Conservation Volunteers International Program, Inc. (Conservation VIP), an organization that offers volunteers an opportunity to help conserve some of greatest wild and cultural places in the world. In Machu Picchu, for example, Conservation VIP volunteers have protected ecosystems along the Inca Trail and removed invasive plants from the walls of the Temple of the Moon.
The visionary founder and CEO of Conservation VIP, Rich Tobin began his professional career as a park ranger. Having spent three decades with the National Park Service and other national agencies, Rich advocated for sustainable management of natural and cultural resources in diverse American landscapes. While visiting international parks as a tourist, Rich realized that his ranger skills could make a significant contribution to the protection of national parks in other parts of the world. This led to a series of pilot volunteer projects beginning in 2005 and the creation of Conservation VIP in 2008.
Rich believes that environmental problems respect no borders, and threaten the health, prosperity and even the national security of nations. The work by volunteers demonstrates that people from all over the world–who may disagree on many issues–can set differences aside and work together to protect the natural world and cultural patrimony. Conservation VIP encourages us to accept our share of the responsibility for protecting the natural world and our cultural patrimony.
Rich earned his undergraduate degree in Environmental Planning at the University of California, Davis, and his Masters in Natural Resources Management from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. When not leading volunteer expeditions, and furthering Conservation VIP’s mission of “making friends one kilometer at a time,” Rich enjoys mountaineering, sailing, surfing and international travel.
Tell me a little bit about your background and what led you to start the Conservation VIP.
I enjoyed a wonderful, first career as a park ranger. For 30 years, I worked in California, Alaska, Oregon, Florida and Washington, DC for the National Park Service, Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. When I began my career, the traditional paradigm for public land managers was, “We’re the experts and we know how best to manage resources and people.” Today that view has largely been eclipsed by the realization that public land resources can best be managed in partnership with the public. Conservation VIP takes that paradigm shift one step further by involving volunteers, visitors, local communities, business, schools, NGOs and government at all levels.
The idea of Conservation VIP began during a vacation trip to Patagonia in early 2003. I was trekking in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile and as a resource professional, it was obvious to me that there were resource challenges facing the park rangers. In speaking with several rangers, I learned that although they recognized these challenges, they felt unable to be responsive. Visitation had increased in Torres del Paine significantly in a short number of years, impacting trails and wildlife habitat. They also had problems with fires that had started because of careless visitors in the park. They had no way to restore the natural landscape. Their budget was limited to $30,000 per year – for everything.
In my discussion with park rangers, I explained – to their surprise – that natural resources agencies in the U.S. also had budget constraints and that increasingly, U.S. parks and forests turn to volunteers to help complement the professional workforce. The rangers looked at me and asked, “Why would anyone want to do that?” This discussion was a real eye opener to me about how people in other countries think about volunteers helping to protect national treasures.
I explained that we call upon volunteers who give of themselves to help protect places they love. They said, “Even if we had volunteers, we have no way to supervise them, and we have no tools.” This was true. I had hiked with a ranger and asked if we could bring a shovel along so I could demonstrate some effective trail maintenance techniques and the park did not have a single shovel.
From that trip came the idea that perhaps there was something I could do to bring volunteers to Torres del Paine to help the park rangers. I realized, though, that visitor volunteers would not be enough. We’d really need to involve and engage the communities. Community members often said that visitors would come through town, but not stay there. So the community was not benefiting economically. Members of the community were saying, “Why should I support the park? We’re not deriving any benefit from it.”
There were also pressures from development, livestock grazing adjacent to the park and poaching inside of the park. We felt that if we got the community involved, they’d see that it was to their benefit to help protect and support the park. Visitors would stop there, and the community would benefit. We reached out to universities – both their researchers and students – to give them opportunities to learn about natural resources management. We also reached out to other non-governmental organizations in the area, especially Fundacion Patagonia. And certainly, we reached out to Chile’s national park service, CONAF (Corporación Nacional Forestal). We also reached out to the Chilean Foreign Ministry and U.S. Department of State to explain this unique opportunity to help protect this World Biosphere Reserve.
