By David Atkinson
Bolivia is not widely known for its biodiversity but the first ever National Day of Protected Areas on 4 September this year aims to change all that.
Bolivia hopes to benefit from ecotourism
Bolivia's 22 national parks and protected areas represent 15.6% of the country's total land mass.
The diversity of the parks is huge, spanning climatic zones from the high-altitude Altiplano of Sajama National Park to Otuquis National Park in Bolivia's tropical, lowland Pantanal.
Amboro National Park, located near Santa Cruz, has more than 800 species of birds alone, while Madidi National Park, north of La Paz, commands 11% of the world's species of flora and fauna.
"There's little knowledge amongst Bolivians about what is a protected area and how it can actually benefit the country," says Viviane van Owen of WWF Bolivia, which is supporting the event and currently manages environmental programmes in Bolivia's Pantanal and Amazon regions.
"There is an overall lack of scientific investigation into our natural diversity due to a lack of funding. Hence it's quite possible that whole new species exist in the parks that we don't know about yet."
It costs from US $250,000 annually to run a park at a basic level, but the Bolivian government - plagued by social unrest and stretched to deal with the country's crushing rural poverty - has a budget of just $500,000 per year for its national park network.
Currently, over 90% of vital funding comes from private sources.
To the Bolivian tourism authorities, boosting tourism to the country's protected areas is seen as the solution to the funding crisis and crucial to moving Bolivia's fledgling tourism industry - 400,000 international arrivals per annum - on to the next level.
As such, Madidi is being touted as the next big ecotourism destination in the Americas with a new airport in Rurrenabaque, the gateway to the park, due for completion in 2007.
The latter is hoped to increase visitor numbers threefold from the current level of 15,000 annual arrivals, of which 7,000 visit Madidi.
The park was pinned firmly on the tourist map in February this year when a team of researchers from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, led by British-born conservationist Robert Wallace, discovered a new species of titi monkey in the park.
The team subsequently auctioned the right to name the monkey via the website Charity Folks, raising US $650,000 for Madidi to be channelled through FUNDESNAP, a private foundation created to raise sustainable sources for funding protected areas.
A Canadian casino bought the name and the monkey was subsequently christened callicebus avrei palatti (Golden Palace).
"We wanted to raise the profile of Madidi and Bolivia's protected areas as a whole," explains Robert Wallace from his La Paz office.
Chalalan ecolodge is entirely staffed by the local indigenous community
"Madidi could well be the most bio-diverse area in the world. To ensure its future, however, it needs a sustainable plan. Tourism can play a vital role to redistribute wealth to local communities, but it's not a panacea."
"With Madidi celebrating its 10th anniversary as a National Park on 21 September this year and the tourism infrastructure in Rurrenabaque growing rapidly, the question now is how to manage the potential tourism boom without harming the fragile environment of Madidi.
One successful project is the Chalalan ecolodge, located five hours up-river from Rurrenabaque in the heart of Madidi.
Chalalan is now managed and staffed entirely by the local Quechua-Tacana community, attracting 1,000 tourists annually and turning over a healthy US $25,000 profit.
Of this 50% goes to pay the wages of 74 indigenous community families working with the lodge, and 50% provides health and education services for the local community.
"Tourism and communities have to develop hand in hand but we are concerned that, in Madidi, all the tourism is currently concentrated into 5% of the park's 1.9 million hectares,"says Oscar Loayza, head of planning for the Bolivian National Parks Authority.
"We have identified five other areas where local families can also benefit from tourism as the instrument to conserve the natural environment and provide an economic alternative for indigenous communities," adds Mr Loayza.
"Bolivia has huge potential for national park tourism given its enormous natural capital, but we are taking a cautious approach.
"Tourism is the means but not the end."