Interview by Yessenia Soto, Rainforest Alliance
“If we design and build safe, well-marked and interpreted trail networks within and between protected areas in Mesoamerica, we can expand public use of and support for parks and provide tangible economic benefits to impoverished rural communities.”
Question: What’s the goal of Mesoamerican Trails?
Barborak: Mesoamerican Trails is a long-term initiative that aims to gradually expand, improve, and connect trail networks within protected areas and through buffer zones and corridors, in many cases using existing pre-Columbian and colonial era routes as well as abandoned logging roads and railroad rights of way. The goal is to construct or improve trails that are well built, safe, educational, supported by good basic infrastructure, and well-marked and interpreted, converting them into magnets that attract increased numbers of local and international tourists. In its first decade, we’ve focused on training a cadre of hundreds of trails advocates, or senderistas, as well as mapping potential trail routes and helping develop a number of pilot trail segments from Panama to southern Mexico.
Q: Where did the idea for Mesoamerican Trails come from?
Barborak: It came out of the Paseo Pantera (Path of the Panther) project , a 1990s Central America-wide initiative funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, which is now known as the Sea Turtle Conservancy. It was the precursor to the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor initiative later undertaken by the governments of the region with support from many donors. One of the objectives of Paseo Pantera, which was implemented in cooperation with governments and NGOs of the region, was to promote the expansion of ecotourism in Mesoamerica as a tool for generating improved livelihoods for rural communities that live in and around protected areas, while also fostering increased support from the public, decision makers, and funders. During a meeting with donors and government officials, we proposed that in addition to creating protected areas and promoting corridors between them, it was necessary to design and construct a regional network of trails and associated basic tourism infrastructure that linked protected areas from Mexico to Panama.
Q: Why was creating a network of trails so important?
Barborak: There are already many short trails in Central America and southern Mexico, but most are steep, swampy, slippery or otherwise unsafe, tiring, and uninspiring — they are poorly designed and maintained, and lack good infrastructure like overlooks, benches, clean restrooms, and directional and interpretive signing and kiosks. Good trails are conservation tools that can also support community development through ecotourism. The world has many successful examples of interconnected trails that receive tens of thousands, even millions, of tourists every year. These include the Appalachian, Continental Divide, and Pacific Crest Trails in the United States; the Bruce Trail in Canada; the Milford Track in New Zealand; the Inca Trail and Sendero de Chile in South America, along with more than a dozen interconnected trail routes in Europe. Most users of these trails do not spend months at a time hiking, but rather several hours to several days hiking short segments of much longer trail networks, just as most users of the Pan-American Highway don’t travel from Alaska to Patagonia! Nevertheless, the thought of being part of a larger and bolder vision inspires many trail users, who become repeat users and often, over the course of a lifetime, do end up traveling considerable distances paddling, pedaling, or backpacking.
Q: The trail concept is closely associated with protected areas and parks, but you are talking about trails outside of the parks…
Barborak: Central America is very rich in natural and cultural resources, such as its indigenous cultures, colonial cities, agricultural landscapes, and historic and archaeological sites. A successful regional trail network would weave across these landscapes, ranging from wilderness areas to colonial cities, indigenous territories, and farmland. To reduce visitor impact on parks, it is best if most tourism infrastructures such as lodging and restaurants are located outside but adjacent to parks, thus also generating more economic benefits for local communities. Also note that we’re not just talking about trails for hiking; we also mean routes for mountain biking and waterways for boating with canoes, kayaks, or sailboats. For example, from Granada, Nicaragua to Limon, Costa Rica, it is already possible to travel by kayak or canoe for several weeks using interconnected lakes, rivers, and canals.
Q: How are communities involved in Mesoamerican Trails?
Barborak: The communities found within and around remote protected areas in Mesoamerica are among the poorest in the region and often have limited economic opportunities. The Mesoamerican Trails Initiative must incorporate these communities in the design, construction, maintenance, and interpretation of trails, and in offering tourists services such as guiding, restaurants, and lodging. We do not claim that everyone in rural areas should engage in ecotourism, which is just as unsustainable as focusing on just one crop or only on cattle ranching. However, we are convinced that expanded nature-based tourism is a means to build more resilient rural economies by diversifying income and employment sources beyond farming, forestry, and ranching.
Q: Are you training community residents so that they can take on this role?
Barborak: Yes. In general, many rural residents do not have much experience as tourism entrepreneurs capable of providing safe, educational, and dependable visitor experiences, so training is crucial. We seek innovators and natural leaders from communities, and we help them build capacity by drawing from their skills and traditions. If someone has been a fisherman, he knows how to handle himself in boats and on the water; if someone was a hunter or a farmer, he knows the land and its natural history — it’s important to use this traditional knowledge in tourism.
