In Brazil, Discovering the Positive Side of Voluntourism
Is it possible to curb climate change through travel? On a 10-day trip to Brazil’s endangered Atlantic Forest, writer Eric Weiner explores the tricky issue of volunteer vacations, one sapling at a time.
The roads that lead out of Brazil’s Mata Atlântica, the rain forest region called simply the Atlantic Forest, are winding and shrouded in green. As my driver negotiated the curves, towering tropical trees ticked by and I silently chronicled what I’d seen and done in the past 10 days. I had molded balls of rodent bait, a mealy mush of banana, powdered peanut candy, and oatmeal that felt and smelled how you’d expect such a concoction to feel and smell. I had collected seeds, planted seeds, replanted seeds, watered seeds, and done other things to seeds that I now cannot recall but at the time felt meaningful. I sweated more than I’d ever sweated in my life, even though I showered more than I’d ever showered.
I had shared a habitat with 33 species of bats, 468 species of butterflies, and seemingly infinite species of ants, several of which scrambled up my left leg when I made the rookie mistake of standing still for more than 10 seconds. I had weighed and measured and photographed numerous mammals, including Rodents of Unusual Size. I had set animal traps. I had learned the difference between a Tomahawk trap and a Sherman trap and expunged slimy, encrusted lizard scat from both. I had ridden on the flatbed of an old blue pickup truck, the soft morning air caressing my skin. I had sampled, and thoroughly enjoyed, homemade caipirinhas.
I had worked—with my hands. Not just any work, but demanding, dirt-under-your-fingernails, tropical-sun-on-your-head, mosquitoes-up-your-nose work. I was not paid for this work but had—and I realize this sounds bonkers—paid for the privilege of doing it. I had also enjoyed the work, for I knew that in some minuscule yet undeniable way I had made the world a better place: a slightly greener, cooler, healthier place.
Prior to this January 2020 journey, I would not have thought any of this possible. To be honest, when I had booked the seven-day Wildlife and Reforestation trip with Earthwatch, an environmental nonprofit founded in 1971, the prospect of all this forest worried me. I am no child of nature, not even a distant cousin. Over the decades, my few encounters with nature have not ended well—for either of us. When I rented my first apartment, in New York City, I decided it needed greenery and purchased several houseplants, which promptly died. “You kill plants,” my mother declared at the time, not so much as an accusation but as empirical fact.
My Earthwatch trip was further complicated by the dark cumulonimbus hanging over the entire enterprise of “voluntourism.” As the name implies, voluntourism is a combination of tourism and volunteering. It is, depending on what you read, everything from a wholly noble endeavor—purpose-driven travel at its most purposeful—to a ruse meant to soothe the guilt of wealthy carbon-emitters while simultaneously, and with great efficiency, relieving them of excess cash. The truth, as is often the case, lies somewhere in between.
I knew that in some minuscule yet undeniable way I had made the world a better place: a slightly greener, cooler, healthier place.
I’d hoped the critics were wrong. I had selected Earthwatch—whose mission is to address climate change by funding research around the world and allowing citizen scientists to join in—specifically because they seemed to do voluntourism “right.” I also hoped—and I realize this sounds sappy—to make a difference, to be the change I wanted to see in the world. Yet on day one, as I approached the Guapiaçu nature reserve at the foothills of the Atlantic Forest’s Serra dos Órgãos, where I would join the expedition team, I wondered: Am I fooling myself? (It’s been known to happen.) Was this journey, so smothered in nature and thick with controversy, a terrible mistake?
Turning down a dirt road, my driver and I arrived at a small compound of cement buildings and verandas shaded by wrought-iron roofing. I noticed a couple of old pickup trucks, a ping-pong table, and, on a bulletin board, photos of an odd-looking animal resembling the offspring of a cow and an anteater, and a warning: “Do not approach the tapirs!” I made a mental note to give these creatures, which a flyer on the bulletin board said can grow to 550 pounds, a wide berth.
I was greeted by the expedition leaders: two Brazilian scientists who are conducting research on the more than 27,000-acre reserve. There was Julian, a lanky, ponytailed biologist, and Manoel, a shaggy-haired biologist. They exuded quiet confidence and enthusiasm for creatures large and small.
