Thursday 6 August 2009

Volunteer Abroad with a Clean Conscience

It is understandable why the green lobby and the tourism
industry has brought into question the justification for
volunteering abroad and why volunteers sometimes feel like
they are caught in a conundrum.

Global warming is one of the most serious threats facing the
world and some of the leading campaign groups have stated that
the most ethical thing we can do for the environment is to stay
at home. Whilst we can all agree that the best form of travel is
to avoid flying, we should not stop flying altogether. That would
send us back to the dark ages with massive unemployment (1 in 10
people work in the tourism sector), business recession, and
increased poverty (deepening recession, increased unemployment
and worsening poverty is not conducive to creating new lower
carbon technologies and lifestyles).

There are many people who rely on tourism for their livelihoods
and many natural habitats depend on visitors for their survival.
If you want evidence of this you should look no further than
Latin America. Tourism is a big contributor to the economy of
many Latin American countries and the industry generated nearly
US$2 billion in Costa Rica alone in 2007 (three-fifths of GNP).
Tourism helps support some of Latin America's most fragile
natural habitats and if we stopped flying there many national
parks and private reserves will lose their incomes, deforestation
will increase and global warming will accelerate. Unless we
support the people and communities now making money through
ecotourism they have no other choice but to exploit natural

Similarly, it is worth noting the importance of international
volunteers to conservation efforts in the region. Without the
commitment and financial support of international volunteers,
many organizations would be unable to carry out their vital work.
This is because there is generally very little governmental or
outside support for these organisations and the projects which
they manage. Your contribution as a volunteer could help ensure
the long-term survival of a tropical forest or an endangered
species. This is because you are actively participating in the
conservation of that habitat or species. The participation of
international volunteers also enables money to reach grassroots
level of society and this can change a small communities
perception of their environment or an endangered species.

The question of whether it is possible to be an ethical volunteer
seems to largely rest on the ability to make informed choices
before and during your trip. If you choose the right project,
minimise the impact of your travel, maximise the benefits for
local economies, and stay for a considerable period of time, then
you can most definitely volunteer abroad with a clean conscience.

It is worth mentioning the importance of choosing the right
project before setting off and the key message is - do your
research if you want to so some really valuable work. Prospective
volunteers must examine the work they will be doing and how it
affects local people and the natural environment. Although there
are some good placement companies out there, a do-it-yourself
placement is the most ethical form of volunteering as you work
directly with the host organization. You also have the assurance
that all your money goes to the cause rather than paying for the
marketing and administration expenses of a volunteer placement
(sending) agency. If you opt to work through an agency please be
aware that some of these agencies offer little more than
glorified holidays and others are more interested in making money
than helping the environment or providing sustainable and
well-targeted help for local communities. No one benefits from
these placements apart from the companies that organise them. An
ethical volunteer ensures that as much of their money as possible
reaches the grassroots level of society. Eco-conscious travellers
should consider contributing to a project that helps reduce the
impact of climate change and/or provides a hands-on approach to
offsetting their own carbon emissions.

It is also worth mentioning the length of time volunteers spend
overseas. You are clearly going to do more harm than good if you
travel all the way to Costa Rica from the UK (a carbon-heavy
8,700km flight) to rescue sea turtles and stay for only a few
weeks. To maximise the benefits for local communities and negate
the environmental impact of your flight you need to contribute to
a project for a much longer period of time. A long stay is more
sustainable if travelling long distances as this will enable you
to minimise the impact of your flight. The time spent as a
volunteer is time not spent contributing to carbon emissions in
your home country (i.e. non use of home appliances, zero
emissions form you car, etc). A long stay also eliminates the
need to take several shorter holidays throughout the year.

In reality, the dramatic growth in short breaks and cheap flights
is a more pressing issue than questioning the justification for
volunteering abroad, particularly if volunteers wish to devote
their time and energy to do something positive for the
environment. Those who want to stop us flying should focus more
on the business and the leisure side of flying rather people
wanting to make a difference (e.g. those that fly with a
purpose). The destruction of the Amazon and other tropical
forests around the world should also be a priority for campaign
groups (e.g. air travel accounts for less than 5% of carbon
dioxide emissions, clearing tropical forests for agriculture is
estimated to produce 18% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions
- more than the entire global transport system).

Stephen Knight is the webmaster of Volunteer Latin
America and the main contributor to the Latin Lounge
( We enable
volunteers to work abroad without paying large
participation or placement fees. We are your gateway
to independent volunteering in Central and South America.
Learn more at:

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