I returned to Chile in 2004 and met with members of CONAF at their headquarters in Santiago. I presented the concept of bringing all of the players together to help protect Torres del Paine. At the time, many people said, “This is Chile. This is government bureaucracy. Don’t expect to hear anything for a long time.” Well, I left on Friday, and on Monday, I already had an email that the project had been approved. They were that enthusiastic about trying the project as a pilot. Once the project was approved by CONAF, Chile’s Foreign Ministry and the U.S. Department of State placed the Patagonia Volunteer Project onto the program of work between both countries under the Chile-U.S. Environmental Cooperation Agreement, a part of the Chile-US Free Trade Agreement. We then began recruiting volunteers from across the U.S.
How did you recruit these volunteers?
We are very fortunate in that the Los Angeles Times included a small story about the project and the article was picked up by papers across the country. We also recruited people through word of mouth and through other resource professionals and conservation organizations. We had a group of 30 volunteers of all ages, from all walks of life, who came together to give something back to this resource at the southern extreme of Latin America.
Just days before our visit, a camper had knocked over a stove in the park, which started a fire. High winds quickly blew the fire into a major conflagration of over 35,000 acres (14,000 hectares) and the entire park had to be closed. The park service still wanted us to come. We arrived just after the fire was out, and one of our projects was the restoration of the fire area. This was in addition to the trail work we accomplished in the park.
Everyone involved was very happy with our accomplishments. We were invited back, and we have continued to volunteer in Torres del Paine for the past five years.
How did you involve members of the local community in that first project?
We made a point of purchasing all of our tools locally, staying in the community and using their restaurants and hotels. We also asked community members to join us to work side-by-side. Rather than being a group of gringos coming down and working independently, we always encourage community members, rangers, concession employees on their days off, as well as other visitors from around the world to join us. Whether it’s carrying some tools a short distance down the trail or spending an hour or part of a day or week with us, we encourage people to work with us. That’s part of our mission: Making friends one kilometer at a time. This involves engaging and including the community in all of our projects.
We made a significant economic contribution to the community. We also encouraged them to begin communicating more with the park. Communication between the local community and the park had been limited at best. A good example of that is when the fire occurred. The park was closed, and all visitors were told to leave, yet the park never called the community to say, “The park is closed and we have thousands of visitors coming your way.” We see part of our responsibility as bringing the park community and the local community together to help each other.
How does connecting with local people enhance the eco-voluntourism experience for your volunteers?
Our volunteers consistently tell us that interacting and working side by side with locals is a major highlight of their experience. Much more than rebuilding a kilometer of trail or restoring a meadow area, the opportunity to feel part of a community is one of the most important aspects of our volunteers’ experience.
Natural resource scarcity is the most pressing issue that we face on a global scale. If, with our projects, people can set aside differences and work together to protect areas such as national parks, then we can work together to address other pressing resource issues, such as clean air and clean water. In this small way, we see volunteer projects like ours as ways to improve communication and understanding between nations. It’s a small step toward helping worldwide peace efforts. I see the work that we do as demonstrating that individuals can make a difference. The Margaret Mead quote often runs through my mind:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
Conservation VIP works to “help conserve some of the world’s greatest wild places and cultural sites.” Your current programs are in Peru, Chile and the U.S. Can you briefly describe the wild and cultural places you are working to restore in your project areas, as well as the major threats they face?
Visitation has increased significantly in Torres del Paine. The present trails were never designed as hiker trails. They are old sheep trails that people have continued to use and they are in poor condition. People will get their feet wet and create new, adjacent trails.
Erosion is causing soils to cut down the trails and get into streams and lakes. Some of the trails pass through sensitive wildlife habitat. In Torres del Paine, we go into an area, identify the correct trail location that will avoid erosion, restore fragile areas and get the trail away from sensitive wildlife habitat. We find that once trails are properly located and constructed, visitors are more than happy to stay on them.
