Earthwatch Expedition

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The more I read about voluntourism, the more I realize how in-demand eco-friendly projects have become. In part, I’m sure this is a result of trends: caring about the Earth has become a popular culture movement, and that’s great. But whenever something becomes popular, it also becomes the focus of our capitalist machine. Part of me squirms at the idea that something so important would be co-opted by an industry to make money. It’s my idealistic side. I still feel, deep in my heart, that we should all do things for the purity of them, not for the industry. I know I’m being naïve and impractical. The more people who care about the Earth the better, regardless of how they go about spending their money. Still, I am hyper aware of the interplay: ideology vs. capitalism. It’s a puzzling tension and I think being aware of it makes us more critical consumers, and that’s important.

Ecotourism has been around for a long time. The International Ecotourism Sociey, founded in 1990, has been promoting responsible, sustainable travel for over twenty years. Their focus is on conservation and community building. They share these goals with many voluntourism companies and I’m surprised, looking at their website, that they haven’t partnered with any. It seems like a logical (and profitable) meeting of the minds: ecotourism and voluntourism shouldn’t be separate entities.

Logo of the International Ecotourism Society

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There are many companies out there who focus almost entirely on the eco-friendliness of their projects. Often these are wildlife conservation or sustainable food enterprises like Earthwatch, See Turtles, and Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute. In some cases, organizations focus on education to teach local people about sustainable farming or permaculture. Stellaris, a Christian mission-based initiative, works in Tanzania to dig deep freshwater wells and to teach low water farming techniques and solar cooking.

See Turtles Staff with Turtle

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Organizations like Go Philanthropic or Pack for a Purpose focus on efficiency. Both organizations make the most of unused space to transport important goods to needy communities overseas. They appeal to travelers to use the empty space in their luggage, space that would go unused and wasted if not for their efforts.

There is no shortage of creative eco-friendly voluntours. As with any voluntour, make sure the environmental consciousness doesn’t stop with the publicity-grabbing initiative. Sometimes a company will cut corners on the back-end and this can undercut an otherwise positive project. As voluntourism grows as an industry I think more and more voluntour companies will see the benefits of greening their operations—from both an idealistic and profit-oriented perspective—and that’s good for everyone.

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