LAKE ACAJATUBA, Brazil — The lancha rapida speeds through a narrow channel — a shortcut in the flooded jungle — en route to a floating attraction where guests can touch the velvety skin of pink dolphins.
Clapboard stilt homes with açaí palms in their yards, centenarian ceiba trees, egrets, and an occasional ecolodge flash by as the launch jets up river in the pelting rain before entering Lake Acajatuba where the rare, fresh-water dolphins are waiting.
The rustic dolphin encounter is run by a family who live aboard an adjoining barge. Tourists, who stand on a submerged platform as several dolphins approach to eat chunks of raw fish, marvel at their rosy color.
Officials in Manaus, the capital of the state of the Amazonas, would like to see many more such visitors and hope Manaus’ turn as a World Cup host city will help boost tourism to the city and the rainforest beyond.
But there’s a delicate balancing act between opening up the Amazon region to more tourism and preserving the environment and resources that make it so magnificent.
“Too much visitation can play against you,” said Ronald Sanabria, the Rainforest Alliance’s vice president of sustainable tourism.
From the air, rainforest trees look like giant heads of broccoli and they stretch as far as the eye can see. But the area has already lost about 15 percent of its forest cover due to logging, dams, oil and gas pipelines, agriculture, roads and mining projects.
Contamination of the rivers that snake through the Amazon Basin also puts the region’s diverse ecosystems at risk.
Even though the government considers encounters with pink dolphins, known locally as botos, to be among the greatest tourism attractions in the Amazon, their numbers have been declining dramatically in recent years.
Fueled by an appetite for piracatinga — the vulture catfish — in neighboring Colombia, local fishermen have been using pink dolphin flesh as bait. In an effort to protect the pink dolphin, in early June Brazil’s Fishing and Aquaculture Ministry announced a five-year fishing ban on piracatinga. The moratorium is expected to go into effect in early 2015.
The World Wildlife Fund says that contamination of rivers and lakes as well as dams that fragment freshwater dolphin populations are also threats.
Unlike some U.S. dolphin encounters, where swimmers are allowed to hold the mammals’ fins to hitchhike a ride, contact is more limited here.
At the dolphin attraction in the middle of Lake Acajatuba, the dolphins swim freely and approach when a trained handler heads to a submerged platform with a small group of tourists and brings out the fish. Only the handler is allowed to feed them and handouts per dolphin are limited to 4.4 pounds — about 10 percent of their daily consumption.
Encounters are limited to 10 to 15 small groups a day, so the dolphins don’t become stressed.
Brazil’s Institute for the Conservation of Biodiversity said dolphin attractions have gradually adopted such protocols developed by wildlife experts but emphasized they are just rules at this point and “are not yet considered laws.”
The Institute views interaction with the dolphins as a way of promoting conservation.
Meanwhile, the pink dolphins, which can grow up to nine feet in length and weigh as many as 300 pounds, continue to occupy a special place in the folklore of the Amazon.
“People say the botos have the ability to come out of the water and take the shape of a man and dress in clothes,’’ said Gilton Barbosa Macujé, a regional tourism guide. “The boto is always dressed in white and he wears a hat to cover the blowhole on his head.
“People say he is very handsome. All the women in the village follow him and he chooses one to follow him back into the water,” said Macujé. Later, he said, the woman returns with a big belly and the story is that the dolphin got her pregnant.
But despite the dolphins’ perceived magical powers, they remain vulnerable. WWF is currently doing river dolphin surveys that aid in determining their status and help with research, and also has an adopt-a-pink-river-dolphin program to provide support to protect them and their habitat.
Although it has become somewhat lost amid news about delays in finishing soccer stadiums and World Cup-related protests, Brazil has made an effort to have a green World Cup. Among its initiatives is promoting sustainable tourism.
The Rainforest Alliance notes that Brazil is a favorite to win the World Cup but it’s also a “winner when it comes to sustainability and biodiversity.”
The Alliance — working with the Sustainable Amazon Foundation and the Community-based Tourism Forum of the Lower Rio Negro — also is helping out by offering training in sustainable practices to hotels, ecolodges and other tourism-oriented business in six communities in the Baixo Rio Negro where the river meets the rainforest.
One of the success stories is the Pousada Garrido in Tumbira, Sanabria said.