They showed me to my accommodations—a simple cottage, exactly like those inhabited by Julian and Manoel, with no air-conditioning, only a lone ceiling fan that didn’t so much cool the air as stir it. I plopped down on the wood-frame bed, closed my eyes, and fantasized about my post-expedition “recovery plan,” three days at a boutique hotel on Rio’s Ipanema Beach. Then I recalled what Julian had said when I’d mentioned my plan: “The recovering starts here, actually.” I had nodded knowingly. But I didn’t know, not yet.
A couple hours later, I wandered to the canteen and met my fellow “citizen scientists.” (Earthwatch prefers that term to the more fraught “voluntourist.”) There was Summer, a sunny millennial from Las Vegas who works for the online retailer Zappos, drives a Tesla, and never met an Apple product she didn’t like; Crystal, who works at a supermarket in Michigan and likes her beer (“It’s Beer-30,” she’d say, whenever I asked her what time it was); Isabelle, a retired schoolteacher from Albuquerque; and Tim, from Lexington, Massachusetts, who is in his 60s but moves with the agility of a much younger man and displays the easy competence of the engineer he is. Five very different people, thrown together in a tropical wilderness with aggressive ants and giant tapirs—on a quixotic quest to save the planet, or at least a tiny corner of it.
The Atlantic Forest is not as well-known as the Amazon, but it is equally impressive and vital to the planet’s well-being. It is a “hot spot,” a region high in biodiversity and under threat. Over the past few decades, the forest, which once covered Brazil’s coast and occupied parts of Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina, has shrunk by nearly 90 percent due to deforestation. The nature reserve is one of the remaining pockets of forest—and our job, they explained, was to support it in two ways: planting trees and monitoring mammal life.
These twin undertakings are connected. Trees absorb carbon and release oxygen, making them natural air filters. Plant enough trees, some scientists believe, and you can cool the planet, or at least prevent it from growing any warmer. Mammals, on the other hand, help disperse seeds—nature’s gardeners—and are “a good indicator of the health of the ecosystem,” Manoel told us.
He went on to detail one of our tasks, which was to set traps for rodents living in the dense forest so that Manoel and Julian could gauge the critters’ health and abundance—again, the idea being that a happy rodent means a happy forest.
Then came the safety briefing. We were told to be alert for snakes, especially the five poisonous species and, of course, the tapirs.
“Oh, and best to shake out your shoes in the morning,” Manoel said.
“Dust?” I asked.
Not for the first or last time, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into.
But our days soon fell into a routine. We woke early, ate breakfast, then prepared the bait for the animal traps. We lathered ourselves with sunscreen and insect repellent, filled our water bottles, then climbed into the back of a blue pickup truck and headed to the mammal study site.
When we arrived, we trudged along a trail, sweat dripping from our brows. Some days, we’d set traps—a few outfitted with cameras—every 50 yards, gently placing the bait into the cage and covering it with a leaf. On other days, we checked the traps, in hopes of finding a small mammal. Some traps were untouched, with the bait still inside. In others, the bait was gone but no animal was captured. “They’re learning,” Manoel said. Some traps were knocked on their sides. Some contained lizards. Those didn’t count—not mammals.
And sometimes we’d hit pay dirt, as we did one morning, two days into the expedition. “We’ve got one!” Summer cried out.
Julian reached into his backpack and retrieved his tools: tweezers, scale, and a measuring tape. He arranged them neatly on a towel, like a surgeon preparing to operate.
As he gently picked up the squirming rodent, called an agouti, a surprisingly cute little guy the size of my fist, I read through the checklist. Weight? Length? Parasites? Julian replied to each question and I wrote down his answers, scribbling as fast as I could, my sweat dripping onto the page. Then Julian deftly placed a little metal tag on the rodent’s ear and set it free.
Most of the mammals we caught appeared to be healthy. It’s a good sign, Julian told us, because it means the ecosystem is thriving—the reforestation project is working.
At one point, Julian reprimanded me for snapping photos rather than recording data, a reminder that this was not a vacation; it was serious work. We were needed. The project would be impossible without the volunteers, Julian explained. It would take him and Manoel days to do the work our small group could accomplish in a few hours. True, we were not trained scientists; we were, though, extra hands and eyes, and that matters. Julian shared that, according to a study published in the journal Biological Conservation, the data collected by “citizen scientists” was every bit as good as that of trained professionals.
