An Interview with…Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin

Mexican architect and environmentalist Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin is renowned across the planet as the Father of Ecotourism. Winner of the Colibrí Ecotourism Lifetime Achievement Award, his work includes more than 160 books and articles, and has developed his eco-friendly designs in countries such as Mexico, Dominican Republic, Spain and Egypt. In June Mr. Ceballos-Lascuráin visited Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, and we had the chance to talk with him about the challenges of ecotourism and sustainability, his view on architecture, and the latest four species he added to his 4,366-bird life list.

When did you first start to appreciate nature?
It developed in my early childhood back at Parral – Chihuahua, a small mining town in Northern Mexico. We lived in a colony where the houses of the trusted employees (my father was the company’s doctor) were located at broad collective gardens with big trees surrounding an artificial lake. Many aquatic birds migrated to the lake, among ducks, herons, kingfishers and cormorants. I started observing them with a telescope given by my uncle Juan, and from then on, I was hooked.

Do you recall the precise moment when the term ‘ecotourism’ emerged?
I coined the term ‘ecotourism’ in July 1983, when I worked both as Director General of Standards and Technology at SEDUE (Secretaría de Desarrollo Urbano y Ecología de México) and as Founding President of PRONATURA, an influential conservationist NGO in Mexico. During those days PRONATURA was encouraging the conservation of  coastal inlets of the Yucatán peninsula, which were then key breeding and feeding areas for the American Flamingo. One of the key reasons I used to help dissuade the building works being planned for the area was that there was an increasing number of tourists – especially from the United States – that visited the area for bird watching. I was  convinced that these people could play a key role in the economic growth of rural communities, creating new job opportunities and helping preserve the ecology of the area: ecotourism!

After three decades since the term’s appearance and having been interpreted according to different contexts, do you think its definition has changed?
I think that my definition, as it has been adopted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is still valid: “Ecotourism is a modality of tourism that is environmentally responsible, which consists in travelling to or visiting natural areas without disturbance, and with the purpose of enjoying, appreciating and studying the natural values (landscape, flora and fauna) of these areas, as well as any (past or current) cultural manifestation that may be found there, through a process that promotes conservation, has a low negative impact on culture and environment, a promotes an active and socioeconomically beneficial involvement of local communities.”

The COP 20 will be held in Lima on December 2014. The overarching goal at this event is reducing greenhouse gas emissions, in order to avoid global temperature increasing 2°. In what ways ecotourism can be a choice to achieve this mission?

As it values natural vegetation and fauna, it is evident that ecotourism contributes to minimize deforestation (which is known to increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) and other drastic changes produced by man in our natural environment.

In many cases, a country’s economic growth is not aligned with the conservancy of its natural and historic heritage. According to your experience, what are the main consequences of this form of development?
Regretfully, since the mid-19th century and during all the 20th century, we have experienced the worst destruction of our planet’s natural resources, due to man’s unscrupulous lucrative eagerness and the irrational exploit of these resources. This industrial, commercial and economic development has obviously occurred in a more noticeable way in richer countries. This is how a great proportion of natural and cultural values have been irreversibly lost in these countries. Extreme consumerism has been disastrous for the environment.

Stay tuned for the second part of this interview, where we talk about Héctor’s views on ecotourism in Peru and his opinions on the work of Inkaterra.

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