Environmentalists frequent places like Costa Rica, Kenya and the Galapagos for their ecological allure, yet it's rare an ecotourist dreams of exploring Lithuania. But don't be fooled by obscurity; Lithuania's lesser known environmental concerns are both fascinating and tragic, and this summer, New York's Fordham University students will face these issues with bare hands and open minds.
This is not your conventional service trip. If anything, it is a ministry of presence. Fordham's new service project to Lithuania was founded by the Global Outreach
program, or "GO," an organization promoting global service immersion and relationship building. The Lithuania project will examine the need for sustainable agriculture by having students work closely with a progressive small farm. Mostly, the group will seek a more diverse conception of sustainability through immersion in a new community.
"Sustainable economic empowerment is a universal goal," said Eric Horvath, Fordham senior and leader of GO Lithuania, "but I was really attracted to the unique locale of this project. It's going to pull us outside of our knowledge base, expand our preconceptions, and most of all pair faces with the issue of responsible development."
Pairing faces with the issue is what Global Outreach prides itself on. Its short-term service projects do not create the illusion of sweeping in to "help" people or "fix" struggling areas. Rather, they let students be in solidarity with a social justice issue, living immersed in a community to understand its needs on a personal level. It is seeking solutions through relationships — working with people instead of for people.
The GO Lithuania experience will surpass universal notions of carbon cutting and forest preservation by having students analyze a unique and often neglected ecosystem. This localized approach is an essential component of global dialogue on environmentalism, in which a one-size-fits-all mentality often curbs progressive thought.
Fordham students will work with the Auksuciai Farm and Forest Center
in Kursenai, Lithuania. Established in 2002, this non-profit organization educates farmers on sustainable ariculture and empowers them to employ responsible modern farming technologies. Cleaner agriculture is a small but essential movement considering the toxins already taunting the country's landscape.
Lithuania's current environment
Fear is in the air in Lithuania. After radiation from the tragic Chernobyl accident crept across its borders, distrust lingers as their nuclear industry continues to grow. Factories for cement, fertilizer and chemical companies dramatically pollute the air. Studies suggest one-third of Lithuanian air is heavily polluted at any given time, and this pollution has damaged approximately 68.7 percent of the nation's forests.
Aside from unfortunate air quality, tap water is mediocre in most cities. Improper dumping of industry waste perpetuates this poor quality. In terms of biodiversity, many of the country's original plant and animal species are now extinct. Both water contamination and loss of biodiversity are interconnected with agribusiness, and sustainable farming holds many promises for Lithuanians trying to cleanse their country.
Still, overall political apathy lets these ecological crises persist despite Lithuania's early adaption of environmental regulations. What's more, revitalizing national agriculture is a daunting prospect considering the industry's insufficient technological capabilities. Yet small signs of support — such as volunteering at the Auksuciai Farm and Forest Center — surely boost morale among frustrated activists.
Above all, Horvath feels his immersion project will let students spark much-needed dialogue on Lithuania's complex history and pressing needs.
"This country's beleaguered history of 50 years of Soviet occupation — and consequent spike in national pride and identity — offer a fascinating cultural study. Now, during a national hangover from pollution and the 2008 global financial crisis, Lithuania will give us a look into contemporary global issues just as deserving of our attention as those issues of larger countries. People there are trying to fight apathy and talk about sustainable change, and groups like us can help by encouraging dialogue there and at home in New York."
Sustained dialogue upon return to New York is just as important to the GO Lithuania project as the actual week of service. This unconventional mixture of service learning, ecotourism and relationship building will hopefully break through the clutter and complacency of mainstream environmental discourse.
The Global Outreach program as a whole is not an abrupt force of change; rather, it is a stepping stone toward sustained consciousness. After all, a couple of weeks of spreading compost and studying microorganisms won't alter the trajectory of a country's ecological regression. But if volunteers form a personal connection to Lithuania and incorporate that understanding into future activism, just imagine the progressive thought it could foster. In one way or another, such a relationship is bound to create ripples.