], the fundamental principle in the design and construction of ecoresorts is ecological sensitivity. The designs of masterplans, buildings and road infrastructures of ecoresorts should always be based on the approach of harmonizing hospitality with the aspiration to preserve the natural and cultural specificities of the ecosystem. The concept of environmental sensitivity is also explicitly declared in the definition of ecoresort proposed by R. K. Dowling (in Jafari, J., editor; Encyclopedia of tourism; pp. 165) [5]:

An ecoresort is a self-contained, upmarket, nature-based accommodation facility. It is characterised by environmentally sensitive design, development and management which minimises its adverse impact on the environment, particularly in the areas of energy and waste management, water conservation and purchasing. An ecoresort acts as a window to the natural world and as a vehicle for environmental learning and understanding. (Dowling 2000: 165).

In the case of the Cross River National Park complex, located on very hilly terrains, the risk of damage to the forests is very high. Excessive transformations of the natural vegetation and the physical structure of the territory will certainly result in very serious ecological consequences: floods and erosion. Excessive impairment of the capacity of the soils for infiltration of rainwater would result in widespread ecological problems of water scarcity [2, 3, 12].

Ecological sensitivity and ecological affinity are thus the fundamental principles that must guide ecotourism and the architecture of ecoresorts in this ecosystem. Within the context of the tropical rainforest ecosystem these principles have their specific interpretations, and the following principal factors should be observed:

                     the trees within this ecosystem constitute its mainstay and in the event of deforestation, it becomes very difficult for the ecosystem to be regenerated;

                     rainfalls are very heavy and in the event of deforestation the soil rapidly hardens (on account of the intense insolation), quickly loses its ability to facilitate the percolation of rainwater, and this results in serious ecological problems floods, erosion and landslides;

                     thus ecoresort developments must be organized in such a manner that the majority of the existing trees and other aspects of the natural vegetation of the ecosystem are preserved intact;

Correspondingly, ecoresort developments within this ecosystem should be guided by the architectural approaches that are summarized here below.

                     In the formation of ecoresorts, the most fundamental principle is the preservation of the ecological integrity of the ecosystem.

                     The buildings and complexes should be small and widely spaced in order that excessive transformations of the natural landscapes of the forest environments and of the physical structures of the territory would be avoided.

                     The choice of a location for ecoresort development should not only be guided by its attractiveness to tourists; it should also be based on the scientific studies that will grant appropriate interpretations about the vulnerability of the chosen location to sustained anthropogenic impacts associated with ecotourism.

                     In sizes and capacities, ecoresorts should be small in order to avoid the exertion of excessive ecological impacts on any single portion of the territory. It is recommended that ecoresorts, in the district of the Cross River National Park complex, should not contain more than 100-120 rooms.

                     It is desirable that ecoresort buildings should be constructed on stilts, in order that the buildings should not obstruct the natural paths of rainwater over the territory. By this means the spaces under the buildings remain useful for infiltration of rainwater; and thus imperviousness ratio of the territory is maintained at the lowest possible level.

                     Sporting activities such as football and golf demand large areas of cleared forestlands; they are thus unacceptable for ecoresort developments in this ecosystem, especially within the districts of the national park complex.

                     Notwithstanding the fact that, within this ecosystem, ecoresort developments occur in rural regions (where essential engineering infrastructural services like water, sewage and electricity are either entirely absent or below international standards), ecoresorts are expected to provide international tourists with appropriate standards of services.

                     In the specific case of hot water supply, it would be essential to apply solar hot water systems (which have become very affordable in the 21st century) in order to curtail the tendencies of excessive extraction of fuelwood from the tropical rainforests for the purpose of providing international tourists with regular supplies of hot water.

Another fundamental principle in the architecture of ecoresorts is contextualism; the ecoresort (its buildings and complexes) should be capable of granting international tourists appropriate interpretations about the natural and cultural specificities of the region. This has been interpreted to mean that traditional architectural styles should be applied in the designs of ecoresort buildings and complexes; and also that local building materials and technologies should be applied in the construction of ecoresort buildings and complexes. With respect to the principle of contextualism, the following considerations must be made, pertaining to ecoresort developments in the districts of the Cross River National Park complex.

                     The concept of the wooden cottage, which appears to be attractive in the forest environments, should be viewed with caution in ecoresort developments in tropical rainforest ecosystem. Construction of wooden cottages would likely result in excessive demands for timber and consequently, in large-scale destruction of forests.

                     Earth is more widely used for the construction of traditional buildings in sub-Saharan Africa. The use of earth for the construction of ecoresort buildings is therefore preferable; and would make ecoresorts appropriately associative with local architectural styles and cultures.

