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Non-Profit Spotlight

How could we explore the topic of eco-voluntourism without mentioning Earthwatch Institute, “the world’s largest environmental volunteer nonprofit organization?”

By Amy Nelson

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It would be foolish to explore the topic of eco-voluntourism without mentioning Earthwatch Institute. This non-profit organization was among the first to pioneer the concept of “citizen science.” It is now regarded as “the world’s largest environmental volunteer nonprofit organization.”

With a mission to “engage people worldwide in scientific field research and education in order to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment,” Earthwatch offers unique opportunities to work alongside leading field researchers around the world.

Earthwatch’s history dates back to 1971, when geologist Dr. Paul Mohr of the Smithsonian Institution took 20 wide-eyed volunteers to the remote Amaro Mountains of Ethiopia. Now, nearly 40 years and 1360 projects later, more than 93,000 volunteers have contributed $72 million to scientific fieldwork.

This year alone, Earthwatch is sponsoring more than 120 research projects in 38 countries and 20 US states, making estimated volunteer field grants of $5.7 million. As you read this, Earthwatch volunteers are busy assessing the impact of climate change in Borneo’s tropical rainforests to inform future forest restoration programs; sampling and measuring sediments on Icelandic glaciers; studying Bahamian reefs; and surveying elephants on the Kenyan savannah.

Earthwatch team members share the costs of research expeditions and cover food and lodging expenses with a pro-rated, US tax-deductible contribution. According to Earthwatch’s public relations director, Kristen Kusek, expedition contribution costs range from $650 to $5,050, averaging $2,700 for 5-16 day team duration. This excludes airfare.

The return on investment of such a trip, however, seems immeasurable. “Our volunteers have the satisfaction of knowing that they contributed DIRECTLY to conservation research that matters-by getting their own hands dirty and doing the research themselves alongside top-notch scientists in the field,” said Kristen.

Many Earthwatch volunteers also have the opportunity to become immersed in local cultures and provide measurable impacts to a community. “This is the case in our sustainable coffee farming project in Costa Rica, for example,” said Kristen. “Volunteers work on research that directly assists local coffee farmers and even share meals with them during the experience. The volunteer returns home with a whole new appreciation for that morning cup of coffee because they just worked side by side with farmers who supply that coffee in the first place.”

Earthwatch expeditions have led to some tangible and rather impressive results. Mangrove stands have been restored in Sri Lanka and Kenya. A dolphin project resulted in the redirection of shipping lanes in the Mediterranean. A decrease in the use of synthetic fertilizer by coffee farmers in Costa Rica has helped improve soil quality. These are just some of Earthwatch’s many success stories.

Perhaps one of the most exciting tales is best told in the words of one Earthwatch’s favorite volunteers, Warren Stortroen of St. Paul, MN. Warren, who has participated in more than 55 Earthwatch expeditions to date, describes his extraordinary archaeology ‘find’ on Earthwatch’s “Mexican Megafauna” expedition in 2006:

“It was the best find of my whole career,” said Warren.

“We were prospecting in a maze of arroyos and I had my own GPS, so I was able to make a home base, leave the group and wander freely. At a promising branch of the arroyo I first found a piece of a mastodon tusk, and a little further on spotted a ledge with some bone that appeared to be a joint socket or vertebrae and possibly skutes (armor plating). I selected some of them and brought them out to the van where we met for lunch. When I showed them to Oscar [the scientist] he was elated! The tusk was only of mild interest, but the other bones were from a giant armored glyptodont! I had marked the spot on my GPS, so we all went back there after lunch. When I pointed out where I found the bones, Oscar looked around and said, “Warren, I see the animal!” Above the ledge he could see the edge of the nearly intact carapace. This extinct mammal was a distant relative of the armadillo, but nearly as big as a Volkswagen!”

[Note: It was a giant glyptodon, which is related to the armadillo, and this was apparently one of the most complete finds of this animal in archaeological history.]

If an Earthwatch expedition appeals to you, but not necessarily your wallet, you may want to look into a Change Ambassador grant, part of Travelocity’s “Travel for Good” program. According to Kristen, Earthwatch volunteers may receive up to $5000 toward their costs!

To support the work of Earthwatch Institute or learn more about their Earthwatch Expeditions or support their efforts, visit their web site!

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