My first experience with voluntourism was in Costa Rica at an off-grid turtle camp, La Tortuga Feliz. It was founded by the late Paul Lepourtre after he studied the sea turtles in the area and is now run by long-term international volunteers and the local community. The program generates income for the locals through volunteer fees- providing another way to make a living other than poaching. The local guides take the volunteers out on night-time beach patrols, collecting recently laid turtle eggs and bringing them back to the hatchery where they are protected from poachers.
I showed up after a few bumps in the road not really knowing what to expect. We’d come in at dawn, the noise of the boat waking up the howler monkeys, sending them into yelling fits in the jungle overhead. It was unreal, the area was so untouched and so full of wildlife. The locals are very inspiring in that they make use of any material to build what they need and are some of the most cheerful, friendly people I’ve ever met.
I knew this would be a major learning experience but I don’t think I realized just how unglamorous some of the work would be- i.e. cleaning outdoor toilets. It can be easy to feel disheartened if you’re not able to see big picture, in this case that cleaning the toilets is an essential part of the camp running smoothly! But then all of the sudden you are watching one of the most endangered creatures on the planet go through a massive effort just to continue it’s species and you’re there help. There are the little moments and then there are the big moments, you learn to appreciate both.
I’ve since volunteered in a few countries, both developed and undeveloped and I think the most important thing you can do to prepare for a voluntourism trip is research. You can not do enough research- no matter what part of the world the project is in. I’ve outlined what I think are the most important things to consider:
Who is it run by and who is is benefiting?
Personally I am not comfortable with any program that imposes their views on the local community for their own agenda. For example the founder of La Tortuga Feliz didn’t go over to this secluded community and say “your way of life is wrong, how can you be doing this”, he realized the need to protect the turtles but that it was stemming from the community members having very little opportunities besides poaching. Having the resources to create an opportunity he did, poachers became guides and the project was set up to benefit the local community, not an outside organization.
Is it the best use of your efforts?
Would donating the funds you’re using for your trip have a bigger impact? Sometimes that is the case and you need to have a think about what is more important to you. Of course not always, it could be close to home or you’re already going to be in the area anyways or that they need volunteers on the ground more than anything.
Is it empowering the local community?
This is not just humanitarian programs but a lot of environmental as well. If the answer is no, I would give it a hard pass. It can be difficult to connect with local grassroots efforts if there is a language barrier but in this day and age there are so many language learning and translation resources that you shouldn’t let that stop you.
What are their ethical and sustainable practices?
When experiencing other cultures, attitudes towards the environment and animals can sometimes be very different, even if you’re not very far from home. Make sure the project aligns with your values before going – or if it doesn’t, see if they’re open to you helping green their practices.
What are the social/ safety/ conditions like and what is your comfort level?
This is one you need to be really honest with yourself about. Is there clean drinking water? What are the sleeping arrangements? In Costa Rica I didn’t realize that I would be told not to communicate with the men in the community. Because of the reputation white women have in the country and the seclusion of the community, simple acts of friendliness had been misinterpreted in the past so limiting communication was the camps (possibly misguided..) way of trying to prevent it from happening again. I’d wanted to get to know everyone I’d be working with but then found myself hyperaware of every friendly smile or moment of eye contact. This wouldn’t have changed my decision to go but is something I would’ve preferred to be aware of ahead of time. Getting out of your comfort zone is good for you, but be mindful that you’re not going so far that it becomes a negative or scary experience for yourself. Like with travel or life in general, if you don’t feel safe and it’s not resolvable- know when it’s time to go.
Lastly, I think it is important when doing any kind of volunteer work to realize you’re there to be of service and to examine beforehand why you want to be involved. Voluntourism can be a great way to give back to where you’re exploring and develop new skills but it is essential to check your ego. Sometimes conditions aren’t ideal, people are overworked and it can feel thankless. But if you go in with an open mind, no expectations and a positive attitude then you can make the best of almost anything.