Roberval Tavares
Ashoka Fellow since 2022   |   Costa Rica

Roberval Tavares

Roberval is changing mindsets around disability and building the infrastructure in Latin America to make natural spaces accessible to all. He collaborates with the public and business sectors to…
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This description of Roberval Tavares's work was prepared when Roberval Tavares was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2022.

Introduction

Roberval is changing mindsets around disability and building the infrastructure in Latin America to make natural spaces accessible to all. He collaborates with the public and business sectors to ensure that tourism destinations are fully accessible, while building capacity at the community level to receive visitors so that the new market contributes to local development. By bringing more people with disabilities outdoors, Roberval is challenging perceptions of what they can and cannot do.

The New Idea

Roberval is expanding the definition of accessibility to go beyond physical changes and towards changing mindsets to ensure that people with disabilities feels welcome. Using nature tourism as an entry point, his work seeks to demonstrate that making spaces inclusive is both a right and an opportunity to create value for all, such as fostering the preservation of ecosystems and economic development for the most vulnerable communities. He collaborates with the full spectrum of stakeholders in the tourism sector to build an integrated infrastructure for accessibility across Latin America.

As a visually impaired biologist working in Costa Rica, one of the most biodiverse places in the world, Roberval was struck that people with disabilities, who account for 15% of the world's population, were largely excluded from enjoying nature. To bring this population to natural parks, he began organizing accessible, sensory ecotourism tours where they could do outdoor activities such as hiking, swimming in the ocean, and being in contact with animals. His research showed that these experiences, which were often visitors’ first time in forests or beaches, had an impact on their physical, mental, and social wellbeing. Roberval also discovered that by involving different senses, people with and without disabilities could connect more with natural ecosystems and become more conscious about the importance of protecting them. Further, improving inclusion contributed to economic development in the area by creating new job opportunities for local people with disabilities and allowing community-based tourism providers to tap into a new market.

Roberval is expanding the definition of accessibility to go beyond physical changes and towards changing mindsets to ensure that people with disabilities feels welcome. Using nature tourism as an entry point, his work seeks to demonstrate that making spaces inclusive is both a right and an opportunity to create value for all, such as fostering the preservation of ecosystems and economic development for the most vulnerable communities. He collaborates with the full spectrum of stakeholders in the tourism sector to build an integrated infrastructure for accessibility across Latin America.



As a visually impaired biologist working in Costa Rica, one of the most biodiverse places in the world, Roberval was struck that people with disabilities, who account for 15% of the world's population, were largely excluded from enjoying nature. To bring this population to natural parks, he began organizing accessible, sensory ecotourism tours where they could do outdoor activities such as hiking, swimming in the ocean, and being in contact with animals. His research showed that these experiences, which were often visitors’ first time in forests or beaches, had an impact on their physical, mental, and social wellbeing. Roberval also discovered that by involving different senses, people with and without disabilities could connect more with natural ecosystems and become more conscious about the importance of protecting them. Further, improving inclusion contributed to economic development in the area by creating new job opportunities for local people with disabilities and allowing community-based tourism providers to tap into a new market.



After a decade of testing, refining, and validating his methodology with researchers at Centro Socioambiental Osa, in 2020 Roberval created the Inclusive Tourism Consortium of the Americas (CONTURIA) to scale his vision throughout Latin America. Working with ambassadors in different countries, CONTURIA engages a network of public institutions, businesses, and NGOs led by the disability community to push for policies and standards for inclusive tourism. Further, it involves grassroots organizations and small businesses to raise awareness, build local capacity to receive visitors with disabilities, and ensure that this new market benefits the community. The organization is currently present in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Colombia, and Brazil. In the next few years, Roberval seeks to grow this network to more countries and create strategies to integrate efforts across the region, such as an online platform where all accessible destinations and services can be easily found.

The Problem

People with disabilities constitute the largest minority group of the world's population. The latest data from the World Health Organization estimates the number of people with disabilities at one billion, 15% of the total population. In Latin America and the Caribbean alone, 14.7% of the population (around 85 million people) have some type of disability, according to the World Bank. Beyond disabilities, most people experience some level of mobility limitations over the life-course, such as the elderly, pregnant women, parents with young children, or people who have suffered injuries. This is especially relevant considering that by 2050, nearly 2 billion people or 21% of the world's population will be over the age of 60, as the United Nations reports.

Despite staggering numbers and existing laws that protect their rights, in practice people with disabilities or restricted mobility frequently face inadequate infrastructure, prejudice, and other restrictions to participate fully in society. The tourism sector is no exception. While the industry is increasingly responding to the needs of travelers with a disability, implementation is still uneven and up to 56% of people decide not to travel due to a lack of accessibility, according to a study by the Spanish foundation Adecco. Similarly, the Spanish Network of Accessible Tourism explains that these potential tourists face numerous barriers when traveling, which fracture the value chain of the tourist experience and make tourist destinations inaccessible.