With help from the Wildlife Conservation Society, Conservation International, USAID, the US Forest Service’s International Programs, Pronatura, Conservation Osa, the Tropical Science Center, the Legacy Fund, the Government of the Netherlands, and government conservation agencies and NGOs from throughout the region, we have held workshops in all eight countries involving public and private reserve managers and local community members interested in ecotourism. RARE, the World Wildlife Fund, the Rainforest Alliance, and other conservation organizations have also played a key role in training local guides, developing best practice manuals, and supporting pilot projects. A number of exchange visits have allowed for guides, rangers, and tourism entrepreneurs from local communities in and near parks to visit similar sites to learn best practices in trail design, construction, and interpretation, which in a number of cases they have then replicated in their own communities. We have found that peer-to-peer exchanges and joint training are more effective than just having outside experts give courses.
Q: What are the main challenges you have had to face?
Barborak: While the initiative has benefitted from the generous support of a number of donors, lack of sustained and substantial funding has been one big challenge, and we’ve had to piece together funding for workshops and pilot segments from many sources. Another challenge is mapping and defining trail corridors and specific routes, using both mapping software, and then doing layout in the field; this requires a lot of time and trained personnel. Developing trails on private and indigenous lands between parks will also be a long-term challenge requiring development of rights of way and incentives such as conservation easements, payments for environmental services, and other compensation or benefits to land owners so that they do not oppose trails crossing their land.
We also need more human and financial resources for trail construction and maintenance work, which in developed regions is done largely by volunteers. However, in Mesoamerica, it is hoped that this can generate income for local community members.
An additional time-consuming issue is the need to conduct site analysis, and at times, conduct environmental impact assessments so that the trails do not negatively affect fragile ecosystems or cultural heritages. Some conservationists resist opening up protected areas to greater levels of public use; they have a somewhat elitist or purist view and consider visitors a nuisance rather than a resource that’s fundamental to conservation success. This mentality has got to change so that the protected areas may become more user-friendly. If we do not have the support of the public and the tourism industry, it will be difficult to achieve the political and financial support from decision-makers for other conservation priorities such as research, monitoring, law enforcement, or environmental education, all vital for managing and protecting parks and reserves.
Q: Does the growing insecurity of the region affect the creation of trails and routes in certain areas?
Barborak: Here the argument is not about not proceeding, but rather proceeding with due caution. It is true that insecurity can affect the success of any tourism initiative, and that, given the current situation in Mesoamerica, tourism investments in the safer areas of each country and the region should be prioritized and particularly problematic areas put on the back burner. However, look at the case of Tikal and other nearby parks in the Petén region of northern Guatemala, known as one of Central America’s most lawless and unsafe regions. Even so, these parks are visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. Some observers argue that tourism itself helps to control some security problems where it economically benefits many communities and business owners; in such cases there are many vested interests constraining illegal activities. Moreover, if communities have legitimate economic activities, it becomes more unlikely that they will participate in or tolerate illegal ones.
Q: Are there enough tourists interested in trail hiking to make this initiative successful?
Barborak: Visitor surveys throughout Mesoamerica demonstrate that visiting natural and cultural attractions is one of the principal activities carried out by international tourists to the region. Customer satisfaction surveys conducted in a number of parks likewise show general dissatisfaction with the quality of existing trails and other tourism infrastructure. We must do more to promote and improve trails and ensure that tourists have a high-quality experience. Similarly, we need to attract more national and local tourists, who so far have not been an important trail audience in the region. This is important, because people protect what they know, enjoy, and cherish.
Q: How do you plan to attract local tourists?
Barborak: We should start by providing environmental education to children and the youth, creating a culture of protected areas use, particularly among those living near major population centers. The national park systems should do more to promote trails by doing things like offering special free interpretive activities on peak visit days, organizing more visits to parks by students and teachers, and offering free or reduced price admission for local users, among other options. An expanded focus on local visitors is essential, over the long term, for gaining the public support necessary in the struggle for the conservation of important ecosystems and cultural resources. We should also include trail hiking in initiatives linking outdoor recreation and public health, such as the Healthy Parks, Healthy People initiative spearheaded by Australia.
Q: Which countries have the most advanced trail systems in Mesoamerica?
Barborak: Every country in Central America and all of the southern Mexican states have some trails in their protected areas, each with their strengths and weaknesses; for example, Monteverde in Costa Rica, the Quetzal Biotope in Guatemala, El Imposible in El Salvador, Soberania in Panama, and La Tigra in Honduras, which all have some good trails. Belize has several cases of parks with good trails, because community co-management of protected areas there is very strong. What we need is to unite local efforts in broader regional initiatives, think big, and create multi-day destinations. Panama is the first country in the region to have completed, totally through volunteer effort, a border-to-border survey of a potential long-distance trail route stretching from Colombia to Costa Rica, called the Sendero Trans-Panama.
Q: Is there support from public and private sectors?
Barborak: In countries like Costa Rica, tourism companies are already adopting segments of the trails they use and this should happen on a broader scale. There is also growing support from volunteers, public and private donors, and NGOs, but local and national governments need to include trails and their associated infrastructure in their development policies and plans. Tourism ministries or institutes often spend a lot of money on marketing, international fairs, and major infrastructure, but they don’t take into account that this should go hand in hand with smaller but key things like trail systems, signage, and training guides. Feedback from ecotourists regularly underscores the importance of good trails, simple interpretive programs, clean restrooms, and basic infrastructure — not massive visitor centers.