Quarrels about a waterfall
Water, in the form of a spectacular waterfall that attracts thousands of tourists, can make you a living. But what if a person owning the land in front of this waterfall exploits the beautiful view on his own?
PAYING FOR ENVIRONMENTAL SERVICES
Conservation is a productive activity. So people that conserve, should be paid. That is the philosophy behind payments for environmental services. Fundación Natura and EcoCiencia want to practise this philosophy in the Ecuadorian part of the Pastaza basin. Their first goal: the Pailón del Diablo.
‘Our idea is to charge the tourists an extra fee for the conservation of the spot’, says Andres Garzón, an environmental economist working for EcoCiencia. ‘With the fee they are paying now, the tourists contribute only to the cleaning and maintenance of the site. But money is also needed to prevent the inhabitants from cutting trees and contaminating the water.’
The Contingency Valuation Method will be used to establish a fair price. Visitors to the waterfall will be interviewed to know what they think the conservation of the site is worth. Garzón wants to hire students for this job, because they are neutral. ‘The inhabitants would tend to push the visitors to fill in a higher amount.’
Once a price is fixed, the municipality, the local council (representing the community) and Wilo should sign an agreement. In exchange for a part of the entrance fee, the community would oblige itself to keep the river clean and conserve its surroundings. Garzón thinks it’s best if Wilo charges the (extra) fee. ‘I want to leave the question of the ownership aside. It is much too sensitive. There is a risk of creating a precedent: if you expropriate Wilo, nobody will want to start a tourist attraction ever again.’
If this case proves successful, the principle of paying for environmental services can be applied on a broader scale, Garzón says. The money tourists spend in Baños now ends up in great part in the pockets of urban tour-operators. But most trips are organised to spots in the countryside. It would be fair if tourists pay a bit more. The tour-operators or the municipality should transfer the surplus to the rural population, in exchange for conservation activities. You can apply this mechanism to the whole Pastaza basin, Garzón adds. ‘Frontiers do not matter, everyone understands the language of money. It is time to stop treating conservation in a moralistic way: we should treat it in terms of profit.’
But he admits that there are some serious obstacles. In the upper part of the Pastaza basin, near Latacunga and Ambato, textile and agrarian industry are heavy polluters. It is not easy to involve such powerful and remote parties in forms of river management, particularly when they are situated upstream, which makes them less dependent on the other parties involved.
Do Fundación Natura and EcoCiencia have other things in mind to help solve the conflict around the Pailón del Diablo? ‘We are not going to mediate,’ says Dania Quirola, who coordinates the Pastaza project for Fundación Natura. ‘The conflict is too complicated for that. We would risk being blamed by one or more of the parties involved. But what we can do is to try to find an external mediator. And we can provide the community with technical advice about how to develop local tourism. A similar project in the nearby Sangay National Park has given us a lot of expertise in this field.’
‘Welcome to the eighth wonder of the world’, reads the sign above the entrance of the restaurant. We have just descended a steep rock-path, preceded by a warning that we were about to enter a ‘private ecological area’. In the distance, the noise of the waterfall is already noticeable.
Before we can see our wonder of the world in the heart of Ecuador, we are urged to pay 50 cents to a boy guarding a chain that closes an upward leading path. A few minutes later we arrive on a platform carved out of the rocks. The scenery unfolding itself in front of us is impressive. Coming from a height of about 60 meters, the Rio Verde plunges perpendicular into a small pool surrounded by steep rock-faces. A roaring thunder and a vaporous haze add to the spectacle.
The waterfall we are admiring is the Pailón del Diablo, or devil’s cauldron. The name is related to the form of the pool as well as to the rock-faces along the sides, which are believed to resemble a devil’s face.
