Ecotourism -as opposed to mass tourism- along with wildlife conservation are seen as increasingly important, given the sustainability issues of our time. Ironically, these very practices are causing displacement of indigenous peoples in some parts of the world, threatening their livelihoods.

Displacement is nothing new, although perhaps it makes more headlines these days given the information technology that exists and the consequent feeling of a ‘smaller world’. Governments have long displaced people through colonisation, clearing land for industry, or because they are seen as nuisances or burdens. Although intangible, tourism is also an industry, and although tourists often travel to gaze at another, exotic world, indigenous people cattle grazing alongside wildebeests do not fit into the idealised picture.

One of the best known cases is that of the Masai people. While the Masai in Kenya were displaced during British rule to make space for white ranchers, the Masai in Tanzania –more than 10,000- were displaced for one of Africa’s first wildlife reserves, the Serengeti. The British established the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to make up for the loss, where in a unique situation to Tanzania, the Masai could live alongside wildlife. Sixteen years later however, the newly independent Tanzanian government banished them from the Ngorongoro Crater because their cattle competed with wildlife for grazing land (Condé Nast Traveler 2010). Land that the Masai have land-use rights for, but not ownership of, has increasingly been sold to safari operators, hoteliers, and hunting concessionaires…their future is now endangered by three main parties: the government, the safari industry, and wildlife advocates (Condé Nast Traveler 2010).

Tourism plays a large part because it ties into pushing globalisation and the ‘consumption’ of destinations, the need for conservation efforts, and less directly- is partially to blame for accelerated global warming. It is therefore part of a bigger problem and shouldn’t be labelled as the only scapegoat.

Concerning global warming and consumption, the need for renewable sources of energy -including biofuels- causes a whole new set of problems ranging from raising food prices in poor countries to competing for land in order to harvest raw materials. The airline industry sees biofuels as a convenient option because it can be a direct replacement for kerosene, but harvesting enough to meet the industry’s needs is a major constraint; if the current number of commercial airlines had to depend on soybean biomass alone, which is one of the most prominent possible solutions, it would take land the size of Europe to support them (Marvel 2009). In other words, even if vast amount of renewable energy could be harvested, consumption cannot continue at its current pace without further destruction of the environment and the forceful taking of land, which will most likely affect those that are not the consumers themselves.

Although the public in developed countries may be sensitive to the rights of indigenous peoples, they are also sensitive to the environment and its conservation, which has direct consequences for them and is a more global problem. The urge to treat fairly indigenous tribes in Tanzania will not likely outweigh the urge to conserve some of the last big species left, just as the urge to treat fairly the Omo Valley tribes in Ethiopia will not likely outweigh the need for the massive hydro-electric dam that will disrupt their rivers. In neither case were these people responsible for the problems, but they are being disadvantaged by the solutions.

The obvious solution would be to include these people into mainstream societies. This is often the argument of governments that are forcefully trying to relocate people. The tribes would have better access to healthcare, education, and everything else that comes along with living in a bigger society. However, some take to the idea and others refuse to leave their homes. The seclusion and localisation of indigenous tribes is also an issue as they have not been exposed to the same illnesses as the mainstream populations, and often do not share the same knowledge, including basic things such as language or how to support themselves. They will most likely become marginalised peoples that cannot sustain themselves as they have learned to after generations of specialising their culture and knowledge to a specific area’s geography, resources…etc. Localised knowledge will be lost and self-sustaining groups will become dependent, and a strain on these societies. What will the future be of a thirty-year-old that cannot read, write, speak the same language and knows nothing about capitalism, dangers, or customs if he is forced to join another society?

The benefits of displacing people are usually economic, as explained above. Although economics is seen as straightforward and logically structured, it is still dynamic. Economic ideas and practices are only fitting so long the situation does not change, just think of how technology has impacted the formation of networks, flow of information, decision making capabilities…etc. As Dan Ariely, professor of behavioural economics at the Duke University suggests, the globalised economy that is usually aspired to comes with its own set of disadvantages.

The globalisation of markets has been promoted for at least the last decade to increase liquidity, encourage financial innovation and allow friction free trading, but Ariely suggests that globalisation in fact reduces innovation, financial health, and increases susceptibility to meltdowns, as has been exemplified by the far-reaching consequences of the recent slump. Now applying this idea to an area, different people are being ‘mainstreamed’ so that an economy can grow stronger, when that economy will be depending on a globalised market (tourism, raw materials) that is both out of their control and makes them less resilient to slumps.

Ironically, mistrust caused by the recent slump has caused some communities to use ‘local currency’ as a way to keep more money in local circulation and be less dependent on the global economy. The problem is that the discussed industries would usually not be financially sustained by local demand and therefore would not be able to fall back on that strategy when needed. Tourism and some other forms of global trade will inevitably be hindered by the environmental situation, but only after many of these cultures will have had to suffer in order to promote the industry and possibly become dependent on it.

Although the issues are complicated and vary depending on the localised situations, governments that chose to displace for the sake of international tourism and industry may not be taking into account how dependent they are making themselves, nor weighing the loss of localised knowledge, diversity and mistrust to the short term and probably unstable economic gain.


  • Macy Marvel (June 2009). What Next? Impact of further environmental restrictions

Airlines – International Report. Mintel International Group Ltd. Retrieved October 14th from:

  • Joshua Hammer (November 2010). Last Days of the Masai?

Condé Nast Traveler on Retrieved October 28th from:

  • Dan Ariely (2009). Can a Global Market increase Irrational Behaviour?

Predictably Irrational, revised and expanded edition: 316-319

Harper Collins Publishers, United Kingdom. ISBN 978-0-00-725653-2

  • Further reading on indigenous tribes and development:

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