Machu Picchu Sanctuary stands at a crossroads. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is considering placing it on its list of threatened World Heritage sites because of uncontrolled growth, visitor activities and local development. Budget reductions in the park have placed additional strains on local managers. At the same time, there is increasing visitation. As a quick example, last year there were 25 full time employees in Machu Picchu supporting archeologists by removing invasive species and other plants that were impacting buildings and other archeological treasures. This year, there are only nine. Uncontrolled development is occurring in the gateway community of Aguas Calientes, where a sewage treatment plant has failed and is now dumping raw sewage in the Urubamba River that runs through the Sanctuary and flows out into the Amazon. Most people think of Machu Picchu as only the Sacred City at the top of the mountain. It’s actually an 80,500 acres (32,600 hectare) national park. The community of Aguas Calientes is inside the park at the foot of the Sacred City. It’s from Aguas Calientes that visitors will, generally, get on a bus and drive 20 minutes up 2000 feet in elevation to get to the mountaintop. Visitors will stay in the community. That community has unregulated growth, to the point that the sewage treatment plant has failed.
What’s bringing on the growth? Visitors to the Sanctuary?
Yes. Machu Picchu Sanctuary is the number one visited site in Peru and by many accounts, the number one destination in Latin America. The train system has increased the number of trains traveling into Machu Picchu every day. The community, seeing the economic opportunity, has grown rapidly.
So its unique appeal could eventually lead to its demise?
Exactly, and that’s the concern of UNESCO. Machu Picchu was reviewed in July 2008 and UNESCO almost placed it on the list of threatened World Heritage sites. Instead, they gave the Sanctuary a list of work that needed to be undertaken immediately in order to reduce this threat. Our volunteer projects directly address the list by restoring sites and reducing visitor impacts.
I read that Conservation VIP is the only organization allowed to do this kind of work in Machu Picchu. How did you earn that trust within Peru?
We focused all of our energy in Torres del Paine National Park for three years. One site. One project. Three years. We earned the trust of Chile’s National Park Service, at their headquarters in Santiago and at the park in Patagonia. We also worked closely with the communities, NGOs, universities and businesses in the area.
We then identified areas of concern in Machu Picchu Sanctuary and approached Peru’s national institutes responsible for managing the area. It’s especially challenging in Machu Picchu. In most national parks, there is one superintendent; one agency managing the resource. In the case of Machu Picchu, there are actually two agencies responsible: The National Institute of Culture within the Ministry of Education and (at the time) the National Institute for Natural Resources within the Ministry of Agriculture. We brought our proposal to both agencies. Over two years of coordination and discussions, we demonstrated a track record of successful conservation work in Chile; our willingness to listen and respond to their most pressing projects; and an ability to be self-sufficient. Our volunteers pay for all of their expenses, bring economic benefits to the community, and at the end of their trips, donate all our equipment. In two years, we were able to develop a pilot project in November of 2008 in which we brought in volunteers and responded to their entire array of issues where they needed assistance.
How would you evaluate the pilot project and how was it received?
It was received very well. When we returned last month, both national government agencies were happy to see us and excited about the work lined up for us. We were able to accomplish a significant quantity and quality of work…everything on their list.
Peru now has a Ministry of the Environment. The Natural Resources group name was changed to the National Service for Protected Area Management and moved to the new Ministry of Environment. For some perspective on how the project was received, when we returned for our work this year, we were welcomed by the directors of the Institute of Culture and the National Service for Protected Area Management. There were very enthusiastic meetings at the U.S. embassy with their entire staff, including the Ambassador. They were very supportive and offered their service to us. So did the Foreign Ministry of Peru. So there is excellent support from high up and on the ground in the country by both governments.
The U.S. and Peru, and previously the U.S. and Chile, recently signed a free trade agreement. Part of the accord, which is often referred to as a sidebar agreement, addressed environmental cooperation. Both countries agreed to implement conservation measures to ensure that free trade occurred and was not to the detriment of the environment. Our project in Chile was the first project selected under the Environmental Cooperation Agreement to move forward and accomplish work on the ground. Chile, Peru and the U.S. are very excited about our work. Often, projects under the Environmental Cooperation Agreement are for studies, evaluation, or interchange of people. Ours is on-the-ground, getting work accomplished.
How many trips does Conservation VIP run per year? Do you plan to expand into any other nations?
We are currently running four to six trips each year. We plan to grow slowly, both in the number of trips and the locations in which we offer volunteer expeditions. We are adding a new project in Santiago’s Metropolitan Parks District. This was a recommendation from the U.S. Ambassador to Chile in 2005, Mr. Craig Kelly. Mr. Kelly was very excited about our work in Torres del Paine, but he also recognized that for many Chileans, Torres del Paine is very expensive and thus difficult to access. He suggested we try to offer a volunteer expedition in the heart of Santiago. We had our pilot project in March 2008, where we spent four days in Santiago restoring a trail that had been bifurcated by a new highway. Because of the success of that project, we have been invited back and now have a trip planned for a full week in Santiago this fall.
