Ever feel as though we’re running out of time to save the environment? Try taking a vacation to solve the problem. In the span of two weeks, you can measure the effects of global warming on Caribbean coral reefs, help repopulate endangered lions in Zimbabwe, or go pesticide-free while planting vegetables on an organic farm in Provence. All three are examples of volunteer vacations, a style of travel that’s become so popular, it now has a nickname: voluntourism. We’ve cherry-picked trips from ten great organizations that allow green voluntourists to work in fabulous countries like Peru or Thailand. You’ll be so captivated by your surroundings, you’ll hardly notice you’re working. (Note: Prices don’t include airfare.)
Grow organic - anywhere in the world
Six years ago, Craig Priestley became a Wwoofer—a funny-sounding acronym for one of the thousands of volunteers with World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, an organization that pairs industrious agritourists with farmers in 75 countries. Today, Priestley himself hosts Wwoofers on his own vegetable farm in the south of France—a testament to how addictive Wwoofing can be. For a small membership fee, you can join the WWOOF organization in the country of your choice. (Many have their own national chapter, but those without one fall under the group WWOOF Independents.) Within a month, you’ll receive listings for farmers seeking workers, many of which read like Craigslist for tree huggers. (One olive grower in Spain boasts: “Great walking in the fresh Alpujarran air, wild Sierra surroundings and nearby river, solar power, strong recycling ethic, kinesiology and holistic massage, food to write home about.”) In exchange for chores such as weeding vegetables, picking currants, milking cows, and sometimes even making cheese, Wwoofers get free accommodations that range from stone farmhouses without running water or electricity to B and Bs, where workers are treated to four-course haute-cuisine meals along with the guests. Another bonus perk: free cooking lessons. “I have a whole recipe book that I’ve learned from WWOOF hosts,” says Priestley, whose ratatouille and quiche would now impress even the most discriminating French cook. “It makes what you’re doing not a job but sharing somebody’s lifestyle.”
Duration: depends on the farm, but two weeks is recommended
Cost: around $20 to $50 to join each WWOOF chapter
Protect Britain's Green Isles
In Britain, the sprawling estates of royalty can be as densely wooded as U.S. national parks. You can help maintain these wildlife habitats by volunteering with the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV). The 47-year-old environmental group offers over 200 projects in the United Kingdom that involve everything from rooting out overgrown reedbeds on the grounds of a Georgian mansion in West Sussex to maintaining footpaths in the forest surrounding a castle in Scotland. (BTCV also offers many similar projects in Britain’s national parks.) The group mainly attracts local Brits, but Americans are increasingly signing on for the chance to work in some of the most beautiful parts of the U.K. You can volunteer beyond Great Britain, too, on one of BTCV’s 35 international trips, which have included exotic options like a three-week tree-planting expedition in Nepal. Volunteers there spend half their trip working while staying in the homes of local people, where they’re fed a simple diet of dal bat (vegetables, lentils, and rice). The other half of the trip is spent sightseeing in the Kathmandu Valley and trekking the Annapurna circuit in the Himalayas, stopping in teahouses along the way. (The Nepal trip is scheduled for 2007 pending the country’s political situation.)
Duration: one weekend to one month (most are one week)
Cost: $113 to $1,666 including accommodation and meals
Protect endangered marine life
In 1971, Earthwatch became the first American organization to popularize the notion of taking time off to work. This year alone, the company funded 155 sustainable scientific projects in 48 countries and 16 U.S. states, all of which were open to its 4,200 volunteers, who help the research teams monitor rainforests, reefs, wildlife, and archaeological sites all over the globe. “It’s work,” says Lisa Silliman-French of her trip to Trinidad to tag endangered leatherback turtles. Her duties also included patrolling a five-mile stretch of beach, to measure how close the turtles were laying their eggs to the shore and to discourage poaching. “It’s not like you tag the turtles and you’re done—you gotta go home and enter data and clean everything. I lost about seven pounds on that trip from walking in the sand.” (And that was after feasting on local curries!) Silliman-French’s work was rewarding enough to merit another Earthwatch trip early this year to Thailand, to study the effects of global warming on area reefs. “I love doing the grunt work for them. These are great opportunities to see what’s really going on in the world—and you get to experience a little bit of the wild, too.”
Duration: two to twenty-one days
Cost: $395 to over $4,000 including accommodation and meals
Build a green dream home
Habitat for Humanity has been building homes for low-income families since 1976—5,549 in the U.S. last year alone. The South Puget Sound affiliate in Olympia, Washington, is one of the organization’s greenest chapters. Since 2002, it has built six green homes; a 15-home development using mostly eco-friendly materials is also in the works. “Our families deserve a decent, affordable place to live,” says construction supervisor Jerry Fugich. “Formaldehyde—that’s what fluffs up [normal] insulation, and that’s also what they use to embalm people,” he points out. The nontoxic insulation that he uses instead makes walls about a foot thick, which lowers heating bills, as does positioning each home to receive maximum heat from the sun. “Having these houses that are really energy efficient frees up the owners’ money so they can pay their mortgage and support their families,” says Sarah Winikoff, 19, who worked on two Habitat homes without having any prior construction skills. “Everyone was so helpful and if you couldn’t do something, there was always someone there to back you up.” There are other perks to the job: On your two days off, Seattle, the Olympic National Rainforest, and Mount Rainier are all within 60 miles. To find other green building opportunities in cities like Denver and El Paso, contact Habitat directly.
