South America is one of the planet's prime ecotourism destinations. Many of the isolated nature lodges and tour operators around the country are pioneers and dedicated professionals in the ecotourism and sustainable tourism field. Many other hotels, lodges, and tour operators are simply "green-washing," using the terms "eco" and "sustainable" in their promo materials, but doing little real good in their daily operations. Responsible Travel (www.responsibletravel.com) is a great source of sustainable travel ideas with listings on South America; the site is run by a spokesperson for ethical tourism in the travel industry. Sustainable Travel International (www.sustainabletravelinternational.org) promotes ethical tourism practices, and manages an extensive directory of sustainable properties and tour operators around the region.
Deforestation is the main threat to South America's fragile ecosystem. Farming has virtually wiped out most of the region's rainforests, and logging is a major threat. Such destruction has been devastating to many species, including man himself, in the form of displaced indigenous tribes, and has led to drinking-water shortages, flash flooding, and mud slides. Though environmental awareness is growing, solving the region's huge environmental problems, including not just deforestation but the effects of overpopulation and industrial pollution, clearly remains an uphill struggle. Your hotel will often be your best bet for finding a place to deposit recyclable waste, especially if you choose a hotel that has instituted sustainable practices.
Volunteer travel has become increasingly popular among those who want to venture beyond the standard group-tour experience to learn languages, interact with locals, and make a positive difference while on vacation in South America. Volunteer options are listed under "Special-Interest Vacations," below.
Gold mining in San Juan, soya planting in El Chaco, global warming in South Patagonia, and pulp milling on the River Plate are all hot environmental issues in Argentina at the moment. Despite having one of the best national park systems in the region, the country's protected areas are under threat from encroaching development.
On the bright side is a growing awareness amongst the populace that they are in danger of losing what they have. A forest preservation law was introduced in 2007 prohibiting deforestation, and Mendoza's provincial congress issued a blanket ban on mining, though it was later overturned by the governor. Argentina's main weapon against environmental damage is its utter vastness and underpopulation, yet lax government control, little tradition for conservation, and rampant development are all cause for concern.
Bolivia, one of the world's most biodiverse countries on earth, is home to 60 protected areas, including 22 national parks, which covers an impressive 15% of its total territory. Many of the protected areas, however, are in constant threat from oil companies and loggers, who seemingly avoid any crackdowns from the government. The extraction of the significant lithium reserves in southwest Bolivia had led to frequent protests around Uyuni, but thus far they remain untapped. Natural gas reserves, once a significant source of revenue for Bolivia, have lost their value; as buyers in neighboring countries turn elsewhere, new explorations have come to a halt.
Only a few hotels have jumped on the green train in Bolivia thus far, including La Posada del Inca on Isla del Sol and Chalalan Ecolodge in Madidi National Park.
Brazilian resorts and tour operators do advertise "ecotourism," but in Brazil this means anything that takes place in the outdoors, be it leave-only-footprints nature hikes or churn-up-the-wildlife ATV expeditions. It does not signify lodges or hotels with solar heating or clever ways of dealing with waste water, or even outdoor operators that take particular care of their local ecosystems.
In Brazil's two most vulnerable remaining ecosystems -- the Pantanal and the Amazon -- there are tourism operators who strive to protect their local ecosystems. In the Pantanal the Araras Eco Lodge and the Jaguar Ecological Reserve have helped to popularize the private ecological reserve, a Brazilian program through which the government provides tax breaks in return for a landowner committing to preserving a portion of his in perpetuity. The presence of ecotourism operators in the Pantanal has also provided a lobby to counter certain ill-advised development schemes, including the paving of the Transpantaneira highway, and the widening, straightening, and deepening of the Rio Paraguay, the better to transport soybeans to the coast.
In the Amazon, the Pousada Uakarí serves as an integral part of the Mamiraua Sustainable Development Institute (www.mamiraua.org.br), a project designed to preserve the habitat of the Uakarí monkey while improving the living standards of local human populations living in and around the Uakarí reserve. Other Amazon lodges come nowhere near this standard, though they do provide some local employment for guides and other lodge staff. Unfortunately, the miniscule scale of ecotourism operations in comparison with the employment and revenues generated by the timber and cattle industries has rendered ecotourism a nonplayer in the debate over preserving the Amazon.
However, one could argue that those who experience the Amazon become more likely to lobby to save it. Certainly, awareness of the importance of the Amazon, both globally and in Brazil, has led to the passage in Brazil of a range of reasonably stringent preservation measures, including parks, reserves, Indian reservations, national forest lands, and restrictions on deforestation on private landholdings. The problem in Brazil is that these regulations are often not respected, while enforcement on the ground remains weak. Still, rates of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon have declined, from a 2004 peak of 27,400 sq. km (16,686 sq. miles, an area somewhat larger than Vermont) to 12,911 sq. km (5,035 sq. miles, an area somewhat smaller than Connecticut) in 2008.