We also have discussions underway for national parks in Argentina and the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. We are open to new locations where volunteers are needed. We’ve found that it takes at least two years to develop a volunteer project in the way that we believe is appropriate (including the community, businesses, etc.) Conservation VIP is not a tour operator who comes in and simply offers trips. It is, instead, a holistic approach to bring together volunteers to work with the community and national parks to help protect and restore international treasures.
In addition to volunteer trail and restoration work, Conservation VIP has provided other services to our host countries. For example, we have conducted two training courses in trail design, construction and maintenance, including a national training course for rangers from throughout Chile. We also gave a national training course in interpretation to learn how to communicate the important values of natural resources and conservation to park visitors. We have come in behind fire events and provided expert advice on emergency fire rehabilitation of fire burned area. We have provided emergency response and vertical rescue training.
All the countries we visit are very eager for interchange between countries. We’ve done that in a couple of ways. We brought 10 rangers from Chile to the U.S. to tour national parks and forests. The focus of that interchange was voluntourism. We provided training on how to recruit, train and lead volunteer activities within their national parks. We are also supporting the creation of sister parks. We suggested, nurtured and helped to create a sister park between Torres del Paine and Yosemite National Park, which resulted in interchange of rangers between both countries and now a direct communication channel. The superintendent of Torres del Paine can pick up the phone and call the superintendent of Yosemite and seek advice on how to handle a fire, a challenge with a concessionaire, or other issues. We’re helping to support the development of a sister park relationship between Mesa Verde National Park and Machu Picchu. We also supported the creation of a sister park agreement between San Francisco Metropolitan Parks and Santiago Metropolitan Park District. The interchange helps U.S. national parks as well. Our national parks are host to visitors from around the world. The better U.S. national park rangers are able to understand the international visitor, the better able we are to manage the parks for the world and not just U.S. visitors. These other kinds of services extend the support our organization offers these countries. It all goes back to our mission of building friends one kilometer at a time.
Can you talk me through the itinerary of one of your trips to give our readers a sense of what it’s like to travel and volunteer with Conservation VIP?
In the case of Machu Picchu, we arrange everyone’s international travel and flight into Cusco. We immediately travel by charter bus down into the Sacred Valley of the Incas into the community of Ollantaytambo. This is a wonderful first stop. Ollantaytambo is probably the best-preserved, continuously occupied Inca village in Peru, dating back over 500 years. Many people consider it to be the second finest example Inca stone craftsmanship, after Machu Picchu. Once there, we relax and take it easy. We are up at 8,500 feet (2,792 m) in elevation, so we want visitors to rest after the long overnight flight and get used to the higher elevation.
The next day, we board a private bus with a local, professional guide who has been working in this region for years. We’ll travel and visit the Sacred Valley of the Inca Empire, making many stops along the way. We’ll visit archeological sites where our volunteers learn about the history, culture and craftsmanship of the Inca. Gaining a better understanding the construction techniques and the history and culture of the Inca people helps prepare us for our work assignments in Machu Picchu.
The next day, we’ll visit the Machu Picchu Sanctuary, including a stop in the Sacred City. There, we’ll learn about the ongoing projects, receive an orientation of the site and safety instruction. We’ll also meet the local folks with whom we’ll be working.
For the next week, volunteers wake up in the morning, board a bus up to the Machu Picchu Sanctuary, and work on tasks that have been asked of us by the managing agencies. Those tasks include: removing exotic or unwanted vegetation along the trails, stone buildings and agricultural terraces; maintenance of the Inca Trail to shed water from the trail, control erosion or restore areas impacted by fire or visitor use; planting trees; monitoring restoration plots; and other work that may be assigned to us. This takes place all week.
