Can a trip to the Amazon help save the rainforest?
Tropical rainforests are magical ecosystems filled with a dizzying diversity of life. From jewel-like amphibians to creeping lianas, the rainforest teems with every conceivable shape, colour or sound that your brain can fathom, as well as things you’d not even think possible. If animals aren’t your thing, rainforests help humans out in several other ways, too.
The forest is home to countless indigenous communities, providing people around the world with food, and filtering millions of litres of water every day. Many modern medicines, for example, quinine (which helps treat malaria and is the basis for the bitterness in the gin & tonic), are derived from chemicals originally discovered in rainforest plants or secretions from animals. We can hardly guess what else lies out there.
Rainforests are widely publicised as “large carbon sinks” and with good reason. Carbon sinks are natural reservoirs that absorb and store more carbon than they release. Plants use carbon dioxide (CO2) and water in order to make their own food and to grow. CO2 is drawn out of the atmosphere and converted into the tissues of the plant, locking the CO2 away from the atmosphere where it acts as a greenhouse gas. With global climate change finally showing up on public and government radars, now is the time to protect what is likely our biggest ally against an irreversibly warming climate. And boy, does it need our help.
I could list a load of horrific figures here about how quickly we are obliterating our planet’s rainforests, often for short-term gain, but most of us have seen so much of that it’s becoming less and less effective as we become desensitised.
Instead, what if I told you that going on holiday and experiencing this place for yourself can actually help to save large tracts of rainforests? Imagine looking out over a lagoon, birds silhouetted against an Amazonian sunset, safe in the knowledge that just by being here, learning and having fun, you are directly contributing to the safety of the surrounding landscape.
This is where the Sani Lodge comes in. Sani Lodge is an ecotourism lodge owned by an indigenous Kichwa community set to the North of the Napo River in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The Sani reserve covers 400 square kilometres of primary Amazonian rainforest, which is home to an unimaginable amount of life. The reason this area is still primary Amazonian rainforest and not a crude oil-pumping wasteland is due to the incredible foresight of the Sani community who wanted to protect their land from annihilation – as has happened to some neighbouring communities. They saw an opportunity for ecotourism to work as a way to provide jobs for the people that could last far longer than any drilling operation could. To preserve their land for future generations.
Now to address the obvious question. “Sure, this sounds great, but what about the flights I need to take to get there? Doesn’t that just outweigh any good I’m doing?”. The short answer is that it’s very complicated. However, there are significant benefits, both social and environmental, to this kind of tourism which certainly make it more ethical than many other holidays.
From an environmental viewpoint, traveling across the world looks like a disaster. Flying produces a lot of CO2. That’s unavoidable. Luckily for the planet (and our conscience) rainforests also absorb a lot of CO2, as mentioned before. Current estimates of the CO2 uptake for intact, old-growth Amazonian rainforest (excluding other tropical systems and temperate forests, some of which have higher uptake) is around 0.24 Mg C ha-1 year-1.
While that unit of measurement seems complex, putting it into simple language tells us that 240kg of carbon is locked away in each hectare of rainforest, every year. The Sani reserve comprises a modest 40,500 hectares meaning that this reserve alone hoovers up 9,720 tonnes of CO2 each year. A roundtrip flight from London to Quito, Ecuador via Bogotá emits 3 tonnes of carbon. Not ideal by any stretch of the imagination. However, if you frame it in the way you would an investment opportunity, paying in 3 for a yearly return of 9,720 suddenly doesn’t sound like such a bad deal. Tourism is the reason those 40,000 hectares of rainforest and its inhabitants are still there. If the tourism stops, the Sani people will be left with no choice but to let go of their vision and sell out to the ever-present oil companies. Unfortunately, this decision means only one thing – total annihilation of the forest. As the forest is burned to clear space for drilling, machinery, and roads, cascading effects would follow. Destroyed and degenerated, all that stored carbon, hundreds of thousands of tonnes over the trees’ lifetime, will be released back into the atmosphere.
From a social perspective, rainforest tourism also helps preserve and maintain these unique communities. The Sani Lodge provides jobs for the people of the community who are proud to show off their land and knowledge to tourists. These jobs fight brain drain by keeping young people in the community doing meaningful work. The tourism here has also helped shape initiatives such as the Sani Warmi, a women’s cooperative that produces hand-made crafts and leads cultural tours of the community centre. In partnership with conservation organisation, Operation Wallacea, the Warmi (meaning women in Kichwa) even developed a medicinal garden in 2018 with over 20 species of plants that the community continues to use to cure illness and injury. Tourism directly funds the maintenance of these traditions and the Sani way of life.
It is hard to fully convey the experience of being in the Amazon. Documentaries are unable to capture how each sense is uniquely grasped by this environment. We have been fortunate enough to guide people through the experience, and almost every single person comes out the other side with a new outlook. If you show people what is at stake, it becomes tangible and their drive to protect it intensifies. In turn, this creates a society with a greater appreciation of the natural world which will go a long way to its future preservation.
If you want to visit the rainforest, check our tour options in Ecuador or Guyana for more information!