                     The use of local materials and technologies in the development of ecoresorts would make the costs of their construction and maintenance more affordable, and therefore make the whole project more sustainable, in the long run.

 

Environmental Engineering Considerations in Ecoresort Developments in the Cross River National Park District

 

The general theme of this work has been that ecotourism and ecoresort developments in delicate forests environments (like the tropical rainforests) could result in serious ecological problems. The fact that the district of the Cross River National Park complex is a watershed located within tropical high forests makes this consideration even more significant.

Design and construction of road infrastructures in watershed districts have their own peculiarities, which could be broadly described as ecological conformity. By ecological conformity, it is understood that such projects must follow the environmental standards that apply to watershed districts. The primary ecological function of a watershed is the facilitation of groundwater recharge processes; and development projects in such districts should not result in the impairment of the watershed from the performance of this primary ecological function. Two parameters that must be applied in the evaluation of the effectiveness of the designs of roads and walkways in watershed districts are impervious cover and imperviousness ratio (or simply imperviousness). Impervious cover is defined as any surface in the given landscape that cannot absorb or infiltrate rainwater; and imperviousness is defined as the percentage of impervious cover in a development site or watershed. In physical developments in this district, it is essential to ensure that the pathways of rainwater into the underground aquifers remain unhindered. In the construction of road infrastructure for ecoresort developments therefore, the need arises for the evaluation of the characteristics of two groups of materials and techniques that are applicable as pavements: permeable and non-permeable pavements [4].

Non-permeable pavements such as asphalt, concrete and stone have the advantage of durability; and thus the costs of periodic maintenance are relatively low. However, research has shown that they are very inappropriate for situations such as this; the use of such materials as pavements results in the obstruction of the processes of percolation of rainwater into the subsoil, resulting in excessive surface runoffs of storm water. Excessive storm water runoffs, in turn, result in floods and erosions; and also in siltation of surface waters, which is associated with pollution of water resources and destruction of aquatic ecosystems. The ecological consequences arising from the impairment of infiltration and the costs of remediation of ecological hazards (floods, erosions and siltation of water bodies) make this technique very unacceptable for ecoresort developments in this ecosystem [4].

Permeable pavements (also called porous pavements or alternative pavements) consist of permeable surface materials bonded into any underlying porous layer of stone (see Fig 3). This composite system receives surface runoffs and facilitates their infiltration into the subsoil. Where it is properly constructed, the rainwater is noticeable on the surface only for very few minutes even during heavy rainfalls. The materials usually applied for this construction technique include pervious concrete, porous asphalt, grass pavers etc. In appearance, porous asphalt and pervious concrete look very much like versions traditionally used for impervious pavements; they differ very significantly in internal structures in that fine aggregates are not used in their manufacture and they contain fine pores that permit the percolation of water from their respective surfaces [4].

 

Fig. 3. Diagrammatic detail of porous pavements, recommended for the construction of roads and walkways in watershed districts (adapted from: Wikimedia Commons, with slight modifications by the authors). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

 

The use of earth roads in this circumstance would have the advantage that it permits the infiltration of rainwater for the purposes of groundwater recharge. However, the major disadvantages of this approach would be low durability and the risks of erosion. Earth roads would not also be acceptable for ecoresort developments because it is essential to ensure that ecoresorts conform to the standards of the international hospitality industry.

Thus with respect to the construction of roads and walkways in ecoresort developments within the watershed districts of the Cross River National Park complex, the following recommendations are made:

                     the construction of roads and walkways should be based on the use of permeable or pervious pavements;

                     in the extreme circumstances in which the use of impervious pavements would be considered unavoidable, then the drainage channels on the sides of such roads and walkways should be detailed in the form of vegetated drains;

                     vegetated drains should be carefully detailed (in combination with systems of retention basins and/or constructed wetlands where necessary) in such a manner as to enable them to facilitate the rapid infiltration of the stormwaters that are directed into them, without the risks of floods and erosion;

                     other peculiarities of engineering design and construction of roads and walkways will depend on the specificities of the given territory.

 

Conclusion

 

The most fundamental principles of ecoresort developments are: environmental sustainability or ecological safety, ecological sensitivity and contextualism. In the development on ecoresorts in delicate forest environments, such as the tropical rainforests, the architectural designs of ecoresort buildings and complexes, the choice of sites for the location and distribution of ecoresorts within the territory, the distribution of buildings within the ecoresort, as well as the construction of roads and other forms of engineering infrastructure must always be made conformable to these fundamental principles.

 

References

 

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