So what’s it like being an environmental volunteer in the developing world? I can only answer as to my experiences here in Peru, but the same things hold true in many other places.
For me, this year has brought a lot of big challenges beyond just from being a long way from home and working in a foreign language and culture. The toughest stuff has been the reality of my work: good environmental management depends on understanding the problems out there and the resources that are available to (try to) deal with them, and sometimes can be quite shocking.
Working here has meant:
- Being confronted with horrific levels of pollution and contamination, like the poisoning of the Madre de Dios River in the Amazon from mercury used in illegal gold mining.
- Seeing first-hand impacts of climate change, like the disappearance of the tropical glaciers that once provided a secure water source for the city of Lima and the whole Rimac valley.
- Hearing about park rangers being attacked and sometimes killed in confrontations with the illegal miners, loggers and cocaine producers that exploit the protected areas.
- Seeing levels of poverty that leave you numb, because there is nothing you can do about it beyond feeling guilty for the wealth you enjoy.
- Watching companies get away with environmental crimes like illegal dumping, toxic spills, water theft, and every other type of non-compliance with environmental laws and requirements because of a lack of political will or the resources required to do anything about it.
- Understanding that poverty, poor education, lack of resources, cultural clashes, a history of war & violence, difficult and remote terrain, plus a determination to get what you can NOW because the future is very insecure all contribute to the huge environmental and social challenges this place faces.
On top of work, there’s the reality of living in Lima and the daily dance with the crowds and the crud and the crime. Lima, a city of almost 10 million people crammed together, with all the resultant noise, traffic and chaos. Lima, with its heavy-metal contaminated water and food supply and the most polluted air in Latin America, where the winter drizzle is less refreshing rain and more liquid smog. Lima, where you go to work one morning and find out your workmate was involved in a shoot-out with car thieves over the attempted theft of his dad’s Toyota Yaris. Seriously.
You realise, bit by bit, that this is how much of the world lives. That Peru has been going through an economic boom and that the Lima I know is an improvement on what my friends and colleagues grew up with. It dawns on you that the Shining Path rebels only stopped blowing the place up two decades ago.
Helping out at a climate change adaptation workshop for indigenous Amazonian communities
Surveying catchment headwaters on horseback, high in the Andes
Patrolling the main lake by canoe one perfect summer morning at Los Pantanos de Villa
It can be grim sometimes, but of course there’s good stuff too. As well as getting to grips with a vastly different culture and finding fluency in another language, the volunteer experience comes with a special set of benefits. For me these include:
- Meeting wonderful people doing amazing things in sustainable development, education, environmental management and other sectors, who have taught me so much and will inspire me for many years to come.
- Making friends with people who share my passion for the environment and show me the places that make their hearts sing, building relationships that will last far beyond my time here.
- Getting the chance to participate, rather than just observe a different culture. From getting up and dancing to taking part cultural events or just celebrating a birthday in the office, I’ve been able to really dig in to the culture and learn what it’s all about.
- Being able to visit parts of the country most people don’t get to see, not as a tourist but as a valued colleague and friend, and experience the genuine heart of Peru.
- Introducing people to new ideas and different ways of doing things, teaching what I know, and watching my colleagues build their abilities and confidence as a result of my being here.
- Developing new tools and designing better approaches for managing protected areas that can start to fill some of the gaps in knowledge and resources, and will hopefully contribute to better environmental management long after I’m gone.
This year is about the small ripples of change that, with luck, will grow and keep on spreading. It’s about the effect this experience has on me, my understanding of the world, and the skills and understanding I will take with me. It’s about the relationships and partnerships that will stretch far beyond this year as we keep sharing knowledge and inspiring each other. It’s about so many things that are bigger than me and far more important than the down-sides of being here and doing what I do. It’s about doing something that makes a real difference.
When my project ends I won’t be sad to leave Lima, but I will miss all the positive parts of the experience and I know this year will strongly shape the paths I choose to keep walking.
Checking out the MABOSINFRON private conservation concession in the Amazonian region of Purus