Duration: a minimum of five days is recommended
Cost: free, though you provide your own food and lodging
Watch wildlife in the rainforest
The Amazon rainforest, which houses the world’s largest collection of animals and plants beneath its lush green canopy, has been diminishing by as much as six million acres a year. Greenforce sends its volunteers to inventory this fragile, shrinking ecosystem. “The amount of colorful and unusual plants was astounding,” says 19-year-old U.K. native Alastair Rickey, a Greenforce volunteer. “And the wildlife was very apparent—if you were walking with the park guards. They would turn over a leaf with a tiny frog on it, or spot catlike mammals from miles away. And they could call almost any type of bird.” (There are 535 species identified in this rainforest.) The guards work for the Jatun Sacha Biological Station, a field research station on the edge of the eroding jungle that includes a nursery, organic farm, and accommodation in the form of rustic huts. You can arrange to volunteer directly through Jatun Sacha, or book a trip through Greenforce, a volunteer-travel company that sets up everything from orphanage work in India to trips to a surf camp in Brazil. Greenforce trips are aimed at students, but the station itself houses a diverse group of locals and older volunteers who take turns collecting the seeds of rare plants, clearing an area to plant them in, and lending a hand on its farm. After a hard day’s work, volunteers can break for happy hour, which in the Amazon means a 30-minute walk down a dirt road to a small bar stocked with cold beer.
Duration: one week minimum (Greenforce can tailor trips to your time frame)
Cost: $1,900 including accommodation and food
Contact: greenforce.org or jatunsacha.org
Bring cleaner energy to a Peruvian village
Even if you can only get away for a week, you still have enough time to do good in an exotic locale. Kimberly Haley-Coleman understands the average do-gooder’s time constraints, which is why she created Globe Aware in 2000. Instead of two or three weeks of international work, her new nonprofit offers weeklong vacations that combine unique projects and side trips in six fantastic destinations. In Peru, for instance, volunteers stay in a state-of-the-art facility in Cusco where they teach children English and computer literacy. Or they can travel to rural Andean villages, which often lack electricity and running water, to build adobe stoves for cooking—a huge environment- and health-saver, since they use only a fraction of the energy of traditional wood fires and eliminate carcinogenic smoke exposure, which can be equivalent to smoking three packs a day. Like every Globe Aware trip, the extracurriculars are just as eye-opening: Volunteers can visit Machu Picchu and other ancient sites, as well as explore the cobblestoned, colonial city of Cusco. The nonprofit offers other eco-minded vacations too, like a trip to Laos, where volunteers build wheelchairs from recycled parts for locals victimized by land mines, and a Costa Rican restoration project in a national forest reserve.
Duration: one week
Cost: $1,050 to $1,390 including accommodation and meals
Help maintain a national park in the Caribbean
There is an old adage of Sierra Club founder John Muir’s, which roughly goes, “To get people to care about wilderness, you have to lead them to it.” One of the group’s many carrots comes in the form of a volunteer vacation in the U.S. Virgin Islands. On its St. John service trip, volunteers spend half of their days engaged in strenuous projects like maintaining trails and clearing brush from nineteenth-century sugar mills on national park land. Afternoons are spent kicking back: snorkeling or kayaking the crystal-clear Caribbean, hiking the petroglyph-dotted trails, or sipping the local rum during happy hour at the ecological station on the island’s remote southern side. There, volunteers sleep in rustic cabins and dine on buffet dinners (lasagna, fish, and tacos are some recent offerings). The Sierra Club also offers plenty of projects stateside. They run the gamut from challenging nine-mile hikes to a base camp in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness, where participants perform trail maintenance, to less taxing trips on Martha’s Vineyard, where volunteers can stay on a 90-acre farm and collect native seeds for the on-site nursery. But one feature remains a constant: comfort. Even on a backpacking service trip, food and tools are hauled in for you to lighten your load; you’ll have more energy to work and the leisure to enjoy your time off.
