Voluntourism and Galapagos Islands Conservation Practices: The Need for Caution

Voluntourism and Galapagos Islands Conservation Practices: The Need for Caution

tortoise galapagos islands

Aired on January 4, 2020

Join us for thought-provoking conversations that examine voluntourism and the impact that conservation practices and tourism have on the Galapagos Islands.

First, voluntourism aka volunteer travel projects are helpful to communities in need.  But, intercultural educator Lena Papadopoulos says that some projects cause more harm to the communities they are meant to serve and it behooves us to recognize these hidden dangers and properly vet the organizations overseeing these projects.

Then, Galápagos researcher Dr. Elizabeth Hennessy, has written On the Backs of Tortoises: Darwin, the Galápagos, and the Fate of an Evolutionary Eden  to help guide future conservation efforts by understanding how the history of the islands and current conservation efforts are entangled and challenging.  Dr. Hennessy says that In a world where evolution is shaped by global history, we need a vision for conservation based on reckoning with the past, rather than trying to erase it.

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Ian:                                             Intercultural educator, Lena Papadopoulos, says that while voluntourism is intended for good, her volunteer travel experience opened her eyes to the danger of neocolonialism.

Lena P.:                                    It does, I think, serves to strip local experts of their agency and autonomy, in favor of what one part of the world deems to be quote unquote better.

Ian:                                             Galapagos researcher Dr. Elizabeth Hennessy says the actual work of conservation is morally complicated, involving both deep affinity for wildlife, but also violent practices of eradication and at times, draconian policies regulating human livelihoods.

Elizabeth H.:                         Not everyone in the islands can benefit from tourism and particularly in the past, fishers have been kind of excluded from this alliance between conservation and tourism.

Ian:                                             Join us for thought provoking conversations that examine voluntourism and the impact that conservation practices and tourism have on the Galapagos Islands on World Footprints with Ian-

Tonya:                                       And Tonya Fitzpatrick.

Tonya:                                       For the most part, voluntourism, also known as volunteer travel, is helpful to communities in need. But intercultural educator, Lena Papadopoulos, says that some projects cause more harm to the communities they are meant to serve and it behooves us to recognize these hidden dangers and properly vet the organizations overseeing these projects.

Tonya:                                       Lena, you’ve seen volunteer travel, otherwise known as voluntourism, very differently than many people and that it may be more harmful than helpful. What event in your life actually shifted your thinking about voluntourism?

Lena P.:                                    It was when I went to volunteer abroad after graduating from university. I went to Tanzania to volunteer as an English teacher and I quickly realized that my presence there was problematic in a lot of ways in that… Well one, I really wasn’t qualified to teach English. Yes, I’m a native speaker, but I had studied sociology and psychology. I didn’t know how to teach English. There were a lot of power issues at play with myself being given a lot more authority and credence than local qualified teachers just because of where I was from and what I looked like. And I started to realize that there were a lot of problems with my role and the ripple effect that it created.

Lena P.:                                    I actually went after that experience to get my master’s in cultural anthropology with a certificate in international development studies. This really gave context to my experience and helped me see how this phenomena of voluntourism, and in a lot of ways the way international development is done is really perpetuating a system of neocolonialism. It really altered my view on how helpful that kind of activity is, I guess.

Tonya:                                       Mm-hmm (affirmative) What do you mean by neocolonialism?

Lena P.:                                    It is the way that colonialism continues to be perpetuated in new forms, right? In the past, it was kind of evident, like it’s one part of the world dominating and controlling and ruling over another part. But now that continues to be done in more, I think, subversive ways, and I think this is one of the ways that it continues to be done. How the quote unquote West exercises it’s authority over the rest of the world and imposes it’s ways of doing and thinking and acting.

Ian:                                             We asked Lena to clarify whether she thinks that some volunteer experiences may actually negatively impact the cultural heritage of a community.

Lena P.:                                    It comes along with this idea that we know what’s best and we can help you do what’s best and you should conform to these ways of doing things in order to have effective, efficient systems. But really it is an imposition and it doesn’t take local needs or wants or knowledge or expertise into account. It does, I think, serves to strip local experts of their agency and autonomy in favor of what one part of the world deems to be quote unquote better than another part.

Tonya:                                       And how did that play out with your teaching English? Because I think a lot of other cultures really spend a lot of time learning English because English is pretty much the predominant language in the world. You have to have a grasp of English and other strong languages, like Spanish, in order to really compete in our global economy. So how did that play out with the work that you were doing in Tanzania?