Volunteers self select the projects they do each day. We encourage our volunteers to change tasks every day so they get to do different kinds of work. Some people really enjoy taking a pair of loppers and cutting back vegetation on the trails. Others enjoy the more difficult work of trail reconstruction. Everyone enjoys spending time working on the Inca building walls that people are coming from around the world to see. We are working to protect and restore those areas by removing plants that are growing between the cracks. If those plants are not caught when they are small, the Ministry of Culture actually has to disassemble the buildings and remove the plants and rebuild the structures, so our work is very important.
Is there one particular invasive plant that is causing problems?
There is an exotic grass species that sends very deep roots and is competing – all too successfully – with native grasses. This last trip, we spent time collecting native grass seeds, which will be replanted in areas to compete with these exotic species. They have found that reintroducing native species is a fairly successful way to naturally overcome the exotic plants.
How have these exotics gotten into Machu Picchu?
A variety of means. Visitors coming through the area who have hiked elsewhere. There are also farm animals within the sanctuary. When food is brought in, sometimes exotics are brought in as well.
Does this week of volunteer work complete the trip?
After the week of volunteer activity, we usually spend some time in the community. Since we work every day with volunteers from the community and employees from the site, we get to know them. On the last trip, for example, the local rangers invited us to have lunch with them at their residence. There was also a festival in town to which we were invited.
After our time in Aguas Calientes, we take the train back to Cusco, where have a city tour and then free time for exploration and shopping. The next day, we leave for Lima, where we go on a tour of colonial sites and the modern city. In Lima, we learn more about Peru as a whole. We’ll often meet with local leadership from the Peruvian and U.S. governments to get a bigger perspective on Peru and our work. We’ll have our final meal at La Rosa Nautica, which is a wonderful restaurant on a pier overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It’s the best restaurant I’ve ever eaten in. We are often be joined by representatives from the Peruvian and U.S. governments, who share their thanks for our work.
Where do your volunteers stay while they’re working?
On our international trips we stay in local hotels when available. While in the Torres del Paine backcountry, we stay in mountain lodges called refugios. For our US-based trips, we camp. Because we have relationships with local businesses, we receive discounted rates for hotels, food and transportation services. We’re able to pass these discounts on to our volunteers to make it less expensive for them to stay. The accommodations are nice. Every night, we eat fabulous food at local restaurants as a group. One of the volunteers on our last trip said, “I’d come on this trip again just for the food!”
What is the average length of your trips?
Our current trips run two weeks in length. That includes travel. In the case of Santiago Metropolitan Park and Yosemite, those will be one-week volunteer projects.
What is the average cost of one of your trips?
Our two-week trips (Torres del Paine and Machu Picchu) cost $3,600. That is all-inclusive, including international and domestic airfare, room, board, local transportation, training, park entrance, boats, and buses. Everything but the Pisco Sour! (That’s the national beverage in Chile and Peru. Pisco is a grape brandy. It’s mixed with lemon juice and sugar. The Pisco Sour is like a margarita, but much better.)
The weeklong trip in Santiago is tentatively priced at $1,800. That will include international airfare, transfers, lodging, food and training. We’ll also have time to explore Santiago and vicinity.
Our weeklong project in Yosemite National Park is offered in collaboration with the American Hiking Society. The cost for that trip is $275. There is no transportation included in this trip. The cost includes the campsite, all of the food, and contribution toward the tools and leadership and guidance from Conservation VIP and the National Park Service.
Where does that money go?
We are an all-volunteer organization. There are no salaries. No paid employees. All of the costs paid by volunteers go into transportation, food, lodging, tool purchase, and guide services to help the local communities.
Do you find that cost is a barrier to people interested in your trips?
Yes. A recent study on voluntourism, addresses that. Cost is a barrier to participation in international trips in particular. When potential volunteers ask me about that, I say, “Yes. There is an expense because volunteers pay their own costs for travel, backcountry lodges, hotels, transfers, food, and so on. Those are real costs. We attempt to minimize those costs through strategic alliances with businesses.”
The other way I encourage potential volunteers to look at cost is this: if you wanted to go to Machu Picchu, this is an excellent value. If you were already prepared to pay for the travel and expenses to be a tourist in Machu Picchu, then participating as a volunteer is less expensive and more meaningful.
