Wisdom & Insight
Learning By Doing: The VolunTourism Experiment At La Confluencia
The Jordan Family has taken what was once a dream and has steadily forged it into reality. No, it is not a completed project; if you ask Ellie or Mark Jordan, they will likely tell you it will "always be a work in progress." This, Ladies and Gentlemen, is really good news for us in the VolunTourism Community. Why? Because the Jordan Family is guaranteed to uncover some unique insights and uncommon wisdom as they continue their VolunTourism Experiment at La Confluencia in Argentinian Patagonia. What's more, they have agreed to share it with us. Here is the first installment.
In 1992 we moved to the central coast of California after having operated a landscape construction company in the LA area for 20+ years. We had decided to scale back and try to live a quieter, saner life while our kids were still young (3 & 5 at the time). Part of that ‘time with the family’ plan included some travel destinations which we had often talked about but had never found the time to pursue while running the business. Southwestern Argentina was our first and, as it turned out, last pick. We’d been reading about, and toying some, with organic vegetable gardening during the previous year or two, so, when we stumbled upon a small community of organic farmers near the town of El Bolson on that first, fateful trip, we decided to stick around a while to see what we could learn. And, as anyone who has traveled in Argentina knows, the longer you stick around, the tougher it is to leave…a couple of weeks stretched to a couple of months, which have stretched to the present.
One of the great attributes of the Argentine people is that they are always ready to share a dream…your dream, their dream, it really doesn’t matter…and to then start building on that dream regardless of the obstacles. Maybe as a culture they are simply less concerned with the humbling effects of possible failure than we are in North America… or, perhaps, less obsessed with the pride of success. Whatever the reason, our shared daydreaming soon became a master plan to develop a teaching center for mini-farming and self-sufficiency for those in the local community wanting and needing to develop these skills, but lacking the time and money to acquire formal training.
Our recently acquired friends in El Bolson had the land and the practical know-how, so it was left to us to find the funding to get some basic infrastructure in place. Thus, in 1994, we formed the Land Ethic Action Foundation (LEAF), a California 501(c)3, which we seeded with personal capital, and literally dug into the work. Today, our first and still best friend here in Argentina, Fernando Pia, has been running that local teaching center (known as CIESA for its Spanish initials) for over 15 years. During that time he has taught over 2500 individuals how to grow their own food, many of whom returned to their home communities to teach others. In addition, Fernando has traveled throughout South America at the invitation of communities in Chile, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador who wanted assistance in setting up similar programs.
A Lesson Learned...
"For the local community, it is important that the exercise not feel like charity…they want/need to feel like they are sharing with these visitors…that the visitors are genuinely interested in, for example, the process of apple cider pressing and are here to learn. The benefit of added hands in getting the work done is best treated as a positive side effect. Eliminating the beneficiary vs. benefactor roles allows both sides to openly appreciate the other’s contribution with no residual sense of indebtedness or obligation."
In 1995, LEAF purchased a 20 acre parcel of land within the 150,000 acre Rio Azul Protected Wilderness Area as a permanent site for its teaching and demonstration center for sustainable small scale farming and appropriate technologies. This original site (La Confluencia) and concept has since grown to include the development of a replicable model of sustainable development for Protected Areas where ever they may exist in the world: low impact renewable energy systems, super insulated yet low embodied-energy construction techniques, small scale organic farming and gardening, and positive impact economic activities.
The process of assembling the pieces of this project stretched out over 15 years, in large part due to our remote location and 4WD-only access. But, in fact, projects like this are never finished. They continue to evolve indefinitely. Never-theless, by 2009 we were ready, finally, to pursue a still unresolved key element: positive impact economic activity.
VolunTourism As A Possible Viable Economic Activity
Over the years we had read about the public’s growing interest in volunteer tourism and it struck us as a perfect fit with our project’s goals. We imagined small groups of visitors enjoying the kinds of activities which our own families and friends had come down for year after year: not just great trekking, rafting, and horseback riding, but also the opportunity to work side by side with our neighbors, helping with daily tasks. As a matter of fact, it was pressing apple cider and building hay stacks that they invariably remembered as the highlights of their trip and still talk about to this day. So we set about researching what we soon found to be known as voluntourism. It didn’t take long to discover the VolunTourism.org web site and that same morning after a long phone chat with David Clemmons the matter was settled. David would come to see us and help evaluate the project’s potential for developing a voluntourism component.
