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Sustainable Tourism and Land Use – Making Good Decisions

Most of us in adventure tourism are already involved in sustainable, responsible and even regenerative ecotourism. After all, when we break these concepts down, they are mostly simple common sense. When Mother Nature is your boss, and you run a small or micro business on a tight budget, it’s easy to understand the basic concepts of sustainability. It essentially focusses on ensuring that the resources that we use today to run our business and live our lifestyle, will not run out in future. The fact that many of our activities take place outdoors in a natural environment make many of us Ecotourism operators. And if we can run our businesses in a way that actually improves the area we operate in, we are in the regenerative tourism space. When we focus specifically on the local community and improving conditions for the people living there, we are involved in responsible tourism. The concept of Fair Trade tourism includes all of the concepts – the trade is a fair one for everyone involved, including the functioning natural ecosystems upon which our enterprise and lifestyle is based.

Having said that, the biggest challenge is often around how to identify what we’re already doing and build on it to actively structure our businesses, our products, and our actions as individuals and companies into a coherent framework that means something beyond a string of trendy phrases. And it’s so confusing!

Is electrifying everything really best if our electricity is generated by burning coal? How do we recycle if there is no recycling service where we are located? Our guests demand bottled water, where do we get it from? We want to train local people to work in our operation but there always seem to be problems with alcohol abuse. Our clients are extremely price sensitive so we how can we afford to pay our facilitators a living wage? How do we make decisions about which action is “best”?

There are various ways of approaching this, and various tools available. Most people have heard of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, usually depicted as a colour coded grid of boxes, each identifying one focus area. Of course, life doesn’t happen in separate boxes, and anyone who works in nature understands that everything is an ecosystem, with everything being interconnected. “All life is one”, as Charles Darwin said. A better way of showing the SDGs is through the ‘wedding cake’ infographic below (developed by the Stockholm Resilience Institute) – this begins to show how they are related and suggest how they could be weighted (not all SDGs should be equal).

Another very useful, visual representation is the “Sustainabuild” model developed by Tobias Luthe and Michael van Kutschembach. This model aims to show how everything we do is built on functioning natural ecosystems. The concept of ‘carrying capacity” is directly related to this, as different ecosystems and contexts, can ‘carry’ or sustain different levels of activity before they are damaged. Balancing on the base of nature, are our cultural values, which vary greatly across different groups of people. We can easily see how a shift in cultural values has the potential to bring the whole building down! Think about how there has been shift in cultural values over the last few decades to our current approach of rampant consumerism – we can all tell where that is going to take us – it’s common sense, right? On this strong but carefully balanced base, are the twin pillars of social wellbeing and economic wellbeing – both equally important, and both enabled by the roof of technology – these are the tools which humans develop to attempt to achieve social and economic wellbeing. And encircling the whole structure is “participation” – without the participation of the people involved, the information that is used to construct the structure will be lacking and the whole thing will collapse.

The simple answer is that making sustainable choices isn’t just a tick box exercise, especially if you run your business in the more remote parts of the country. It requires thought and judgment but, if you embrace the fact that there is actually no difference between a ‘sustainable’ business and a ‘successful’ business (in other words, one that will earn you a living, make you a better person and make the world a better place), you realise that “sustainability” isn’t an extra thing to worry about, it's the only thing to focus on.

That’s where an over-arching decision-making framework can be very useful, enabling us to guide ourselves to make decisions that are better for ourselves, other people, the land and the economy. The Holistic Decision Making Framework was developed in Zimbabwe by Alan Savory, initially as a land management tool to respond to the crisis of desertification that he was observing both at home and globally. It involves a very simple method that enables one to properly include and consider all of the relevant factors that should lead to an optimal choice being made. It immediately became obvious that the same principles apply to all decisions and choices, not just land management. After all, all of the challenges we face are as a direct result of human decisions, and better decisions can change the world.

This model can be applied to decisions at all scales, from individual lifestyle choices to running a country. It helps us make nuanced decisions because it recognizes that context is everything. This is an overview of how it works: The aim of the process is to help us make decisions that are socially, economically and environmentally sound in the short, medium and long term. The process can be used at all scales, from an individual to a country. Often, the end result will be the decision to start a process rather than a single action.

It starts with defining the ‘whole’ – this could be you as a person and your lifestyle, it could be your family unit, it could be one element of your business, it could be your entire operation. The process begins with defining exactly what you are trying to manage and then identifying the decision makers involved as well as the resources available (all kinds of resources, not just natural or financial).

From there, the next step is to ‘articulate the context’ – here, the aim is to think about the total environment that feeds into the decision/s that you are trying to make. This includes statements about your purpose (what you do and why you do it) and the qualities associated with it (these include ethical aspects such as trust and integrity as well as ‘quality of life’ aspects such spending more time outdoors). It’s similar to defining a Vision, Mission, Objectives etc but it’s more useful because it’s linked directly to actual decisions you make.

After that, you consider the actual outcomes that you need (the ‘enabling actions’ on the diagram below) – Savory calls these the “forms of production” – what you need to produce to achieve the purpose and qualities you’ve identified as your context. These are phrased in terms of outcomes rather than methods – the methods you choose to use going forward to achieve these outcomes is where the actual decision-making process comes in!

Finally, once you’ve defined your own holistic context, you use it make good decisions on an ongoing basis. There are 7 guiding questions that allow you to quickly ‘filter’ each option when you are making a decision.

I’ve found this site very useful in explaining the holistic decision making context – it also has further links if you want to delve a little deeper.

What I like about this approach is that it can be used at all scales and in all sectors. It’s infinitely flexible and customisable – you define your own, fact based context – and it includes intangible but essential elements like values, feelings and beliefs. It was developed right here in the African bush so its grounded in common sense and reality.

We are human animals, part of the ecosystem on planet earth. The decisions we make at all levels determine our reality. If even a fraction of the decisions we made were sound, our world would be a different place.

About the Author:

Marie-Louise Kellett owns Gravity Adventures with her husband, Andrew. She studied environmental and geographical science at UCT a very long time ago and has always been interested in sustainability. She believes that tourism in the greater sense, has the potential to fundamentally shift our economic system since, by its very nature, it represents the place where economics, nature, culture and feelings meet and overlap.

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