As natural and unspoiled as it may seem, the waterfall has nevertheless become the focal point of envy, squabbles and anger in nearby La Delicia. This hamlet belongs to Rio Verde, a parish of the Andean town of Baños. Tourism is the primary source of income here. And the Pailón del Diablo is undoubtedly one of the main attractions of Baños and its surroundings. It is the most spectacular of the dozens of waterfalls that can be found here. On holidays hundreds of tourists form queues up to the viewpoint, causing serious congestion on the footpath.
The question that divides the parties involved is: can a waterfall be exploited as if it were a private enterprise? On the property issue, Ecuadorian law is crystal clear. Waterfalls belong to the state. But the law stays silent on the rights of owners of land lying close to a waterfall. So the owner of the restaurant and the nearby viewpoint, Wilfrido Guevara, locally known as Wilo, never got into legal trouble when he decided to start collecting an entrance-fee.
In fact, nobody disputes the fact that tourists have to pay to see the Pailón del Diablo. The real debate is not on whether the waterfall should be exploited, but on who should exploit it. Wilo? Wilo together with the community? The community? The municipality? The municipality together with Wilo? And this debate refers only to the spot we just visited, right in front of the Pailón del Diablo. Other inhabitants of La Delicia, with properties overlooking the river, are considering the exploitation of their views as well, as we discover later.
To understand a bit better whose interests are exactly at stake, we take a little stroll through La Delicia, a humble hamlet that is literally divided by the Rio Verde. First, we meet Don Coco. He owns a small shop in front of the public garden, where cigarettes and canned beans are being sold, among other things. ‘When I was a child, there were already tourists coming in, although they were very few those days’, Don Coco says, while his wife serves us a cup of coffee at the only table in the shop.‘The waterfall was called “the hidden treasure” then.’
Wilo bought the land next to the waterfall, which belonged to his in-laws, in 1997. After improving the footpath and constructing the viewpoint, he started asking money from the tourists. A well-maintained tourist attraction – shouldn’t that benefit everybody in La Delicia? ‘Wilo’s title is false and he doesn’t pay taxes’, grumbles Don Coco. ‘He is a swindler! And he steals money from the community!’
Don Coco’s complaint is that the money Wilo gains with the waterfall is not being invested in the community. The conflict rose to such a degree, that Don Coco, together with some other inhabitants of La Delicia, tried to expropriate Wilo – without success.
Don Coco grabs a drawing from a shelf in his shop. ‘Draft for a shelter giving access to the Pailón del Diablo’, it reads. It was issued by the municipality of Baños in September 2004. The drawing includes a ticket shop, a viewpoint and public toilets. ‘This is a good plan’, Don Coco declares. ‘The municipality should levy an entrance fee and invest part of it in the community. But we have not heard anything about it anymore.’
There is one little problem with the plan, and Don Coco knows it: the shelter is projected at the beginning of the footpath leading to the Pailón del Diablo. Tourists wanting to see the waterfall from nearby, will face two ticket-shops in the future: the one of the municipality and Wilo’s.
But still further raids on the tourist’s purse are being undertaken. Walking from Don Coco’s place towards the waterfall, a sign catches the attention. ‘Pailón del Diablo’, it reads, although the waterfall is still quite far from here. A path leads us to a beautiful garden overlooking the Rio Verde and its rapids. Jens Wüller, a German who settled down here eight years ago, receives us while instructing some workmen who are doing up the garden. He looks tired. ‘I’m fed up with all the tourists, some days there are hundreds of them coming in’, he says. ‘So I’m going to move to a quieter place. I’m selling my property to a Canadian guy. I heard him saying that he wants to charge an entrance fee of two dollars.’
That would be the third ticket office in La Delicia. One tends to become a little philosophical: how many ticket offices can a waterfall stand before it runs dry?