In the afternoons, we planted trees near the mammal research center. This was hard work, too, but a different kind of hard. We were helping a group of professional foresters who were on a mission to repopulate the once dense woodland of the Atlantic Forest.
While those pros have been working to reforest the nature reserve since 2005, they launched in 2020 an especially ambitious project to plant 200,000 trees by 2022, with the help of volunteers like me. The foresters collect the seeds of some 180 tree species from the surrounding forests, remove the outer casing, treat the seeds with a variety of nutrients, then plant them in a variety of soils and arrange them in nurseries, which trap the light and heat the plants need to flourish. The trees-in-waiting are moved and moved again, like young children graduating from elementary school to middle school to high school, and eventually released into the world—or, in the case of the trees, the Atlantic Forest.
“We are still learning how forests grow,” shared one forester. “The seeds all have their own secrets.”
Our job was to create homes for those mysterious seeds. We filled little plastic bags with dirt—sorry, soil—packing each one firm before wheeling the lot to a nursery for planting. The foresters watched our every move, quick to pounce on any mistakes. My work was held up as an example—of what not to do. Pack your soil tightly, not loosely (like I did); pack it uniformly, not . . . creatively (like I did). By the time we wrapped up on our first day, we had planted the seeds of about 300 trees. It was a start.
In the evenings, we reviewed the data from the day’s rodent search. We gathered in one of the classrooms and looked at grainy black-and-white photos from the camera traps installed earlier. Manoel and Julian fluently translated the blurs, often little more than glowing eyes, into species and genus. Most common is the agouti, a name for several rodent species belonging to the Dasyprocta genus. We helped. Crystal worked the laptop, recording the observations barked out by Manoel and Julian. We all tried to ID the mammals. One night, Isabelle spotted a tag on the ear of a possum: “One of ours,” she cried.
By day four, we were all a bit loopy. I dreamt of Rodents of Unusual Size. Crystal told me how one evening as she was staring at the ceiling light, its exposed wires looked exactly like rat tails. Such was the nature of this place, of this experience. We had grown a bit unmoored here, but at the same time, we had bonded, and more quickly and deeply than, say, passengers on a cruise ship might. We had bonded the way people with a shared purpose bond.
One evening, over dinner, I gently raised the slippery subject of voluntourism. Its rap sheet is long: Voluntourists, the critics say, are self-indulgent dilettantes posing for selfies with “grateful” locals, checking off a virtue box before racing to the beach to reward themselves for their goodness. Worse, critics say, voluntourists do actual harm—by taking away jobs from locals or by perpetuating a cycle of dependency. Some overseas orphanages, for instance, earn more money from voluntourism than by finding homes for children. Unsurprisingly, fewer children are placed in homes.
That hasn’t been engineer Tim’s experience, though, and this was his fourth Earthwatch expedition. He has helped to track chimpanzees in Uganda and to discover a new species of cockroach in Cuba. On each trip, he says, he felt useful, a feeling confirmed by Manoel and Julian, who, again, said their mission would be impossible without us.
We had grown a bit unmoored here, but at the same time, we had bonded, and more quickly and deeply than, say, passengers on a cruise ship might.
The way Tim, Manoel, and Julian see it, though, we “citizen scientists” also provide a valuable service by our mere presence. The real scientists, often working in remote locales, can be lonely. Sharing their scientific findings with an interested lay audience rejuvenates their passion for the project. “It’s not just science,” Tim said. “It’s a cultural exchange.”
If you think about the enormity of the environmental challenges we face, “you’d get depressed by it,” he said. So don’t think that big, he suggested. Be like the cyclist climbing a steep mountain pass, eyes fixed not at the peak but only a few yards ahead. “You know intuitively what the scientists are doing is making a difference,” Tim said, “and that you had some small part in it.”
The last day was the hardest. We needed to collect the traps, all 160 of them, lug them down a rocky trail, and scrub the cages clean. It was difficult, foul work, but everyone was in surprisingly good spirits. I’ll never forget the resolute look in Summer’s eyes as she scrubbed and scrubbed one especially filthy cage, determined to leave it spotless.
That evening, we celebrated with caipirinhas, courtesy of Manoel, who, using a makeshift mortar and pestle, ground the cane sugar with the same enthusiasm and diligence he applies to his field work.
“What?” said Manoel, registering the surprise on my face. “We are a research station, not a monastery.”
