Volunteer Abroad with a Clear Conscience
It is understandable why the green lobby and the tourism industry have questioned 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 2013. 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 resources.
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 organisations 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 clear 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 organisation. You also have the assurance that any money paid goes directly to the cause rather than paying for the marketing and administration expenses of a gap year or volunteer placement company. If you opt to work through a 'sending' company please be aware that some of these 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 from 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).