As we learned from David, done right, voluntourism is a travel product with absolutely unique requirements…taking a group of six out for the day on horseback is one thing, but this would be quite another. So clearly we couldn’t simply start advertising and selling voluntourism trips without any real practical experience with the product. But where and how to gain that experience? …a nagging question in my mind which David deftly solved: since we were already working with WWoofers (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) they could be invited to participate in our trial volunteer work projects giving us plenty of latitude to experiment with scheduling, levels of community involvement, degrees of job difficulty, etc, etc. And most importantly, the WWOOFers could be counted on to give unbiased feedback on the experience.
The action plan we developed would:
- Identify projects that would be of benefit to the community and/or the environment in which the community would collaborate through their time and labor.
- Utilize WWOOFERS as surrogate voluntourists.
- Record and document with photographs each experience.
- Evaluate and refine each experience/project.
We had studied the 2008 Voluntourism Survey Report (McGhee, Clemmons, and Lee) so we had a very clear idea of what the voluntourist is looking for in a volunteer experience. Now we wanted to determine how best to provide it in our location. Of particular interest to us was how the local community as well as the voluntourists would respond to the volunteer concept under various conditions of perceived benefit, and how we could minimize the distinction between beneficiary and benefactor. Further, we were curious whether certain projects, by their very nature, were more conducive to a cooperative work spirit among the diverse participants, ie. just plain old more fun? So we chose a mix of environmental and socio-economic benefit projects as our testing ground:
- Helping a group of neighbors get their communal hay field cut, dried, and stored in the barn
- Helping a group of neighbors build a community hay barn
- Participating with a group of neighbors in the annual tradition of apple cider pressing
- Trail building in the Protected Wilderness Area
Lessons Learned, So Far...
What have we learned during this process, specifically, and from our experience with the WWOOFer program in general? In no particular order we have discovered the following:
Travelers choose WWOOFing in order to connect with the places and the people they visit. Learning farming and gardening skills is distinctly secondary.
WWOOFERs enjoy the community/environmental projects immensely more than simple garden work. They returned at the end of each day tired and dirty, but smiling.
It is important that these projects allowed the participants to see concrete/visible progress each day, which seemed to help anchor them to the place, project and local people.
It is important to the WWOOFERs that they feel they are participating in a project with clearly recognizable value to the local community and/or environment in which they are staying: no commutes to some unrelated location…they like feeling that they are living and working with the neighbors.
The WWOOFERs respond positively to the opportunity to work side by side with us - the Jordan family - as their link to the community. Again, this is a valuable anchor tying them to the place, the people and the project – making the experience more concrete and real life.
|"We have found that no one type of project is inherently more satisfying, or fun, than another. It all depends on the workplace atmosphere, how busy everybody stays, and whether there are visible/tangible results for the day’s efforts."
WWOOFERs clearly enjoy the opportunity to learn skills and use tools which they ordinarily aren’t exposed to: hayforks, an apple cider press, picks and shovels, chainsaws, etc.
It has become clear that in order to really feel a part of the project a minimum of 5 days of work (6 hours per day) is necessary. On the other hand, it’s best if the work is not presented as a daily obligation, but rather, as an option such that visitors feel they have the freedom to go hiking or just to sit by the river and relax for the day should they choose.
Proper logistical management is crucial: if we are haying for the day, everybody needs hayforks. Having plans B, C, and D prepared and ready to go should it rain on Hay Day is a must.
For the local community, it is important that the exercise not feel like charity…they want/need to feel like they are sharing with these visitors…that the visitors are genuinely interested in, for example, the process of apple cider pressing and are here to learn. The benefit of added hands in getting the work done is best treated as a positive side effect. Eliminating the beneficiary vs. benefactor roles allows both sides to openly appreciate the other’s contribution with no residual sense of indebtedness or obligation.
We have found that no one type of project is inherently more satisfying, or fun, than another. It all depends on the workplace atmosphere, how busy everybody stays, and whether there are visible/tangible results for the day’s efforts. Gathering and loading hay for six hours can be just as rewarding as putting up a pole barn so long as the pace is relaxed and people can look back at the end of the day and say with pride, “Wow, I never thought we’d get that much done.”
The availability of a sauna and hot tubs at the end of the day was always appreciated and a great way to tie the entire day’s events together by bringing the WWOOFERs together socially. Hot showers, good meals and comfortable beds go without saying. And recreational options such as rafting and horseback riding are a great way to cap off the week.
Lastly, and, perhaps, most important of all, we have gained essential confidence in our ability to successfully conduct a voluntourism program!
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