Through our program, participants may also be eligible for a tax-deductible donation for their out-of-pocket expenses. Current tax code allows individuals to deduct donations to qualified organizations. Conservation VIP is a 501c3 nonprofit organization, so volunteers who participate in our trips may be able to consider their out-of-pocket expenses a tax-deductible donation. Everyone’s situation is different, so we recommend that volunteers discuss this with their tax advisor.
Do you have a lot of repeat travelers?
Yes. Probably about 10-15% of volunteers will repeat, either the same expedition or another.
Is there such a thing as the typical Conservation VIP volunteer? If so, describe him/her.
What they all have in common is a big heart; a willingness to give of themselves to make a difference. We have had volunteers as young as 19 up to as old as 90! Volunteers are able to select the kind of work they want to do, so as long as they have the willingness to get up and do their best, that’s the most important aspect. We describe the work well in advance so people know what they’re getting into. Generally, people need to be physically fit. We say, if you can be out in the garden all day long or hike with a daypack that carries your food, water and a raincoat, you can sign up for one of our trips. We provide all the training that is required, so no prior experience is necessary.
Would you classify your business as eco-voluntourism or cultural voluntourism?
I wouldn’t put Conservation VIP in either camp. It’s a mixture, and I think that’s the success of our programs. We blend working with others from around the world – that cultural interchange – with accomplishing restoration work on the ground.
Do you see these kinds of volunteer travel experiences as a growing trend in the industry?
Yes. A recent survey indicated that 61% of ecotourism providers see growth in this area. The opportunity to not just be a tourist, but actually give back by participating in worthwhile project is increasingly an incentive for visitors to travel with a voluntourism objective. I do see this area of voluntourism growing in the years to come.
Has the economic situation impacted enrollment in your trips?
I believe it has. The number of individuals who participated in the most recent trip is down. Many people who had expressed interest in our trips communicated to me that they needed to postpone their plans because of the economy. Speaking in a broader sense and speaking with service providers around the world, Peru, Chile, Argentina, China and Nepal all report significant declines in tourism, with some reporting a 40-50% decline in visitors over the last six months. They all cited the “world economic crisis” as the reason for the decline.
What do you think will pull Conservation VIP through?
As an all-volunteer organization, we have no direct expenses. There is no payroll to meet and no rent to pay. We’re probably better positioned than many to sustain a temporary decline in enrollment.
What will ultimately sustain us is our commitment to help protect these World Heritage and World Biosphere sites to the best of our ability, and the generosity and support of local communities and their encouragement of us to return.
Are there some common misperceptions about eco-voluntourism – perhaps specific to the countries or areas in which you work – that you have to contend with?
Some individuals contact us and don’t realize that they need to pay for their own travel. That’s probably the largest misconception. We hope that donations from business, individuals and foundations will help further reduce volunteer costs. In the past we’ve offered scholarships to local citizens who participate. For example, we brought university students from Santiago to Torres del Paine one year.
What advice would you offer someone who is interested in experiencing eco-voluntourism? (How to find the best program for one’s interests and needs; How to evaluate programs in terms of reliability, responsibility to people and land, safety, etc.)
My first response is, sign up with us! There is a great deal of information available on line. It’d be good to begin with a trusted organization like VolunTourism.org, whose Internet site helps potential volunteers get started selecting a program and preparing for a trip. I’d also encourage people to look at a variety of opportunities and think about what they’d like to try. Someone first entering into this may want to try something close to home. For example, the American Hiking Society and Appalachian Trail Club offer great volunteer activities. People can also work in their own communities. With passage of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act there should be a big push for volunteering here at home.
My advice is to try volunteering locally and see if you enjoy it before committing to a longer trip.
Is there one common, overarching benefit that your participants say they take away from their Conservation VIP experience?
The feeling that they have made a contribution; that they have given something back to help protect a World Heritage site. This gets back to that Margaret Mead quote. They feel that even as an individual in a small group, they were able to make a difference. They feel empowered and excited to go back and carry that same philosophy when they return home that they can make a difference. They want to stay engaged in their community or return for more trips.
One final anecdote for us?
When I was in Machu Picchu a couple of weeks ago, a visitor to the Sanctuary was walking by. We chatted for a few minutes and I explained what we were doing. He said, “Thank you for doing this. When you are doing this kind of volunteer work, these days are not subtracted from your life. These days are added to your life.” I think that really sums up why we are here doing what we do.