Volunteering abroad is a rapidly growing industry. Every year, more and more people are opting to spend their summers abroad volunteering. My volunteering experience may be slightly different to the ones you usually hear of; it wasn’t the typical type of volunteering that involves communities in third world countries and things like elephants. I had the amazing opportunity to volunteer in Peru with a company called Operation Wallacea when I was in my final year of sixth form.
Operation Wallacea are a company who offer the opportunity for sixth form or school students and undergraduates to fundraise and then volunteer on their expeditions to collect data for biodiversity and conservation management. I am by no means a science student, in fact anything even slightly related to science or maths goes straight over my head. However, being able to volunteer with a company with such strong ethics and a desire to improve the world around us was an amazing opportunity.
I went with several other students from my sixth form and three of our teachers. The aim was to fundraise most of the money required for the trip (easily over £2000). A friend and I fundraised together. We did a sponsored 48-hour fast (surprisingly not as awful as it sounds), had a toys and games stall at our town’s fireworks festival and wrote letters to countless companies and celebrities asking for any form of funding (all of which were unsuccessful). We also wrote to our local travel agency and while they wouldn’t provide money for just the two of us, they did agree to send £500 to the school which then covered the coach fares to and from the airport for everyone involved. Any other money we subsidised through jobs. It took a lot of hard work and creativity to get us there, but it was worth it.
The trip in total was two weeks long, but this included 48 hours of travel each way just to arrive to our destination: three flights in total to Iquitos, Peru and then over half a day’s travel along the Amazon river to the area where we would conduct the research.
Our research included putting up nets to catch birds at sunrise and in the afternoon where we would tag the birds, record their size, weight, etc. We counted what animals we could see while travelling along the river and luckily enough we saw a three-toed sloth, countless macaws, an anaconda that had been eaten by a jaguar, and even a large bird of prey eating a baby sloth (probably not the highlight of the trip). We went on dolphin spotting trips and counted mammals in the rainforest (we were lucky enough to see several species of monkeys, though unfortunately nothing larger). At night we caught and counted frogs, once again weighing and measuring them, and did the same for caimans (my group only caught three baby ones), as well as counting bats. Our research also involved fishing so we got to see catfish and piranhas (which are a lot less scary than I had always imagined), and we measured trees, noting down what species were growing.
The work was incredibly exhausting as we were often up early or to bed late, occasionally both, and we had a few lectures during our trip to educate us on the Amazon Rainforest and how global warming has been affecting biodiversity there. While exhausting, the work was incredibly rewarding, knowing that our hard work was helping scientists evaluate the effects climate change is having in that area.
On our final day in the Amazon Rainforest we visited a local village. Whenever we went into the forest, and often on our boat trips, a local from one of the small villages along the river would come with us to ensure safety but also to educate us about their life there. One guide pointed out the different tree saps they would use for different medicines and even birth control. When we arrived at the village that we were visiting they welcomed us warmly. We were able to purchase things that they had made, such as paintings on dried out coconut shells or canvas and necklaces made of piranha teeth. The experience was an insight into life somewhere without internet or easy access to the outside world, although they did have some. Their houses are built all on stilts due to the flooding during the wet season. Children, dogs, chickens, cats, you name it, roamed freely all over the village. With us we brought footballs, colouring pencils and books, games etc. as a thank you for their hospitality.
While the village was not the primary part of our volunteering experience, and technically not actually volunteering, being able to offer our gratitude for their help during the trip was a great opportunity.
On one of our days on the river we were actually hit by one of the worst storms many of the locals could remember and for safety two of the groups who were on small boats conducting research took shelter in two of the local villages where locals kindly offered up their homes to ride out the storm, so their hospitality was even more heart-warming.
This was a once in a life-time opportunity that I will treasure forever. It even briefly convinced me that a career in biology was the way forward (though this didn’t last long when I remembered it all goes over my head). There are certainly issues around ‘voluntourism’, but I would urge anyone interested in volunteering to find a respectable company. It is difficult work but helping others and the world is invaluable. If you’re interested in science you can check out Operation Wallacea as they even offer programmes where you can use the experience for your dissertation.