That evening, staring at the ceiling fan, I wondered: Did I help? I did the math. I had laid some bait, planted some trees, taken some (illegible) notes, cleaned up some poop. My team and I had set 1,440 traps, resulting in 69 “captures” of animals and 20 camera-trap sightings. On the other hand, I had flown to get there, leaving behind a sizable carbon footprint. Had I done more harm than good? When I later asked Earthwatch CEO Scott Kania about this, he acknowledged it is “a legitimate question these days” but not a deal breaker. Whatever harm volunteers do by jetting to faraway locales, he believes, is more than offset by the good. “The planet is in trouble, and we need good scientific answers,” Kania told me. Scientists working on the front lines of climate change “need a ton of data, and we can help.”
Did I do some good? Sure. Was I needed? Absolutely. Indispensable? No, but I deprived no locals of a job; if anything, I ensured that Manoel and Julian could continue their important research, since a portion of my expedition fee went directly to funding their work. I didn’t take a single selfie during my stay.
Working during a vacation, paying to work, may be counterintuitive, yes, but there was something oddly satisfying and rejuvenating about it. It was recreational in the literal sense; while cleaning cages and planting trees, I was, in a way, re-creating myself. What is work? What is play? On an expedition like the one I was about to complete, the line blurs, and blurred felt good. I thought about the fact that, for most of human history, there was no line separating work and play. People just were. Nowadays, we take vacations; we “vacate” ourselves. Why would I want to do that? I asked silently. By traveling the way I was, purposefully, I hadn’t vacated myself. I had filled myself. So I was surprised but not shocked when, once the expedition was over, I decided to forsake the pleasures of Ipanema and stay at the nature reserve for another three days. “Jungle boy,” Julian called me, affectionately, when I told him of my revised recovery plan.
I returned home refreshed and ready to talk to anyone who would listen (and even those who wouldn’t) about Rodents of Unusual Size and reforestation and the quiet satisfaction of repetitive manual labor, of being useful.
What is work? What is play? On an expedition like the one I was about to complete, the line blurs, and blurred felt good.
When we spoke, Earthwatch’s Scott Kania confirmed that my reaction was typical. “We’re in the people transformation business,” he said, only half jokingly. He concedes some of the criticism of voluntourism is justified. Done poorly it is “too in-and-out, low impact, and self-focused.” Done well, it is transformative for all involved.
As for the Mata Atlântica, consider me a fanboy. When you’ve seen nature up close, at its most beautiful, and most vulnerable, you care more than if you see it on TV or a laptop screen. The rain forest is not an abstraction. It is a place. A world unto itself, one I briefly inhabited, ministered to, and would like to see stick around for a long, long time.
Volunteering while traveling can be a great way to give back and forge a deeper connection to a place. The ethics of voluntourism are complicated: It can be hard to discern which organizations are reputable, and it’s long been argued that voluntourism, done wrong, can cause real harm. But there are still ways to make a positive long-term impact on the destinations you visit. All it takes is a little know-how, a bit of research, and the courage to ask the right questions, such as “Will my actions here ultimately benefit or take away from a community?”
Wildlife and Reforestation in Brazil
From $1,775. earthwatch.org
Located about 90 minutes from Rio de Janeiro, the Guapiaçu nature reserve is part of the Mata Atlântica, or Atlantic Forest. Less than 15 percent of the original forest remains intact, and many animals struggle with habitat loss, which is where volunteers come in. During this weeklong program (writer Eric Weiner’s trip) travelers plant seedlings and collect information on the mammals of the reserve, from the southeastern four-eyed opossum to the enigmatic puma.
Sea Turtle Conservation and Cultural Exploration in Guatemala
From $3,000. elevatedestinations.com
During this 10-day excursion in the seaside town of Monterrico, travelers work with a local organization that combats the poaching of the olive ridley and critically endangered leatherback sea turtles. Travelers collect and relocate eggs to a hatchery, release young hatchlings into the ocean, and assist with night patrols.
Marine Conservation Program in Bali
From $475. volunteeringsolutions.com
Climate change and pollution are depleting coral reefs all around the world. On this trip, volunteers assist with beach cleanups, construct artificial reefs located near the small Balinese village of Tianyar, and help teach environmental education classes for local children. Travelers can stay from 1 to 12 weeks.