If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may know that I love it when the name of an organization embodies its mission. First, it just makes sense. I know exactly what to expect. Second, it’s a smart marketing move. A brand is only as good as its name. Earthwatch is a perfect example of good naming in action. It is an international non-profit organization dedicated to environmental research. With scientists, citizen activists, volunteers, students, and educators, Earthwatch works to improve scientific understanding: to monitor populations, protect threatened species and fragile habitats, and research the impacts of climate change. They use their knowledge to inspire change by working with local communities to support human populations while they protect wildlife and endangered ecosystems.
This week I’ve been exploring the interesting intersections between tourism and learning. In some cases, like Return to Freedom (the American wild horse sanctuary) and the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute, volunteer tourists learn directly through work. They help take care of animals, help with research, work on the farm, and help conceive of new sustainable projects. In other cases, like the Texas A&M Volunteer Entomology Training Program, volunteers learn in the traditional way, in the classroom. At EcoTeach, the subject of today’s article, volunteer tourists learn in a combination of ways—through wilderness expeditions (a classroom in the forest), conservation work, cultural exchange, and guided exploration.
In the future, I think we’re going to see a world full of sustainable farms. Our current techniques are unsustainable. We deplete the soil with single-crop harvests. Year after year we grow corn on the same land and each year that land loses more of its vitality and biodiversity. As the microorganisms die, flooded by artificial fertilizers and pesticides, the land becomes increasingly barren. Eventually, that land becomes infertile and we move on, abandoning one wasted farm after another until we have nothing left. Barren soil is prone to erosion from wind and rain. As the last of the life-giving dirt is lost to runoff, the farm becomes a desert. This is how we will lose our green spaces, our food, and our future, unless we start farming responsibly. The Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute is doing just that.
I started riding horses when I was six, just a gangly little girl with eyes that were too big for my face. I cried the first time, not from fear but from pure excitement. I was overwhelmed with emotion, as only a little girl can be. I’ve always loved horses—the way they run, the strong muscles beneath their rippling flanks, the swish of their tails—and I’m not alone. I don’t know that I’ve ever met a little girl who doesn’t love them, even if she’s never seen one in person. It’s just magical that there is an animal willing to let people ride it. The relationship between people and horses is ancient. Horses are depicted in the 25,000 year-old paintings of Chauvet Cave in France. Their influence is obvious in our culture. Horses were pivotal players in our great western migration and in our most famous battles. What better animal to help teach people the value of nature and the importance of conservation than man’s age-old companion, the majestic horse?
Today’s profile doesn’t feature a volunteer company. Instead, it focuses on the other side of the volunteer/tourism binary. Reefs to Rockies is a tourism company, but they have a deeper purpose: conservation. I’m inspired by the work they’re doing. It dovetails nicely with many of the conservation-based voluntour organizations we’ve profiled and demonstrates how a purely for-profit enterprise can give back through responsible, ecologically conscious programs for travelers. I think it’s important to remember that eco-tourism is often remarkably similar to voluntourism: many of the same values and principles apply to both. Eco-tourists choose their programs because, like volunteers, they want to give back. They want their dollars to contribute to a greater good. I think the line between volunteers and eco-tourists is often a blurry one, especially when eco-tourists participate directly in conservation efforts while they travel. For many travelers interested in a vacation, eco-tours are a great way to give back while you kick back.