Belize Starfish

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With all of the volunteer organizations in operation today, it’s a wonder they aren’t in conflict with each other more often. Organizations are drawn to popular areas—places where tourists naturally go and where volunteering opportunities are likely to be in high demand. It would logically follow then that organizations would be vying for the same villages in the same spectacular locations. So how do organizations prevent conflict? How do they ensure the wellbeing of the communities they serve while ensuring the wellbeing of their own volunteer programs? How do they avoid exploiting a particular site for its massive tourism appeal? How do they make sure the people and wildlife come first?

Clearly one of the best ways to accomplish all of these things is to form a meta organization, an alliance of volunteer outfits with common goals that oversees a particular region and works with new organizations to maintain a high standard of service. The Mesoamerican Ecotourism Alliance is a perfect example of a meta organization in action. The MEA is “an alliance of local organizations and projects committed to the development and promotion of sustainable tourism as a means for supporting conservations efforts in Mesoamerica.” Their mission is to “protect wildlands of globally significant biological diversity by building local capacity through the development and promotions of sustainable tourism as a means for supporting conservation efforts…” They monitor projects in Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Southern Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama.

Floating Town MEA

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Like other tourism heavy conservation projects, the MEA works closely with local communities to identify their needs and to protect them from well-meaning tourism groups who do more harm than good. They are the oversight I often see lacking in oversees tourism hotspots. But they aren’t a government committee; they are a consortium of tourism organizations that recognizes it is in everyone’s best interest to protect the culture, land, wildlife, and people that attract visitors in the first place. Without that protection, the industry would undercut its own interests by damaging the very thing it needs to survive. It’s a great example of the needs of a community and the needs of industry coinciding. It’s the opposite of Roosevelt’s diplomacy: this is negotiation and crisis resolution on the ground floor.

Southern Mexico MEA

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Indeed, the only way tourism can support conservation is if the tourism is regulated and held to a recognized standard. A single organization can do a lot of good, but a group of organizations all working towards a common goal can do much more. As the volunteering and tourism industries grow, I hope to see more of these meta alliances. I don’t think we can hope to maintain a responsible industry standard without them.

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