This article was originally published by our friends at Southern Cone Journeys, who have agreed to its republication here. View the original article on their blog.
Co-management of protected areas by both the state and local communities is one of the best ways to guarantee that tourism will provide economic and social benefits to many people who would otherwise be marginalized, at the same time that it ensures protection for the environment on which these communities rely for their income. An excellent example is the Soncor Sector of Los Flamencos National Reserve, in the Atacama Desert of the Antofagasta Region, in northern Chile.
Los Flamencos National Reserve is located within the Atacama La Grande Indigenous Development Area, which was established in 1997 to promote sustainable development of the ancient territories of the Lickan Antay peoples. Since then, the Lickan Antay communities have strengthened their ancient rights to use of the resources, in many cases following traditional methods, and in others applying modern natural resource management techniques.
When the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF) began charging entrance fees to visit the Reserve, at the begining of the 2000 decade, the Lickan Antay Community of Toconao cut off the access road to Laguna Chaxa, in the Soncor Sector, to demand that tourism, carried out in their ancient territories, also benefit the descendants of this ethnic group that live in the nearby town. Their action brought about a revision of the plan and CONAF and the Lickan Antay communities signed co-management agreements for four of the seven sectors of the Reserve: Soncor, Miscanti and Miñiques Lagoons, Moon Valley and Tambillo.
Income generated from the entrance fees to these sites, which attract national and foreign visitors, has allowed the communities to strengthen programs to aid elderly and disabled people in their communities. At the same time, a significant amount of this income is invested in the management of each sector and staff salaries. The inclusion of local community personnel in the management of these sectors has allowed CONAF to redirect its staff to sectors and activities that were previously left largely unattended due to the lack of personnel and resources that affect the institution.
First Sustainable Visitor Center
Because of the increasing interest shown by tourists arriving from the nearby town of San Pedro de Atacama, the community decided to improve the site’s infrastructure and visitor information. To that end, in 2006, it partnered with CONAF and the SQM mining company, which exploits lithium in the Atacama Salt Flat, to develop the first sustainable visitor center in a protected area in Chile.
The project included the architectural design and construction of the visitor center, incorporating techniques such as reuse of grey water and electricity generation through solar panels and windmills. The roads were also repaired and the parking lot expanded.
At the same time, a group of local guides from the Lickan Antay Community of Toconao was trained in interpretation techniques to convey effectively to visitors the natural and cultural values of the area. To support this, five bilingual signs were developed for the interpretive trail and 18 for the inner hall of the center. A documentary video was also produced, in Spanish with English subtitles, to complement information provided to visitors.
The results could not have been better. Visitors to Laguna Chaxa comment that it is a pleasure to pay an entrance fee because you can see that the revenues are invested in the people and in improving the place, where you no longer find garbage lying around and there is good infrastructure. In addition, tourism has provided local people with a new source of income and each day more and more Lickan Antay Community members seek training to be part of the benefits of responsible tourism.