In our American culture, we're inseparably connected to modern technology, and largely detached from the natural world. We rely completely on electricity, indoor plumbing, cars, computers, and cell phones to get us through each day; and we live and work in large, insulated, climate-controlled buildings that cut us off from the outside. Modern technology allows us to do things that not long ago would have seemed impossible, but to us have become essential pieces of everyday life. But the more in-tune we become with technology, the more isolated we become from the natural world, so that today nature is as unfamiliar and exciting to us as blogging would have been to the Founding Fathers. Compared to our complicated, fast-paced, multi-tasking lives, the simplicity and beauty of nature is a great, sublime escape, and although we would never want to give up our phones or computers, the idea of living on the land and away from the noise and pollution of the city can be very enticing. This is what brings us movies like Avatar, Pocahontas, and Fern Gully, where development is demonized and nature viewed as sacred. It also fuels ecotourism, which I introduced in my previous post, and brings some unexpected conflict into the picture.
In my research of ecotourism and South Africa I've found a number of studies done in the past two decades which attempt to determine the perceptions community members in South Africa have of national parks and the conservation measures enacted through them. One study by Emile Boonzaier looks specifically at the Richtersveld National Park to analyze local attitudes toward conservation and development, especially in the context of ecotourism. In his interviews with local people he found that many had a rather cynical view of tourists and the Richtersveld Park. These tourists, according to some of the locals who Boonzaier interviewed, believed in the importance of maintaining the integrity of natural areas, including the tribes living within or around them, which is a central tenet of ecotourism. But the tourists also disapproved of development and disliked seeing the incorporation of Western technology and influence in the local communities, believing it to be a corruption of the natural, wild Africa. Yet these developments were largely seen as advancements by members of the community, and so they viewed the tourists and the ideas of conservation held by the park to be in conflict with their goals and the advancement of the community.
In this case, the good of the community was not the highest priority, but rather the desires of the tourists in their search for the natural sublime. They see these traditional African cultures as sacred, natural, wild and uncorrupted, and they want their unique culture and traditions to be preserved; but in doing so they are refusing these people the modern conveniences and information that they, the tourists, have complete access to. While the tourists think they're helping the community by encouraging cultural preservation, they are in fact holding it back from modernity. Our culture may put nature on a pedestal, and dream of life without pollution, parking lots and complication (think Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell), but few of us would be able or willing to actually give up much of what we have. We just like to believe that other people are better off without.