The principal environmental problems that confront Chile are deforestation and air, water, and land pollution. Santiago is one of Latin America's most polluted cities, and air pollution there has become an acute problem; children and the elderly and infirm are frequently advised to stay indoors for days on end due to dangerous levels of toxic pollutants that enshroud the capital. Rapid urban expansion, industrial emissions from the copper mining sector, and the increased volume of car traffic are cited as the main causes of Santiago's air pollution. Mining is responsible for releasing the chief air and water pollutants, including sulfur dioxide and arsenic. In 2000, the city faced an unprecedented pollution emergency when over 200,000 vehicles were prohibited from driving on the roads and offending industries were shut down. Fortunately, in the last few years, environmental issues have taken a more prominent role in domestic politics and, while the pace is slow, government initiatives have gone a long way to improving the situation.
The indiscriminate logging of Chile's temperate forests has resulted in the tragic disappearance of thousand-year-old forests. The most publicized case of illegal logging, which has been taken up by environmental agencies, including Greenpeace, is that of the rare alerce tree, which is found in the Andes and can live for up to 3,500 years. Many animals are in serious risk of extinction throughout the country, as well. As of 2001, of the 91 listed mammals in Chile, some 16 species were registered as endangered. Almost 5% of Chile's 298 breeding bird species are threatened with extinction, most notably the tundra peregrine falcon, the Chilean woodstar, and the ruddy-headed goose. Also threatened are four types of freshwater fish and over 250 plant species.
Chile hasn't made great strides in the sustainable accommodations arena, although eco-conscious lodges are popping up in Patagonia and the Lake District.
Colombia is facing significant environmental risks. At the current rate of deforestation, experts estimate that Colombia's jungles will completely disappear by the year 2050. The logging, mining, gold, and emerald trade, as well as the illicit coca trade, has caused massive deforestation at a rate of 1.5 to 2 million acres a year. Mountain scraping for farming has caused previously forested and vegetated areas to turn into semi-arid desert zones, and road and home construction in rural areas is threatening the country's biodiversity. In addition, improperly disposed sewage, pesticides, and herbicides have contaminated many of the country's rivers and lakes, making the water undrinkable. Factory and car pollution continues to be a major problem in cities.
Oil exploration and mining operations continue to be the biggest environmental threats in Ecuador. In addition to impacting the environment, these activities also impact a variety of indigenous groups, whose way of life, culture, and ancestral homelands are severely threatened. This has led to numerous protests, and sometimes violent clashes between indigenous groups and the government. The Galápagos Islands present their own special set of challenges in terms of environmental protection and sustainable development issues. Isolated, unique, and delicate, the Galápagos are threatened by overexposure to tourists, over fishing, and the introduction of non-native species.
Deforestation is the main concern in Paraguay, as big agro-businesses come from Brazil and Argentina to clear forests and plant genetically modified plants. On paper the country has an impressive list of parks and reserves, but because of poor public access, underfunded government bodies, and corrupt local officials, it seems the only people that get to enter these biologically diverse areas are ranchers and lumber companies.
Peru has 72 million hectares (178 million acres) of natural-growth forests -- 70% in the Amazon jungle region -- that comprise nearly 60% of the national territory. Peru has done a slightly better job of setting aside tracts of rainforest as national park reserves and regulating industry than have some other Latin American and Asian countries. The Manu Biosphere Reserve, the Tambopata National Reserve, and the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve are three of the largest protected rainforest areas in the world, and the government regulates entry of tour groups. Peru augmented the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, which was created in 1996, by 809,000 hectares (nearly 2 million acres) in 2001. INRENA, Peru's Institute for Natural Resource Management, enforces logging regulations and reseeds Peru's Amazon forests, and in 2008, President Alan García created the country's first Ministry of the Environment. A handful of Peruvian and international environmental and conservation groups, such as ProNaturaleza and Conservation International, are active in Peru, working on sustainable forestry projects.
Yet Peru is losing nearly 300,000 hectares (740,000 acres) of rainforest annually. The primary threats to Peru's tropical forests are deforestation caused by agricultural expansion, cattle ranching, logging, oil extraction and spills, mining, illegal coca farming, and colonization initiatives. Deforestation has shrunk territories belonging to indigenous peoples and wiped out more than 90% of the population. (There were once some six million people, 2,000 tribes and/or ethnic groups, and innumerable languages in the Amazon basin; today the indigenous population is less than two million.) Jungle ecotourism has exploded in Peru, and rainforest regions are now much more accessible than they once were, with more lodges and eco-options than ever. Many are taking leading roles in sustainable tourism even as they introduce protected regions to more travelers.
Uruguay is often called the most European country in South America, not least because most of its natural forests have been cleared for agriculture and there is little or nothing left of large wildlife indigenous to the region. The few nature reserves that exist offer little out of the ordinary, though there are some seal colonies worth visiting along the coast. The hot environmental issue at the moment is a dispute with Argentina over two massive pulp mills built on the Uruguayan side of the River Plate, which are badly polluting the riverway. The Uruguayans have denied this claim.
Since over 90% of Venezuela's population lives in a narrow urban belt along the northern coast, much of the interior is seldom visited and oft forgotten. Still, Venezuela has the third-highest rate of deforestation in South America, and the country's oil industry has caused massive environmental destruction in the Lake Maracaibo area, and to a lesser extent in Los Llanos. Gold, iron, bauxite and coal mining operations have also had a negative impact on the environment. That said, Venezuela has the largest percentage of protected land, with some 55% of its total territory protected in some form or another.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.