Time to eat, we decide. While we are having our lunch in the open air, suddenly a jeep stops in front of the restaurant. Edwin Vieira, director of the tourist department of the Baños municipality, jumps out. ‘Yesterday some congressmen visited Baños’, he tells us visibly excited. ‘They told us that between 200,000 and 300,000 dollars are available for the development of ecotourism in Baños. We immediately discussed it, and decided to build the shelter with that money, together with improving the footpath to the waterfall. We also want to construct an elevator for elderly people and to install public toilets at the foot of the path. If we use only local materials, no nails for example, and contract local guides, I am sure this plan complies with the official definition of ecotourism.’ As quickly as he arrived, Vieira leaves again.
Considering ourselves as part of a living story by now, we walk to the parking lot where the path to the waterfall begins. It is here that the municipality has planned to build the shelter. Amador Ramos, owner of the parking lot, is busy with the enlargement of his restaurant, so he greets us with his wrist instead of his dusty hand. What does he think of the project? ‘I agree. The whole community should benefit from the waterfall. The money that comes from it, should be dedicated to the improvement of ecological footpaths and to social goals. Last week, a man died in La Delicia, and his family could not afford a funeral. There should be a fund for occasions like those.’
Just like Don Coco, Amador Ramos thinks that tourists will be scared off by two ticket offices. In his view, only the municipality should charge a fee, not Wilo.
So, does Ramos himself charge anything to the tourists that park their cars here? ‘I only ask them a voluntary contribution’, he answers. But according to Jens Wüller this is not true: ‘He charges them 50 cents.’
At last, we descend towards the source of all this argument: the Pailón del Diablo. We pass several wooden signs. ‘Don’t touch the plants, flowers and insects, and don’t carve trees’, they urge us. Every hundred meters there is a garbage can. The path is tidy, but it remains unclear what the self-declared ‘ecological’ status of this property is based on. What we do understand, is that Wilo does everything he can to conserve the goose that lays the golden eggs. Foto 212 bordje
Starting from Wilo’s restaurant, there are two paths: the one to the viewpoint, and another one, leading to a 60 year old suspension bridge that offers astonishing views on the waterfall and the river that runs deep down. The other side offers another restaurant, belonging to an estate called El otro lado (the other side). It is run by Paul Malo. The entrance is free, but it remains to be seen if this will be the case in the near future. ‘I have to pay 80 percent of the maintenance of the bridge and Wilo 20 percent’, Malo says. ‘But look, during carnival the bridge lowered about 30 centimetres because people were jumping up and down on it. If nobody is going to support us, I have to charge visitors a fee for it.’ Are we seeing the first signs of ticket office number five? Foto 230 hangbrug
That evening, we meet Wilo and his wife Zoila at their home in La Delicia. After all the rumours we heard, they seem terribly normal – although it can’t be denied that their house is bigger and more luxurious than most of the houses in this hamlet.
‘For four years I have been carrying stones and carving rocks’, Wilo says. ‘The people declared me a fool. And now, although everybody makes a profit from it, they want to take this away from me. But I am not going to share this with people who didn’t contribute to it. I pay my taxes, I am registered with the chamber of commerce and the ministry, I think that is enough…’
‘The project of the municipality is illegal’, Zoila adds, after having served us a big fruit juice. ‘They didn’t invest anything, so if they go ahead with the construction of a shelter, they will have to compensate us.’
Before the municipality came up with the shelter plan, it proposed that Wilo and his wife should share the proceeds of the waterfall. ‘They wanted to keep 70 percent, the rest would be for us’, Zoila remembers with a voice full of indignation. ‘But our lawyers advised us not to do it. It is like letting in the corruption.’
The couple encourages others to add to the tourist development of La Delicia. ‘A hotel would be great’, Wilo says. ‘And there should be public footpaths to other waterfalls as well. I suggested this to the parish council, but they did nothing. They only want our success. This community is not ready for tourism.’
The next day, tourist director Edwin Vieira and environment director Antonio Cardena meet. Because of its sensitvity, they decide to cancel the shelter project. Instead, the long neglected footpaths near La Delicia will be repaired.
The story is to be continued.
Living documents, WWF, june 2005