Interview: Dr Campo Elias Bernal, Founder and Executive Director, FEDEC, Colombia

Interview: Dr Campo Elias Bernal, Founder and Executive Director, FEDEC, Colombia

Dr Campo Elias Bernal has over 21 years of experience in the Colombian National Department of Science, Technology and Innovation (COLCIENCIAS), the last five years appointed as the National Director for Innovation. Dr Bernal is the Founder and Executive Director of the Colombian Federation for Ecotourism, Ecoparks and Adventure Tourism (FEDEC) while he has served as President for two terms at the National Tourism Education Board of the National Service of Learning (SENA). His expertise focuses on leadership in local communities development through nature and cultural tourism, particularly in San Agustin and Lengupá Province. He obtained his Doctorate from the Salamanca University in Spain in the context of which he researched knowledge and innovation management in Sustainable Tourism. He has worked as an international consultant in innovation and ecotourism development for over 10 years and he is currently leading the project “Network for Innovation and Science & Technology in Nature and Cultural Tourism”. Based on your immense experience with the public administration in Colombia, please tell us, now that peace has finally arrived, in what ways can Tourism play an active role in healing, peace-building and job creation in affected communities?

Interview: Dr Campo Elias Bernal, Founder and Executive Director, FEDEC, Colombia

Dr Campo Elias Bernal: The Colombian Government, to face challenges and strengthen the peace process, and with particular care to hot spots, has developed “The Strategy for Tourism and Peace”which is led by the Vice-minister of Tourism. In the recent “International Tourism Day Meeting”, the Tourism Vice-minister invited some local communities to share their experience in applying a “model for strategic management of tourism and peace”. It is worthy to mention that important advances in building peace with the participation of Government, local communities, reintegrated former combatants and young entrepreneurs took place in the following areas: Sierra de la Macarena, Caño Cristales, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Camino Teyuna, Putumayo, Mocoa y Valle del Sibundoy, Darién Chocó, Urabá Antioquia, Montes de María, Palenque, Puerto Nariño and others. Most of the sites mentioned are located in the middle of the jungle, where guerillas found shelter. Now, this tourism peace program represents a brilliant way to convert violent zones to an ecotourism paradise thanks to the beauty of the landscape and the unique, multicultural and biodiverse characteristics of this destination. Implementing the peace process involves careful study of beliefs, values and practices, focusing on sustainability and equity, and at the same time, preserving the individual freedom and way of thinking of Indians, peasants, raizal and mestizo communities.

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In peace scenarios, Tourism can play an effective role in driving people to dialogue, recovering friendship, confidence and collaboration among them. I believe, that trust until now is a critical factor for sustainability. As the peace process progresses, it is expected that local communities will be able to design with the aid of the government a long-range strategy for sustainable tourism. Regarding the issue of flourishing entrepreneurs and employment in tourism destinations, we know of efforts carried out to establish local tourism operators and small business connected to cluster services; however, in my opinion, this could take longer than expected to create jobs and wealth because to set up competitive nature and culture companies is a hard work that demands research, training, new technology and strategies for sustainability. In the middle of paradise, the main problem is not the lack of tourism infrastructure as some think. Beyond inadequate tourism infrastructure, we should be aware of people suffering from poverty, ignorance and violence by the enemies of the emerging peace. According to reports, since the truce of 2016, there is already a great problem with deforestation in regions previously controlled by the guerrillas. Do Ecotourism/Sustainable Tourism stakeholders in Colombia have the power to prevent new conflicts arising between local communities and powerful extractive industries (mining, forestry, shale oil)?

Dr Bernal: All I can say is that municipalities and local communities are struggling to heal life conditions and protect ecosystems against deforestation, water contamination, soil degradation and air pollution. In this sense, a new, green, democratic citizen force has emerged through municipal elections to prevent illegal mining. Already, five towns and villages (Ibagué, Cajamarca, Piedras, Pijao, Arbeláez) have expressed their opinion in the ballot box, saying “No” to mining projects that are a real threat to life and survival. Also, demonstrations have been an instrument against mining projects that could put people and environment at risk.

More difficult is the political and social action to prevent deforestation, taking into account that this is a historical and uncontrolled activity, financed by drug cartels, who need to plant narcotic species in deep forest areas. Some governors, mayors and local leaders have expressed their worries in mass media about the nasty effects of deforestation, but at the end, the situation has changed little.

Some Ecotourism/Sustainable Tourism stakeholders in Colombia are aware that indiscriminate mining and deforestation have terrible impacts on tourism destinations. Despite their green consciousness, they do not have the power to prevent conflicts and environmental destruction until a certain point, neither Government and politicians. Probably, contamination produced by oil coming from gas-pumping systems exploded by guerillas it is expected to be reduced once the peace process with ELN is adopted in the whole country. FEDEC aims to become a pioneer in terms of creating a knowledge-based organisational model for Sustainable Tourism. What are the key characteristics of such a model?

FEDEC was created as a knowledge organization model under my leadership in 2002. We received support from the Vice-Minister of Tourism, Bancóldex (a state-owned commercial bank) and international assistance from Ecuador and Costa Rica. In addition, the Minister of Foreign Affairs invited us to participate in the “1st Pacific Economic Cooperation Council Forum on Ecotourism” held in Quito (Ecuador) in November 2002. Also, FEDEC has received support from the Colombian National Parks Ecotourism Division and SENA, the National Training Service. A milestone was a training travel mission to Costa Rica in 1998 that gathered Colombian entrepreneurs, scientists and government officials so that they could learn from international experiences with ecotourism. In this framework, to be an innovator in the tourism sector means to have creativity, knowledge and commitment; not only to introduce new technology into the value chain, or to be involved in an internet information network, but also to have a community vision so as to transform a territory, embracing education, research and diffusion. At the same time, one has to introduce a knowledge approach into the business model as well as sharing progress with local communities. In the end, innovation is a collective concept related to looking for transforming people´s mind, their way of thinking and decision making.. Based on your experience working in and with the public sector, has the Colombian political class understood that Sustainable Tourism is not about quantitative goals, growth, tourism arrivals and revenue, but rather a wholly different way of doing things in tourism and the environment? Would politicians, for example, even consider including the term and concept of ‘Degrowth’ in their program, understanding Ecotourism as a form of Degrowth (or of avoiding Growth)?

Dr Bernal: Colombia is a country with a very advanced environmental legislation. People know that the law expects them to take care of mountain, paramo, river and wildlife ecosystems. However, the Economic Policy and the State Organization for Productivity is an independent body that has a twofold role in decision-making: employment and investment are goals of high priority, thus an official decision of any Minister and government institution on these issues could bypass environment regulations and what communities and environmental groups claim. At this time, few politicians include the term and concept of “Degrowth” in their program. For instance, it has been very controversial as a measure to avoid building high-rise hotels in national parks territory. In the end, despite efforts made by Minister of Environment, many national nature parks are suffering from industrial and mining activities and contamination.


This is an extract from a much longer interview originally published on Ecoclub.

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