Censorship & Playing It Safe in the Rain Forest

When tour guides have to suppress the truth in order to keep their jobs

Posted Jul 29, 2014

How are you going to remember all of this? Flashbulbs (quite useless, actually) are going off left and right. Things you've never heard of are skittering under rocks. Rocks are covered in moss that doesn’t look like the stuff growing back home. Bird calls (if you listen carefully) are different from the ones you hear back home. No crows and chickadees and robins in the middle of this glistening paradise. These calls are coming from creatures (not all of them birds) whose names you need help pronouncing.

And that help is there. Your guide (we’ll call him Oscar for now) is very willing to help. He’s young and enthusiastic. He’s just graduated from one of Costa Rica’s national universities. Does any country in Central America have more universities per capita? You’ll have to Google that question when you get home. Oscar has his Master’s degree in zoology. He wants to tell you everything about all those creatures and sounds and flowers and trees that surround you.

You and Oscar and half a dozen other tourists are in a very special place right now. You’re not just walking through the forest, the way you did yesterday. You’re above it. You’re sitting in an aerial tram, precariously balanced on a cable, hovering over a hundred feet above the ground. You’re looking down at the tops of the trees. Some of the taller trees still dwarf you. Even from high above the ground you’re still looking up at part of the canopy. You can reach out and touch tree trunks and leaves, although you’ve been told gently but firmly not to do it. You don’t want to upset the car’s balance by grasping for souvenirs.

There’s a second reason to sit still that makes less sense to some of the tourists. Don’t mess with the ecosystem. It’s pure. The national slogan is pura vida. Pure life. It’s in balance. It doesn’t need any arrogant, clueless, selfish primates stomping on things and grabbing souvenirs to show Aunt Sadie in New Jersey. Nobody would stomp through her living room, grabbing lampshades and ashtrays for their private collection. The rain forest isn’t a souvenir shop. You’re looking at harmony here. Everything has a place. You can’t take something away without impacting something else. You need proof you were here? Take a picture. And please, no flash bulbs. Even those might be damaging.

For the most part, tourists try to do what’s right. After all, these are not a random sample of overbearing, loud, ignorant tourists that one expects to find at an all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean. These are self-selected visitors from all nations who have an interest in nature, concern for the environment, and curiosity about the world around them. Oscar jokes with us and tells us to hang on to our cameras and iPhones carefully. He calls the glistening ground below us a “camera graveyard.” Don’t contribute to it, he cautions us.

The trip is wonderful but there is something wrong. Oscar points to as many exotic species as he can. He describes basic biological principles like diversity, competition, adaptation and natural selection. He talks about symbiosis: how species co-evolve, each “helping” the other survive just by doing what comes naturally. He uses examples we can see before our eye: toucans eating brightly colored berries that contain seeds, and carrying those seeds to locations far enough away from the original plant to minimize competition and maximize the chances of survival. The bird loves the taste of the berries, carries them in his digestive system until they are deposited in a fertile new home. The berry plant (with its shiny red fruit to attract the birds) says “thank you for carrying my progeny to an ideal new location for germination” and the birds say “thank you for providing me with such a delicious and plainly marked meal.” Everything works together in quiet harmony. As Oscar reminds us, there is nothing in the rain forest that doesn’t have a job to do and doesn’t pull its weight. If either were true, that thing, whether bird or beak or eye or flower or berry would not last long. Nature is very economical. It’s a ruthless efficiency expert. You don’t have a job or do that job well? Out you go.

Oscar explains all of this with admirable clarity. Biology for beginners. Adult education in the best classroom you could imagine. But there’s one problem. Nowhere in this whole biology lecture that Oscar delivers from the rear of the tram does he use the words “Evolution” or “Darwin.” He’s just explained evolution through natural selection as well as anybody could. And if anyone deserved credit for its discovery, you’d think Charles Darwin might get the nod. But both words are conspicuously absent from Oscar’s lecture.

So after we’re safely on the ground, I stroll up to Oscar (I don’t dare use his real name here) and commend him for a job well done. He thanks me and then I ask, “So how come Darwin and evolution didn’t make the show?”

And he explains: He’s not allowed to mention them. He and all his colleagues have been instructed not to. Most of the tourists are from North America and the tour guides have learned that many Americans don’t seem comfortable with the idea of evolution or the name Darwin.

“Some of them get very upset. They start the old ‘It’s only a theory’ stuff even though they have no idea what a 'theory' means in science. They tell me I have no right to leave the Bible out of it. One of them told me I was going to go to Hell for what I was doing here.”

So here in the middle of the Costa Rican rain forest, you can’t speak Darwin’s name. Fundamentalist religion has demonized him. Ignorance and its handmaiden Fear have made it impossible to teach biology, much as they once did Astronomy. In the middle of a rich ecosystem where you can literally watch Darwinian processes at work, you have to withhold using certain words or risk offending religious tourists. A single complaint could impact tourism, not to mention cost you your job.

And there you have it. Once more, American right wing theists rear their scientifically uneducated heads, and try to block the transmission of fundamental knowledge. Oscar had to turn his back on a golden opportunity to educate adults and children, alike. Ignorance and fear prevail over science. Young, scientifically educated people in Costa Rica want to share with pride what they have learned. But they come up against a very low ceiling because most tourists come from North America. In general, Americans are no longer an educated, curious, scientifically literate people. They have become a fearful, superstitious, religiously indoctrinated people. More believe in reincarnation, ESP and communication with the dead than believe in evolution. Certainly more understand reincarnation than they do evolution. Americans have abandoned the natural world for the supernatural. Our teachers and even our tour guides are sent to work with one hand tied behind their backs. If they speak the truth they could lose their jobs.

Here’s a closing exercise: Substitute Darwin for Galileo, evolution for “the Earth is at the center of the universe” and right-wing evangelicals for the medieval Catholic Church. What’s changed?

Thanks to: Yana Hoffman and Kataline Trudel.