Duration: one week
Cost: $295 to $1,645 including accommodation and meals
Restore ecosystems in the American desert
Steve Cole’s first trip with Wilderness Volunteers into Utah’s Glen Canyon National Recreation Area was a bit of a challenge. “We had to walk, with full backpacks, eight miles cross-country without shade or water—just trudging across the hot, stinking desert,” says the Californian retiree. Once he and his trailmates arrived at their base camp, however, he immediately felt the payoff. The remote, red-rock backcountry, says Cole, is “an incredibly beautiful place, and the ranger knows it like the back of his hand”—a real treat during days off, when volunteers got to hike secret canyons few others know of. The work itself is also rewarding: On return visits in the past six years, Cole has helped remove Russian olive, a thorny, invasive weed that is choking Western waterways, from thirty miles of the Escalante River Corridor. Most Wilderness Volunteers’ trips involve similar trail-maintenance work, but some are in the front country, like their invasive species-clearing trip to Kauai, Hawaii, where participants stay in the heart of Koke’e State Park. And budget travelers take note: Each weeklong trip costs just $239.
Duration: one week
Cost: $239 including accommodation and meals
Go solar in Vermont
For the past 16 years, a farmer in the bucolic town of Tinmouth, Vermont, has erected SolarFest, a weekend-long world-music and green-lifestyle festival in July that attracts over 2,000 people—and now he’s enlisting Volunteers for Peace (VFP) to help prepare his 100-acre farm for guests. The project is one of VFP’s most popular “workcamps”—a socialist-sounding term for the international volunteer opportunities they offer each year. A quarter of their 3,000 camps are conservation-minded, and all go for the bargain rate of $500 or less per week, no matter where you go. You’re also guaranteed to meet a lot of internationals on each VFP trip, since usually no more than two people from the same country can attend one camp. For ten days this past summer, for instance, VFPs from Slovakia, Denmark, Korea, China, Spain, England, and France joined the SolarFest camp, where they cleared footpaths in the woods for the festival’s theater and dammed a rushing stream to create a swimming hole. They also took plenty of breaks to hike a nearby section of the Appalachian Trail, visit a local bluegrass festival, and eat communal dinners at the property’s nineteenth-century farmhouse. After the work is done, VFPs get to kick back and enjoy SolarFest. Eclectic acts (like folk songstress Dar Williams) perform, and participants can attend seminars to learn valuable eco-skills like how to make a car run on veggie fuel or how to solar-heat your home’s water supply. It’s probably VFP’s most action-packed conservation project, though trips to fortify the eroding dunes on a tiny island in the North Sea and to maintain biodiversity on the 31 acres of the Mendocino Ecological Learning Center in California sound enlightening, too.
Duration: two to three weeks
Cost: $250 to $500 including accommodation and meals
Walk with the lions in Africa
The king of the jungle is no longer: While 250,000 lions used to roam the African continent, now less than 15,000 remain, a result of disease, poaching, and the settling of once-nomadic tribes in prime roaming areas. Volunteers with African Impact can help the big cats by participating in its repopulation project in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Developed by wildlife biologists, the program gradually reintroduces captive-bred lions into the wild, and volunteers are expected to do everything from bottle-feeding cubs (which look more like lions—a 13-month-old weighs 200 pounds) to cleaning their cages (which are the size of three city blocks) to walking with the adult cats and observing their killer instincts in the bush—which is shared, incidentally, by other big game. “When we were there, we saw herds of 200 elephants—the earth just shook under you as they ran by,” says Mary Alice O’Connor, a time-strapped New Yorker who worked just two weeks with the lions. (Many of the college-age volunteers stayed on for months.) The U.S. government discourages Americans from spending tourist dollars in Zimbabwe under President Mugabe, but it’s hard to argue that African Impact itself is not a good cause. The group has projects in six other countries, too, though the draw of Victoria Falls is hard to beat: During off-hours, adrenaline junkies can get their fix on the Zambezi River’s Class V rapids, while the less adventurous can opt for high tea at one of the town’s 1880s colonial hotels overlooking the falls.
Duration: two weeks to two months
Cost: $1,520 to $4,850 including accommodation, meals, and in-country transport
Before you go
Before signing up to volunteer halfway around the world, it’s worth investigating your potential job, the job’s organizer, and your financial concerns. David Clemmons, industry expert and director of Voluntourism.org, offers a few pointers.
* Volunteer with an established organization (like the ones we‘ve suggested). If yours offers fewer than 20 trips a year, or serves fewer than 200 volunteers a year, you may find yourself a victim of its inexperience.
* Determine if you have the right skill set. If you’re not a numbers person, you probably won’t want to collect data for a field research team—even if you’re in the Caribbean.
* Ask about the intensity of the labor. Will you be spending a full day under the African sun doing backbreaking work? Or will you get afternoons off?
* Speak to former volunteers about their experiences. If your organization can’t produce one, there’s probably a reason.
* Since you will be working in the great—and unpredictable—outdoors, sign up for traveler’s medical insurance, like Travelers Emergency Network (tenweb.com), even if your organization offers basic liability coverage.
* Make sure to ask what the other volunteers are like—are they mostly retired? College students? Church groups?—to find a group you’ll be comfortable with.
* And finally, because you will be donating your time to a charitable cause, it’s possible you can write off your entire vacation. But before booking that first-class flight, ask your accountant if your trip is tax-deductible.
Story by Nicole Davis. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in January 2007.
Copyright Environ Press 2007