Friday, December 11, 2009

Ethical Travel: Argentina & Chile Score High

According to a recent press release from Ethical Traveler, an organization headed by my Oakland neighbor Jeff Greenwald, both Argentina and Chile figure among the ten most ethical destinations for world travelers in 2010. Given where these countries would have figured 30 years ago, when both were under vicious military dictatorships, this is a welcome development though, in the following paragraphs, it will be apparent that the analysis is not quite so simple.

Ethical Traveler arrived at its evaluation by compiling information on each country’s records on environmental conservation, social welfare, and human rights, from sources such as the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy, UNICEF, Amnesty International, and Freedom House. Specific items taken into account include forestry practices, child mortality rates, and freedom of the press. Admitting that these standards alone are not enough to make a destination appealing, the release adds that each of the countries in question “boasts wonderful opportunities for the traveler - opportunities to experience nature at its most pristine, and to interact with local people and cultures in a meaningful, mutually enlightening way.”

In all these categories, though, there is room for devil’s advocate arguments. In Argentina, for instance, the government may have pledged preservation of endangered Atlantic forest in the northwestern province of Misiones, but at the same time it’s lagged far behind in cleaning up the Riachuelo, a stagnant stream of sludge that runs through the tourist-friendly Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca (pictured above). Chile deserves credit for its progressive national parks system but, outside park boundaries, monocultural plantations of exotic Monterey pine often continue to replace native forests. Controversial, massive hydroelectric projects threaten areas the Río Futaleufú (pictured here) and other rivers without formal protection in northern Chilean Patagonia.

Both Argentina and Chile, of course, suffer from great disparities between wealth and poverty, both in the cities and the countryside. Chile has dealt with this in a more systematic manner, providing assistance and opportunities within an institutional framework. Argentina, meanwhile has often tied assistance to political patronage, in both urban and rural areas. In some ways, this has made existing problems worse.

While the political environment in both countries is far superior to what it was three decades ago, it’s not without problems. Perceiving its ebbing support to be a result of an unfriendly press, for instance, the Argentine government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner forced adoption of a new media law aimed at the Clarín group, its most outspoken opponent. In another irony, Chile has invoked a Pinochet-era anti-terrorism law against Mapuche Indian demonstrators (some admittedly violent) in the southern lakes district.

All of this is not to imply that Argentina and Chile are unsuitable destinations for travelers concerned with how the proceeds from their travels will be spent. As it happens, I agree with most of Ethical Traveler’s conclusions, but that doesn’t mean that visitors to these countries should overlook their shortcomings. That’s part of the learning experience.

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