The pousada (lodge) is run by Roberto Brito de Mendonça, who used to earn a living illegally cutting timber in the Amazon. Now his lodge, which recycles and uses solar energy, has become a favorite among bird watchers. One of the local guides has learned to mimic the calls of 32 Amazonian birds.
The lodge also has undergone a Rainforest Alliance audit of its sustainable practices, enabling it to earn a green frog icon and use the Rainforest Alliance Verified certification in promotions.
Encanto do Saracá, the thatched-roof restaurant that Doña Saracá opened with her son’s wife, also has earned the Rainforest Alliance Verified seal.
Ecotourism and sustainable tourism are similar in concept but ecotourism must be in a nature setting and have an educational component while sustainable tourism also can be practiced in a city or suburb.
Sanabria concedes that some businesses that throw eco into their names have little to do with sustainability. The air conditioning might blast when no one is in a room or a large excursion boat taking tourists into the heart of the Amazon might spew pollution. “I went to one so-called ecolodge where they had an alligator in a cage in the lobby. That just can’t happen,” he said.
To be considered sustainable, a tourism business must reduce negative impacts on the environment, benefit the local community socially and economically, enhance cultural heritage, and have an effective, long-term sustainability plans in place.
One of the next steps for the Rainforest Alliance is to work with Amazon tour operators to make sure they contract only riverboats and transportation services that use sustainable practices. “We’re just scratching the surface and we need to do more,” Sanabria said.
To encourage sustainability during the World Cup, the Brazilian Tourism Ministry offers 60 Passaporte Verde (Green Passport) itineraries for the 12 host cities. The itineraries encourage visitors to take biking and walking tours, engage in ecotourism practices, eat local, make more contacts with natives and discover the cities in “more authentic ways.”
In the Amazon, there’s a long-tradition of ecolodges. Twenty-six such lodges in the state of Amazonas are registered with the Tourism Ministry’s Cadastur system, but enrollment isn’t mandatory.
George Sobrereira, manager of the 64-room Amazon Ecopark Jungle Lodge along the Tarumã Acu River — about 20 minutes by boat from Manaus — says interest in eco-tourism has been picking up.
“People come from all over the world to be inside the forest and hear the sounds of nature at night,” he said. Lodge visitors drop off to sleep to a cacophony of tree frogs, insects and an occasional howler monkey.
The lodge is located in an Environmental Protection Area where commercial hunting and fishing is prohibited. Guests don’t rough it at the Ecopark Jungle Lodge — all its bungalows are air-conditioned and have hot showers — but learning about the jungle is a big part of the experience.
Its tours include visits to local families where they learn about life on the river, how the caboclos — people of mixed Indian and Portuguese or Spanish ancestry — turn mandioca into flour, tap rubber trees and grow medicinal plants in their gardens.
The Ecopark also offers jungle treks, catch-and-release fishing, night-time caiman spotting and a visit to a monkey rehab center where monkeys who have been domesticated learn how to survive in the jungle again.
Among the Green Passport tours recommended by the government is a trip to the São João do Tupé community along the lower Rio Negro.
Here — about a half-hour from Manaus by boat — the clouds make towering mansions in the sky above a beautiful beach. Stairs cut into the clay and railings made from saplings lead upward to a Dessana Tukana village where Chief Daloma — or Domingos as he’s known in Portuguese — welcomes a group of tourists.
After explaining his people’s creation story, he beckons toward a thatched-roof long house. “Come, let us enter inside our indigenous tradition,’’ he says.
For the past 16 years, he and his tribe have devoted themselves to tourism and selling handicrafts. His brother, who lives in a nearby settlement, does too. Between them, tourism supports some 50 people.
“We want people to know us as we really live, not from what they know from television,” he says “We want to share our culture and our daily lives and also show that we are the guardians of nature.”
Bare-breasted women — wearing fiber skirts — and men adorned with blue macaw feathers and sporting shakers made from animals’ hooves on their ankles begin a traditional dance that Domingos says opens a bridge to the spirit world. The men play long sacred pipes that only they can touch.
Amazonas has about 170,000 indigenous people from 65 distinct ethnic groups, and there have been criticisms that contact with the outside world puts some of the more isolated groups’ culture — and often their health — at risk.
But neither seems to be a concern for Chief Domingos. “We’re prepared to receive visitors,” he says. “They come and spend a little time and leave. It’s not like they’re living with us everyday. If they wanted to eat with us, it would be complicated. We don’t even know the kind of food they like.”