This is another guest post written by my beautiful globe-trotting, environmentalist of a friend Clare! We were luck to have Clare previously share her thoughts on animal encounters whilst travelling in the post; Ethical Travel [Part 1] (a must read). Today I have successfully nagged her enough to come back and share further thoughts and insights into ethical travelling, this time taking a closer look at volunteering overseas.
Voluntourism i.e. volunteer tourism
Given there are over a billion globetrotters annually, it isn’t surprising that many travellers with that contagious travel bug are beginning to seek something more from their travel experience. This little extra something may be a home stay experience, a local nature tour, or perhaps a volunteering program, as opposed to the traditional lazing by a resort pool (although this can be lovely also!). Volunteer tourism, or voluntourism, is becoming increasingly popular as people look for a more meaningful experience, and as a result a new billion dollar global travel industry has emerged. When I travelled overseas previously I often thought about volunteering and trying to help in some way, however I understood that volunteering isn’t so simple, in fact it is rather complex. So, before embarking on my voluntourism journey I had to ask myself the following questions (and many more that I can’t possibly fit in this post);
Is volunteering going to do more good than harm to the community?
Many voluntourists could be harming the communities in which they are trying to help by taking valuable jobs from the local workers, especially when some voluntourists pay for their experience. Volunteering can also have different and unforeseen impacts on communities. For instance, I met a few motivated voluntourists caregiving orphaned children in Colombia who said that the children were afraid of attaching to the volunteers knowing that they would soon be leaving. These young children experienced a great loss as each round of voluntourists came and went. Some organisations that I researched had a minimum volunteer period of 3 months, whilst others were not so regulated and volunteers could come and go as they wished. Volunteering can be harmful, but if well researched, I believe it can do more good than harm. As volunteers, tourists, or voluntourists, it is imperative to research thoroughly to find the best option for doing the right thing and help where it is most needed. Finding the right organisation is the next step and leads me to my next question;
Which organisation and what cause am I willing to volunteer for – and do I have the right skills to help?
Like many others I know, I didn’t just want to sight see whilst travelling South America, I wanted to find an organisation that I could support by volunteering, use my skills in environmental science and conservation, then continue to support through fundraising back home. However, in the lead up to my departure I learned first hand just how hard it is to find a volunteering program that not only fit my backpacker’s budget but also one that seemed truly legitimate. There seemed to be too many organisations that were more focused on satisfying the voluntourist rather than the cause. I understand that there is a lot of money to be gained by having volunteers pay for their experience, and organisations want it to be a good one, however I felt that the growing business of it all had shadowed the original motives for volunteering. I decided that I had to see the organisation’s work with my own eyes before committing to pay for a volunteer experience (as I soon found practically no volunteering programs were free).
Image source: Unsplash
This resolve led me to the edge of the jungle in Bolivia where a small Amazonian animal refuge was being run by passionate locals and volunteers. It was quite a challenging journey to the refuge (rivalled Indiana Jones’ jungle treks), as a main bridge had collapsed during a landslide; unfortunately Bolivia is victim to frequent landslides, largely due to clearing forests. We stumbled for an hour up and down the very muddy and steep rainforest slopes and it was such a relief to find our destination. The refuge seemed well-run although largely under resourced, so I really hoped my time and money would be used in the best way possible to help protect and conserve the Amazonian species brought there.
We had a dramatic start to our first volunteer day when the one and only very large Black Spectacled Bear (Balu) escaped and sat at our breakfast table trying to gnaw at a bottle of Coca-Cola. We all watched in awe from the locked office, bemused at his obsession with the sugary drink. All the animals that were here were victims of poaching and the illegal animal trade or had been used for entertaining tourists; hence they knew and loved the sugary taste of Coke. I worked with Amazonian birds that had broken wings (from poachers and sellers) so that they would never fly again. The monkeys were brought up by people and had no knowledge of foraging in the wild. The puma had been taken as a cub and did not have the skills for hunting. It was all very overwhelming and very upsetting, however what was also depressing was the fact that no animals were being released, the most vital step for successful species conservation. We were effectively working in a zoo that was not open to the public. I soon realised that I should have been more scrutinising with my research and looked for organisations with the appropriate rehabilitation techniques (something I had previously experienced whilst volunteering in Thailand). But releasing bears and pumas and ocelots into the Amazon rainforest is a very complex thing in itself and every step along the way requires huge amounts of time, expertise and a lot of funding.
Image source: Unsplash
I can reflect back and say I definitely value the experience I had, despite my disappointments, as it showed me the further complexities of animal rehabilitation and voluntourism, especially in countries where corrupt governments and a thriving illegal animal industry heighten the challenges animal conservation face. The refuge manager and I spoke very seriously about the future of their work and how education of tourists and locals was vital to help attack the root of the problem – the poaching and sale of animals on the black market. It is not sustainable for the refuge to keep taking in more and more animals that were unlikely to be ever released. Sadly, many animal refuges are similar in that they lack the funding and government support to release the animals after correct rehabilitation techniques have been implemented.
The growing industry of Voluntourism is clear evidence that many people want to help, which is heart-warming in itself. It is just so important that the organisations facilitating this growing volunteer support are heavily regulated and managed to ensure that no corruption or environmental or community harm results. Supporting an environmental cause in other ways, through the way we travel, consume, live, can be the real decider on how to make a positive difference and reduce our negative impact on the globe, for instance, like buying Rainforest Alliance Certified Products or trying to reduce flying and carbon emissions by travelling overland instead. I believe voluntourism is not just about giving back in some way, it’s also a great bringer of awareness. It is a way to show people of how other people and animals live and often struggle, whilst reminding us to truly appreciate what we have. When done right, volunteering can put our resources to good use and every individual story that comes from a volunteering experience can help spark new thinking by spreading the word about issues that others face in the world and how we can all help in some way.
Image source: Unsplash
Moral of the story? Research, research, research. If you have a volunteering story or any thoughts on this incredibly complex topic, please share below!! Again, thank you to Clare for sharing her experiences with us!