Helping Brazil's tribal groups benefit more from tourism

Members of the Dessana village dancing Image copyright Gustavo Oliveira
Image caption Residents of the Tupe village put on dance shows for tourists

Sitting quietly in the corner of the wooden hut, wearing a crown made from bright blue feathers, the elder - or paje - of a small tribal village in the Amazon rainforest looks on.

His face is painted with the crushed red seed of the urucum fruit, and he carries a wooden staff decked with white downy feathers.

Nearby, one of the younger members of the village checks his mobile phone.

This is the somewhat incongruous life inside the Tupe reserve, home to 40 members of the Dessana tribe, and located 15 miles (24km) up the Rio Negro river from Manaus, the capital of Brazil's vast Amazon region.

The tribe originates from more than 600 miles further upstream, in remote north-western Brazil, but three decades ago nine members moved down river to Tupe, to be near Manaus, a modern city of two million people.

They decided on the relocation so they could get away from subsistence farming and fishing, and instead explore easier, or more lucrative, ways to make a living.

Eventually they chose to go into tourism, and commercialising their culture.

Yet while they continue to be successful in doing this, some commentators remain concerned that the Tupe villagers, and other such tribal groups which have gone into tourism, are at risk of being exploited.

Former farmers

Today the residents of Tupe put on traditional music and dance performances for tourists and sell their homemade jewellery to visitors.

"We started doing tourist activities 13 years ago," said Jose Maria, 37, the son of the paje, and whose tribal name Diakuru means "being who drinks water".

He adds: "We used to farm [a food crop called] cassava, and fish, to survive, but it's better for us to work with tourism here, and go to Manaus to buy our goods."

Image copyright Gustavo Oliveira
Image caption The members of the tribe moved to be closer to Manaus

Visitors to the village are invited into a large hut lined with benches, and greeted by members of the tribe, both men and women, wearing feather headdresses, body paint and garlands of leaves.

After putting on a dance performance, the villagers then invite spectators to try to do some of the moves themselves. The tourists are also urged to ask questions about the culture of the Dessana tribe.

Revenue share issue

Most visits to tribal villages such as Tupe are part of a wider package boat tour to and from Manaus, which became much better known internationally last year after hosting a number of World Cup games.

The tours typically also include tourists seeing the "meeting of the waters", where the black Rio Negro meets the brown Rio Solimoes at Manaus to form the River Amazon, and swimming with the fresh water Amazon river dolphin.

With most visitors paying a fixed fee of around £55 per person for a package tour, the problem for the tribal people - and authorities wishing to help project them - is that there is no industry-wide agreement on what share of the money the villagers should be paid.

Some of the 196 tourism agencies don't pay the tribal groups at all, instead forcing them to rely on selling jewellery, with pieces typically retailing for between four reals ($1.50; £1) and 20 reals ($7.60; £5), or asking for donations.

Pedro Neto, who runs Amazon Eco Adventures, does give the villages a share of his revenues, and he says that regulations need to be introduced to ensure that all tour companies have to do the same. "It needs to be more rigorous," he says.

A Brazilian government agency, the National Indian Foundation, which aims to protect and further the needs of indigenous groups, is indeed now looking at whether such regulations should be enforced.

Environmental impact

In the meantime, to help tribal villages better handle business negotiations with tour firms, a non-government organisation called the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation (ASF) runs entrepreneurial programmes for members of such communities.

Image copyright Donna Bowater
Image caption The tours to the indigenous villages also generally include swimming with Amazon river dolphins

ASF also proves social assistance where necessary, and reminds about the need for environmental conservation.

Virgilio Viana, ASF's director general, says: "There are cases where tourism is more disruptive, but there are some cases where tourism is well done.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Manaus is a modern city of two million people

"There's a movement for community-based tourism that is developing a strategy to promote it, and avoid interruption of culture.

"The aim is to ensure that people do respect the local traditions, and ensuring the revenues end up with the local people rather than the tourism agencies."

Image copyright Gustavo Oliveira
Image caption The villagers live in traditional wooden huts

Prof Viana adds that ensuring indigenous groups gets a fairer share of tourism revenues also has a positive knock-on effect on the environment, as it means villages will be more reluctant to chop down trees.

"There's an interesting link between environmental conservation and income, because there's an area where they take tourists and it has to be clean and protected," he says.

"If it were me, to have this revenue, I'd have to have well-protected areas, and instead of cutting down the big tree in the forest, I'd take tourists to take photographs with it."

Yet he adds that ensuring tourism revenues are shared fairly remains the main challenge.

"We are trying to find ways to make the communities safe from this," he says.

"But generally speaking, I think we have many more opportunities to have good tourism. I would see more positives."

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