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Responsible Travel in Brazil

Visitors Join the Race to Save the Amazon

Three Amazon locals on a canoe, with mother paddling children.
As many locals along the Amazon live in small settlements, often far from the nearest town, they depend largely on dugout canoes to sell their produce or fish in town, and even to paddle to school.

"The Amazon is the last chapter of Genesis still to be written," the great Brazilian author Euclides da Cunha wrote a century ago. This suggests the awe and admiration of most travelers when confronted with the Amazon’s diversity of life forms and its primordial fecundity and beauty.

But while early explorers and naturalists found unspoiled nature, today’s visitors encounter one of the most imperiled ecosystems on earth. In 2003 alone an area slightly larger than the state of New Hampshire fell prey to deforestation, and in 2004 the rate of deforestation may have doubled. Although international pressure and Brazilian environmental legislation have slowed this destructive process, mining, logging, ranching and, most recently, soybean plantations continue to eat away at the pristine forest at a frightening pace. This process of destruction is complex, and economic and social inequalities both within Brazil and on a global scale are in part responsible for the enormous pressure on the Amazon’s natural resources. Among the leading factors is the so-called "Hamburger Connection", a term referring to exports of cheap beef from the Amazon, as well as exports of low-cost raw materials for industry in wealthy countries.

But amid this ongoing devastation in the Amazon there is a strong growing counter-current led by concerned local residents and international organizations. Literally hundreds of environmental groups are engaged today in the struggle to preserve as much of the Amazon rainforest as possible, before it is too late. Thanks to the indefatigable work of these NGOs, ecological practices such as sustainable development and ecotourism are becoming more accepted as an important contribution to preserving forest ecosystems.

But unfortunately, despite the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio and numerous other environmental conferences, ecotourism in Brazil is still in its infancy, and its impact on regional development in the Amazon is still small. This situation is gradually changing however. The Brazilian government, through Green Tourism/Proecotur (Ecotourism Development Program for the Greater Amazon), has allocated vast sums and begun to develop a long-term strategy for the development of ecotourism in the region. The stakes are high in this race to save the Amazon. But small ecological battles are won every day, and the good news is that on a small scale responsible travelers can make an important contribution to the preservation of the Amazon rainforest.

Ecotourism for Preservation of the Amazon

Ecotourism as a low-impact, sustainable economic activity is particularly well suited for the Amazon because it combines environmental preservation with the socioeconomic needs of the local populations. For many impoverished forest and riverside communities ecological tourism is beginning to provide a viable income alternative to common predatory practices such as illegal mining, logging, and poaching. Ecotourism also brings other benefits to remote Amazon communities, such as improvements in health, education, technical assistance and training, as well as community participation in the decision-making process. This is especially important in a region where the most common means of transportation is still the dugout canoe, and where government resources and infrastructure are extremely scarce.

Most ecotourism projects in the Amazon take place in and around protected areas owned by the federal or state government and are often organized by NGOs with international funding. The resident communities in these reserves typically collect rubber latex, fruits, nuts, resins, oils and other forest products, fish and hunt only for their own needs, and use the forest’s resources in a manner that does not degrade the environment. By providing extra income in addition to these traditional activities, ecotourism is beginning to play an increasingly important economic role in these communities. The positive impacts of sustainable projects and methods are manifold and benefit both the environment and the resident communities. The Cristalino Lodge in Mato Grosso state for example, has retrained former gold miners as tour guides; on the Amazon River concerned community members have developed a preservation plan for the over-fished Silves Island; and an NGO has organized an artisan association along the Rio Negro to help market basketry products made by local women from materials collected in the forest.

Making Responsible Choices in Brazil

The Brazilian Amazon encompasses 1.94 million square miles, an area little over half the size of the U.S. Choosing a travel destination in such a vast region may seem overwhelming, but if you make responsible and ecological travel a priority, your choices are reduced to a handful of options. Of the many jungle lodges, cruises, and jungle trips offered in the Amazon, very few provide the much-needed support for sustainable development and preservation of the rainforest.

Responsible travelers are first and foremost knowledgeable travelers, and to help protect the Amazon it is important to research at home and learn about projects, lodges, and tour operators committed to the sustainable use of resources and to respecting the cultural traditions and socioeconomic needs of the forest and riverside populations. Your responsible choice in favor of ecotourism is a unique opportunity to contribute to the preservation of the region’s diverse life forms and habitats. It is also a great way to visit the rain forest and experience the local culture and way of life. Remote areas are especially in need of support, and the farther away you get from Manaus, the more important your visit becomes. Our responsible travel choices alone cannot halt the ongoing deforestation, but they are an important factor to help reverse the fate of the world’s largest tropical forest.

