How To Tread Softly On The Inca Trail
Machu Picchu, Peru (Photo: Matthew Barker)
By Maureen Santucci
More than a few globetrotters have Machu Picchu on their bucket list and, in particular, hiking the Inca Trail to get there.
And why not? It’s up there on the list of “things to do before you kick it” for a reason. Every pack-toting arrival to Peru has guidebook-inspired clichés of mist-shrouded lost cities rolling through their imaginations as they make their way to the trailhead.
But what many of those would-be Hiram Binghams don’t know is that there is another side to the world famous trek, and that the choices they make when choosing how to hike can have direct human and ecological consequences on a local community that is more fragile than it might seem.
On one hand the growth of trekking in Peru has brought numerous benefits for the country and many of its people, creating jobs and industries to cater for all those mini-adventures. The ratio of tourists to support staff on the trail is something like 3 workers for each trekker, meaning huge employment opportunities for local people.
But those benefits have often come at a price.
During peak trekking season some villages wave goodbye to virtually all their working-age males who make the perfectly rational decision to abandon their traditional livelihoods in favour of the infinitely more lucrative job of carrying supplies and equipment as porters on the trail.
Although these workers can bring home plenty of welcome extra dosh, the distorting effect on the local economy can be profound, with farms going untended, markets un-stocked and traditional livelihoods such as weaving and animal husbandry left in terminal decline.
In addition, what used to be a relatively equal division of labour and earning potential between men and women has become skewed heavily in favour of the local men, not all of whom necessarily head straight home to their families with their earnings.
Not all trek operators contribute to this distortion of local economies. The most enlightened outfits are owned by locally run cooperatives that involve the entire community. Other operators take a conscientious approach to recruitment, working with the communities that supply their labourers, contributing to local health, education and social programs and helping to make sure that the entire community benefits from the booming industry.
A notable example is Wayki Trek, formed in 1998 by a group of indigenous guides from the surrounding rural communities and pioneers of sustainable tourism, with programs to improve employment, education and health care in their own communities.
Porter welfare on the trail is another thorny subject and there can be massive inconsistency between trek operators in the conditions that their porters are expected to work. There is now legislation which governs the maximum weight that porters can carry, that requires all porters to be equipped with shoes (such luxury!) and requirements for minimum wages. Whether or not operators apply those rules is another matter.
The operators that charge the lowest prices are cutting into porter welfare in order to pay for cheaper prices: Trekkers who deliberately seek out the cheapest possible option should know that it’s the porters who pay the difference.
Generally speaking, great progress is being made in the development of an equitable and sustainable trekking industry in Peru. There is now a porters’ union and shoes, clothing and health insurance are all now mandatory, if not universally provided.
More importantly, there is a growing appreciation of the impact that trekker’s own buying decisions can have, and a new breed of operators have emerged that cater for a more conscientious traveller. People are starting to ask the pertinent questions before booking: what is your approach to porter welfare? What work do you do in your communities? How will you mitigate our environmental impact?
And more trekkers asking more questions, and agreeing to pay slightly more for the experience, can only help.