Sustainability and the universal design transcendence, the connection with nature, people, culture, and our native peoples
Comprehending the universal design transcendence
I have always felt the desire to travel, to get to know new destinations, other cultures and connect with people. I grew up in a large family, we were five siblings, and the youngest had a disability that restrained him from developing his motor skills and fending for himself, so family trips were always limited to places we could all get to and enjoy. When it came to outdoor activities such as hiking or improvised walks, we felt more like observers. Consequently, at that time it was impossible not to feel excluded.
I studied architecture, and the university was that first opening into a world full of possibilities. I took an elective out of curiosity: “Barriers free architecture”, and I was surprised by its approach. The elective arose with the need to disappear, because its content and conceptual fundamentals had to permeate and integrate into our curricula and our lives in a cross-cutting way, like sustainability.
That subject allowed me to recognize the causes of that feeling of being excluded that was always implicit in my family, and that had to do not only with the physical conditions of the spaces; I discovered that the biggest barrier was in ourselves. Small significant changes in thought, attitude and willingness generated important changes in other latitudes, demonstrating a scope that had not been foreseen. To think of “accessibility” is to think for everyone and “universal design” is a concept focused on that purpose. It is a process of thinking of all people and in all stages and circumstances of our lives, to ensure the full enjoyment of all our living-spaces.
And here I began my journey to sustainability. I understood the importance of promoting well-being for all, which undoubtedly makes societies and cities happier. I learned to work as a team and to look for answers in other disciplines.
When I was about to finish my degree, 20 years ago, I took another elective, also out of curiosity, and because everyone talked about how much fun it was. We were about 18 to 20 years old and through this elective we learned how to travel on our own to protected natural areas across Venezuela in a conscious way.
The course required us to evaluate tourism facilities, but also related services and activities. The essence of the course was the relationship between architecture and its functionality for tourism activities. We, the students, proposed a list of destinations to vote on. When we selected one destination, we formed committees to organize the trip: accommodation, food and beverages, transportation, entertainment, etc.
Together as a team we then organized the trip to the Canaima National Park, a very unique UNESCO Natural World Heritage site. When we came back from the trip, we did an exchange of the results of our evaluation of the whole experience, and our professor surprised us by showing us examples and possibilities to improve what we had experienced.
That is how we learned the fundamentals of sustainability in destinations, and how to impact a better distribution of tourist money spent, in order to contribute to the local community.
Connecting with nature, people and culture
That trip marked a milestone in my life: I learned to travel and to be conscious in making decisions, to respect nature and the spaces and ways of life of the indigenous people. We crossed the entire country by bus, from west to east and then to the south, to travel in Cessna aircraft into the jungle, and landed in a remote indigenous community where everything arrives by air, even today. It was an incredible experience and my first approach to assessing sustainability in a destination, a protected natural area, also the territory of a Caribbean indigenous people: the Pemón Kamarakoto People.
I was impressed by the level of commitment, training and participation of the indigenous people in the whole tourism experience. We found guides able to speak several languages, and with absolute respect for their values, ancestral traditions, sacred sites and rituals.
Traveling along the Carrao River and entering to the Devil's Canyon in the Auyántepui along the Churún River, to reach the highest waterfall in the world, the famous Angel Falls, was a journey of introspection. It is a feeling that cannot be explained with words, the place is immeasurable but it connects you with your essence as a human being, with the need to live in perfect balance with the environment of which we are part: nature. It was incredibly authentic and magical.
These fortunate coincidences moved my professional interests in a different direction, I started a master's degree in master planning for tourism development. I was part of a consulting team in tourism and heritage planning for several years. We worked for the public sector, in the development of tourism plans for protected natural areas inhabited by indigenous peoples, until the arrival of the "eternal commander" with the "socialism of the 21st century" introduced the ideological component even in development plans.
Since then, the planning and management of our protected areas and tourism has taken a downturn... as has the integrity of institutions throughout Venezuela. Fortunately I was able to take refuge in a plural and "free" space: the Universidad del Zulia. I was trained as a teacher and university education became the center of my activities. For 15 years I worked receiving architecture and graphic design students in their first year of the career, I accompanied them in the transition from their lives as high school to university students, and I provided them opportunities for community service and their final degree projects, while continuing to look for ways to work in favor of our protected areas and indigenous peoples.
Connecting with our native peoples
In 2011 I made an alliance from Universidad del Zulia and two Non-Governmental Organizations, Fundación Etnika (FE) and Angel Conservation Corporation (ACC), presided by Paul Graham Stanley, a British citizen who came on vacation to Venezuela more than 20 years ago and fell in love with its landscapes, biodiversity and indigenous peoples. Paul created these organizations to support his indigenous friends in local development and to drive the consolidation of ecotourism in the area.
Together, we created a working methodology to turn my students' projects into cooperation projects that responded to the needs of the local indigenous agenda. Unfortunately, the political, economic and social pressure in Venezuela, and the authoritarian measures of the government in power suffocated our higher education system and our public universities. We have no budget, so the only thing that has survived in a partial and virtual way is the teaching financed by the students themselves.
This crisis surprised me when I was finishing a doctoral program in Tourism and Leisure at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili, in Tarragona, Catalunya, Spain, which was to be financed by my university. In order to finish it and present my thesis, I had to dip into a crowdfunding campaign. The solidarity and support I received from friends, acquaintances and strangers around the world was impressive. To all of them I owe what I have achieved afterwards. They gave me back trust and the opportunity to keep building my path.
Upon my return to Venezuela, I had an offer to work virtually with the Global Ecotourism Network (GEN), a group of ecotourism professionals and practitioners whom I have admired since I met them, because I firmly believed in the values and fundamentals that they stand for. They are a great working team, reliable, pragmatic, and determined to offer their years of experience and knowledge at the service of all, especially to support the education of future generations about the importance and necessity of ecotourism and sustainability in the world.
Since 2018 I have been the Communications Manager of GEN, a founding member of the Latin American & Caribbean Ecotourism Network (LACEN). In parallel I have been volunteering for FE and ACC in project management and since 2019 I am their General Director. I am also on the board of the Jimmie Angel Historical Project (JAHP), a historical project led by Karen Angel, the niece of Jimmie Angel, the American pilot who first recorded on a map in 1933, the existence of the famous Angel Falls.
In the near future, FE, ACC, JAHP, Biokryptos (another NGO with a project named Tepui Watch, designed to catalog 100% of the Biodiversity of Auyántepui) and local leaders of the Kamarata Valley will be starting with the operations of the first Cultural Center of the Pemón People in the Kamarata Valley and Venezuela. The center will also include a small museum for the locals and tourists alike.
We have been concerned about the progressive loss of the ancestral heritage of this indigenous group, due to the pressures exerted by the context, illegal activities such as gold and diamond mining and smuggling, and the Cultural Center has been a dream that has remained for more than 20 years in the ideal of the community and of all of us who support the local development of our indigenous peoples, as well as the conservation of their heritage as a legacy for future generations.
Marianela Camacho is a Venezuelan professor and researcher at Universidad del Zulia dedicating her work to the Pemón culture, its documentation and sustaining its historical and environmental legacy for future generations. Marianela is the General Director of Fundación Etnika and Angel Conservation Corporation, as well as a Jimmie Angel Historical Project Board Director since 2017.
She has supported Angel Conservation Corporation, Fundación Etnika and the Kamarakotos since 2011 through cooperation projects, educational and training programs and currently she is also the Communications Manager of the Global Ecotourism Network (GEN) and Founding Member of the Latin American and Caribbean Ecotourism Network (LACEN).