Planning your Trip to the Amazon

Despite the Amazon’s reputation as a dangerous place with poisonous insects and reptiles, there are many ways to enjoy an exciting and safe trip. Most ecotourism programs are well organized and provide interesting and safe excursions to see local fauna and flora as well as the opportunity to experience the culture of the local people. Adventurous travelers might want to consider alternatives to organized tours. Most protected areas also admit individual travelers who would like to visit reserves on their own. Intrepid explorers can also make a positive impact by visiting remote places without a visitor infrastructure that do not have the support of NGOs or international funding. This is more time-consuming and a little bit more difficult to organize, but it gives travelers more flexibility, a heightened sense of adventure and closer contact with the locals.

To have a successful trip, it is important to select a location according to your available time and your experience. Keep in mind that ecotourism programs provide a more authentic and close experience of nature and the local people, but they often place higher demands on visitors in terms of creature comforts and physical activities. The remoter the area, the more time you need and the more adventurous your trip will be. You should determine if you are fit and prepared for a jungle adventure. Can you sleep in a hammock, if necessary, or in rustic accommodations without air conditioning? Will you be able to deal with the intense heat, humidity and ever-present insects? Can you afford to lose a day or two due to transportation delays?

Suggestions on Where to Go

To help with your decision-making process of figuring out where to go, the section below highlights destinations recommended for their sustainable practices, commitment to preservation, and their largely undisturbed ecosystems. Be aware that visitor infrastructure varies from place to place. With the exception of Jaú National Park, all of them offer complete packages with room and board, transportation, guides, and daily excursions. To further help the cause of conservation, keep in mind that handicrafts are a lively tradition in many communities, and that purchasing them provides additional support for local preservation efforts.

Responsible Development Reserve Mamirauá

Among Brazil’s oldest experiments in sustainable development, Mamirauá (located about 300 miles from Manaus) protects a vast stretch of seasonally flooded forest with an amazing diversity of fauna and flora. Visitor infrastructure is well developed, and ecotourism is a well integrated part of the management plan, administrated by the Mamirauá Institute for Responsible Development (IDSM). Visitors should buy the informative guide, Mamirauá: A Guide to the Natural History of the Amazon Flooded Forest by Matt Bannerman, available at bookstores in Manaus. To visit Mamirauá you need a permit from IPAAM in Manaus, the Institute for Environmental Protection of Amazonas state: Rua Recife 3280, Parque 10 de Novembro, Manaus; Tel. 011-55-92-643-2300.

• Jaú National Park

This park is among the world’s largest tropical forest reserves. Together with the Anavilhanas Ecological Station, and the Responsible Development Reserves of Amanã and Mamirauá, Jaú National Park forms the vast Central Amazon Conservation Complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Except for a visitor lodge, the park only has a rudimentary visitor infrastructure. Access is somewhat difficult, and trips are best arranged on your own from the town of Novo Airão, 60 miles northwest of Manaus.

• Cristalino Jungle Lodge

This forest reserve is a government-endorsed Private Natural Heritage Reserve in a remote area of the Southern Amazon (Alta Floresta, state of Mato Grosso), with focus on ecotourism and research. Cristalino Jungle Lodge is on the plush side, and offers a well-developed ecotourism infrastructure with jungle trails, bird watching, and canoe trips.

• Extractive Reserve

Extractive reserves are remote, protected areas where the locals earn a living by extracting the forest’s renewable resources such as Brazil and palm nuts, oils and resins, in a sustainable manner that preserves the ecosystem. Visiting an extractive reserve requires more time and a keen sense of adventure. Among the more accessible extractive reserves are those in the Amazon state of Rondônia, where several NGOs are involved in ecotourism programs in extractive reserves in the Guaporé valley along the border with Bolivia. The Pedras Negras jungle lodge and an environmental education center are the mainstays of the tour, which includes nature excursions, wildlife watching, and visits to rubber tapper communities. A permit from the IBAMA state office and approval from the residents’ association is required.

For More Info


American citizens need a valid passport and visa to enter Brazil. Go to the Embassy of Brazil in Washington D.C.

The best way to get from the U.S. to Manaus is via Miami. Other flights connect to Manaus via Rio or São Paulo.

Yellow fever vaccination is recommended and is mandatory when entering Brazil from a neighboring Amazon country. A malaria prophylaxis is recommended as well on the Traveler's Health Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) website.

To enter a National Park or Extractive Reserve in the Amazon you need a permit from IBAMA, the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Resources.

When to Go?

To experience the mysteries of the seasonally flooded forest, visit the Amazon at the end of the rainy season from May to July. The water level is still high, but rainfall is reduced. During the dry season from August through November the water level drops and river beaches emerge, where birds and other wildlife are easy to spot. Due to the high acidity of the water there are few mosquitoes along the Rio Negro and its tributaries. Depending on your travel time, you will also witness different festivities and traditional activities of the local people, such as fishing, preparing manioc meal, and harvesting forest products.

VOLKER POELZL is the author of Culture Shock! Brazil and Culture Shock! Portugal. He has lived and traveled extensively in the Brazilian Amazon .

Related Topics
Responsible Travel
Living in Brazil: Articles and Resources
More Articles by Volker Poelzl
Volunteer Work in Brazil
Traveling Down the Amazon: A Pictorial Essay

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