Excluding a large segment of the population from the recreational, education, and health benefits that tourism can offer can be considered a violation of human rights. It also represents a missed economic opportunity: a 2018 study in Spain by Fundación Adecco estimated that if all national destinations and tourism services were made accessible, they would attract 3,342,226 new tourists and generate around 90,806 new jobs . The problem is magnified in nature tourism, where adapting infrastructure can be particularly challenging.

People with disabilities constitute the largest minority group of the world's population. The latest data from the World Health Organization estimates the number of people with disabilities at one billion, 15% of the total population. In Latin America and the Caribbean alone, 14.7% of the population (around 85 million people) have some type of disability, according to the World Bank. Beyond disabilities, most people experience some level of mobility limitations over the life-course, such as the elderly, pregnant women, parents with young children, or people who have suffered injuries. This is especially relevant considering that by 2050, nearly 2 billion people or 21% of the world's population will be over the age of 60, as the United Nations reports.



Despite staggering numbers and existing laws that protect their rights, in practice people with disabilities or restricted mobility frequently face inadequate infrastructure, prejudice, and other restrictions to participate fully in society. The tourism sector is no exception. While the industry is increasingly responding to the needs of travelers with a disability, implementation is still uneven and up to 56% of people decide not to travel due to a lack of accessibility, according to a study by the Spanish foundation Adecco. Similarly, the Spanish Network of Accessible Tourism explains that these potential tourists face numerous barriers when traveling, which fracture the value chain of the tourist experience and make tourist destinations inaccessible.



Excluding a large segment of the population from the recreational, education, and health benefits that tourism can offer can be considered a violation of human rights. It also represents a missed economic opportunity: a 2018 study in Spain by Fundación Adecco estimated that if all national destinations and tourism services were made accessible, they would attract 3,342,226 new tourists and generate around 90,806 new jobs1. The problem is magnified in nature tourism, where adapting infrastructure can be particularly challenging.



Although there is a growing consensus in the sector that change is needed, in Latin America there is a dearth of information and expertise to guide public policies and business decisions towards inclusion. Meanwhile, existing laws are weakly enforced. The few initiatives that exist are siloed, rarely led by people with disabilities, and mostly focused on urban areas. Furthermore, solutions tend to be limited to physical improvements such as ramps and designated bathrooms and do not address social barriers such as prejudice or lack of relevant training. Services with more advanced infrastructure are often expensive, such as luxury hotels, which widens the gap in access.

The Strategy

Roberval partners with government institutions and natural parks to advise planning, development, and regulation of nature tourism destinations to become more inclusive. He involves communities around the area as well as the private sector to build the capacity to receive visitors with disabilities and other mobility challenges. At both of these levels — grassroots and policy — Roberval puts the voice of people with disabilities themselves at the forefront.

CONTURIA’s approach starts with assessing accessibility through on-site visits with groups of people with different types of disabilities, who explore the destination as tourists and then share feedback. Beyond providing insights to inform planning, these visits are the starting point to raise awareness in the community and change mindsets about disability. For many locals, it is the first time they see people with disabilities in positions of leadership and moving freely.

Leveraging his experience in community organizing, Roberval then establishes a core network of cross-sector stakeholders that co-design and co-lead inclusion plans and take ownership after CONTURIA leaves. The network includes disability-focused NGOs, community organizations, public institutions, and businesses in the tourism sector such as hotels and travel agencies. With this network, CONTURIA provides recommendations for improvements and supports authorities through implementation. For example, they worked with Marino Ballena National Park to design an inclusion strategy, such as making the beaches and hiking trails wheelchair-accessible and training staff to conduct sensory tours. In Corcovado National Park, inclusion criteria have been integrated as a key pillar in the 2022 management plan, meaning that it will be part of the framework guiding all governance decisions. Roberval is also advising the Salvadoran Tourism Institute to improve the accessibility of their natural parks, in collaboration with the Ministry of Tourism and the University of El Salvador. So far, 5 destinations have been assessed and trained in El Salvador and 15 more are in the pipeline.

Roberval also engages local businesses to make sure there is adequate infrastructure for visitors, from hotels to transportation and tour operators. Attracting a new market with large potential thereby becomes an incentive for the private sector to invest in accessibility, which has knock-on benefits for locals with disabilities both in terms of access to services and opportunities for employment (such as becoming guides for Sign Language tours). In Colombia, Roberval advised and trained 43 different companies in partnership with the Ministry of Commerce, Industry, and Tourism to establish accessible routes in the coffee-growing region of Antioquia and promote the destination to attract visitors.