Lena P.:                                    I mean, I don’t think there’s any issue with someone from the West going to teach English, but I do think that we need to be careful about doing things we’re not necessarily qualified to do at the expense of those who are. So yes, English is my native language, and in that sense there is something that I have to offer. But, at the same time, there were already local people there who were fluent English speakers who had been educated in how to teach a language, and who also had skills and knowledge to do so. Just because I was there, I was granted more authority than them. I think that’s problematic because there’s no reason for that.

Ian:                                             Lena says that is an example of what she calls the white savior complex. We asked her to explain this in more detail.

Lena P.:                                    100 plus years ago, we had the concept of the white man’s burden, which was this idea that the quote unquote developing world had this duty or responsibility to manage and rule the rest of the world. This is what I mean by neocolonialism. Now, that takes on a new form. It’s looks a little different, and it has a different name, but it’s basically the same thing.

Lena P.:                                    The white savior complex does this idea that the West needs to help or save the rest of the world. It is most commonly perpetuated by white people, but it’s important to recognize that it’s more of an attitude or a mentality. People of color can also perpetuate the white savior complex and it’s just this idea that one part of the world is responsible for saving another part of the world and a lot of us have internalized that narrative based on what is said around poverty or just the ways that we talk about the quote unquote developing world has created this notion that they need to be saved.

Tonya:                                       Now, obviously, this trip had a very strong impact on you. What have you done since then?

Lena P.:                                    So because I work in intercultural education, I’ve most often worked with student groups. I’ve had a lot of student groups who are planning to do volunteer abroad experiences come to me and ask me to help them go about that in more effective and responsible ways. I’ve run a lot of workshops or retreats to help them do so. To help them mitigate the harm that can often result from these kinds of experiences. So, it does play a pretty big role in my work, now.

Tonya:                                       Mm-hmm (affirmative). As an intercultural educator, what are some of the processes that you take your students through, and how is that used as a catalyst to self awareness?

Lena P.:                                    We begin first by really examining the motives of wanting to partake an experience like this because a lot of times it honestly is very self-serving. It’s seeking some kind of attention or admiration to be seen as doing something, quote unquote good for other people.

Lena P.:                                    And so we really look deeply at their motives and the intention behind it. Then, I really help them figure out how they can vet an organization that causes minimal harm. Doing their due diligence and researching and asking the right questions. Regarding the self awareness piece, I think that intercultural learning is a catalyst for self awareness because it brings our own experiences and perspectives and worldviews and biases to light when we can compare our own reality with the reality of someone else because our reality is constructed culturally. We all operate from these different frameworks of knowledge and understanding around sort of what is right and wrong and what is truth and what isn’t. This sort of exposure to cultural difference allows us to become more aware of how we ourselves have been shaped by culture, our own culture, and how that impacts the way that we interact with others.

Tonya:                                       There’s probably a lot of people listening who want to have a meaningful travel experience and they have looked at, or maybe even participated in, volunteer travel excursions and passed, but for those who are considering it, what advice do you have for them as to the proper way to vet an organization that offers volunteer travel excursions?

Lena P.:                                    Yes, so I can give you a set of bullet points of what to look for. One is whether or not the organization has a positive and measurable impact. How are they defining and measuring their success? Is that supported in both numbers and qualitative data from the people that they’ve impacted? What kind of difference or change have they made? Secondly is who is setting the organization’s goals and making their decisions? Is that driven by local community members or is it driven by outsiders who don’t necessarily have the full historical-cultural context to understand what people actually need? I think it’s really important that we don’t make decisions about people without people. Another is to look at how transparent an organization is with their finances. Where does their money come from? Where does it go? Who are their donors? How much say does a donor have in how money is spent. Because again, if they have a lot, that’s maybe taking away the autonomy of the local community.

Lena P.:                                    Another thing to look for is whether or not the organization’s work is rooted in sustainability or dependency. Are they actually enacting some kind of change that focuses on the root cause of a problem or are they only addressing the symptoms? Are they building systems that are sustainable and can go on without them or are they creating a relationship of dependency on the work that they do? Our volunteers taking jobs away from local people, are they offering some kind of unique skill or specialized skill that a local person might not have had the access to be educated in that particular skill? Or are they just doing something that someone from that place could be doing instead?

Lena P.:                                    A big one I think is how are children being affected? It tends to be really alluring and enticing to do volunteer work with kids because they’re so cute and sweet and a lot of us like children. At the same time, children are really vulnerable and it puts them in a vulnerable position to be changed between groups of people who are coming in and out. It really affects their socio-emotional development and their attachment. It can create attachment issues for them.

Lena P.:                                    And then finally, is the organization compromising integrity for volunteers? Are they just letting anybody come in and do work for them without sort of the same screening or background checks that would be required say if that volunteer was to do that same kind of work in their home country. Is it just kind of a place where volunteers can experiment and it’s like a playground for them? Or is it a place where they are really qualified to do what they