After piloting at the local level, Roberval harnesses the results and learnings to replicate nationally. In Colombia, for instance, the positive results in Antioquia convinced the Ministry to expand the model over the next few years to other destinations in the country with accelerated growth in tourism. Roberval is also collaborating with the municipal government of Pérez Zeledón, one of the largest regions in Costa Rica with multiple natural attractions, to pilot the first canton-wide strategy for accessibility in tourism infrastructure. The plan was developed in 2021 as part of Ashoka’s AYNI program for Local Innovators, which involved creating and engaging a local network with 9 NGOs, 4 public institutions, and 36 tourism businesses to co-create a policy proposal. Roberval aims for the experience to serve as a blueprint for other cantons and eventually for an integrated national plan.

At the same time, CONTURIA grows to new countries through a network of ambassadors who are usually other NGOs focused on disability rights or leaders with disability in the tourism sector. These ambassadors connect CONTURIA with local government institutions, private-sector networks in the tourism industry, and universities. Roberval seeks to bring together different partners into a regional network to build the market for inclusive tourism. Through CONTURIA, members can share their experience of implementing inclusion measures in ecotourism destinations, which fosters adoption of best practices. They can also form independent collaborations with the aim of improving coordination to establish a more integrated value chain that facilitates travel for people with disabilities or reduced mobility, stimulating demand. Roberval is currently building an online platform that will help members advertise their accessible tourism offerings and other resources in one place, making it easier for potential visitors to find the information they need to plan their trip.

To further scale his impact and ensure it is sustainable, Roberval is identifying policy partners and decision makers to introduce regulations and incentives for inclusive tourism. More broadly, since tourism touches on multiple sectors (such as hospitality, transport, parks, and recreation, to name a few), it is an ideal entry point to push for inclusive development. He is working to pass national laws in Costa Rica and El Salvador that would require an accessibility audit for all tourism enterprises prior to legally registering as a business. In Costa Rica, a proposal has been submitted to Congress and in El Salvador, an initiative in the same line is being drafted together with the Ministry of Tourism and the Legislative Assembly. To build the evidence base for interventions to improve access to nature specifically, Roberval continues to use Centro Socioambiental Osa as a research lab, investigating the health benefits for people with disabilities and other conditions.

The Person

Roberval was born and raised in Brazil and was fascinated by animals for as long as he can remember. He also craved adventure, influenced by his father who was a Marine in the Brazilian army and often took Roberval along in his travels. After studying biology at university, his first great expedition was to the Brazilian Amazon, where he spent a year among its rivers and forests working with indigenous communities. His passion for wildlife took him to Costa Rica to obtain a Master’s degree in Wildlife Conservation and Management. There, he developed pioneering research on the conservation of jaguars in the Osa Peninsula with organizations like the WWF and The Nature Conservancy.

The relationships he developed with local communities in Osa exposed him to the entrenched inequalities that were hindering conservation efforts. He galvanized groups of farmers, fishermen and indigenous communities to organize so they could seek support from government institutions and international organizations. As a result, decision makers became more aware of the needs of communities that had been largely disenfranchised and more resources became available to invest in schools, clinics, and other projects. To formalize this work, in 2004 Roberval established the Osa Socioenvironmental Center (Centro Socioambiental Osa) together with the grassroots organized groups and researchers from around the world. He systematized the organizing strategy into a Community-Based Biological Conservation (CBBC) Model, which grounds conservation efforts in the socio-economic development and political empowerment of local communities. Roberval has spread this model through conservation initiatives in the Andean Region and Africa, such as the Andean Cat Alliance (a research group he co-founded) and the Alliance for the Conservation of Large Carnivores (ACGC) in Ecuador.

In 2005, Roberval’s passion for wildlife changed his life in a different way: he lost 97% of his sight through exposure to toxins from working with jaguars. Roberval was suddenly confronted with the vulnerability and exclusion of people with disabilities. He launched a study through the Osa Center to assess the needs of this population in the area and was surprised to find that, along with expected concerns such as health and employment, people highlighted tourism and experiencing the natural parks around them among their top priorities. In 2008, Roberval convened a group of experts and community members to respond to the issues surfaced by the study and in 2010 formalized it as an NGO, the Association for Inclusive Development of Osa, reaching over 1,000 people. By 2011, he had developed the annual program Inclusive Osa: an initiative that brings people with disabilities from around the world to Osa to explore the forests, mountains, and beaches in partnership with hotels and airlines. Based on this experience, in 2020 Roberval stepped back from the Association to establish CONTURIA, with the vision of changing policies and standards to scale his approach and make inclusion the norm.

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