Volunteer in South America
An Overview of the Options
By Volker Poelzl
Senior Consulting Editor
South America is a continent with many needs. There is widespread poverty, social injustice, violence, and environmental degradation. Since the end of the long rule of military dictatorships on the continent during the 1980s, civil society has returned as a major player in helping to relieve some of South America’s most pressing problems. As a result, there are a large number of NGOs and volunteer service organizations all over the continent involved in helping the development of their countries. These organizations perform a huge variety of tasks, from protecting animals and ecosystems to providing vaccinations to indigenous tribes and teaching art to poor urban children. If you are interested in volunteering in South America, you will discover that opportunities are not lacking. You will find a large variety of different work experiences to suit your interests.
Where Should You Go to Volunteer in South America?
The choice of country depends on a variety of factors:
- Although one purpose of volunteering is to assist the local organization you are working for, you should place primary consideration on the people you are helping, consider your personal needs, interests, and preferences. If you’ve always wanted to go to Brazil, then why not volunteer there? If you speak Spanish, why not volunteer in one of South America’s Spanish-speaking countries?
- You should also keep in mind logistics and finances. Consider the cost of air travel and the cost of living at your destination before making a decision. Living and volunteering in a city will be much more expensive than volunteering in a small town or in the countryside. The cost of travel and the cost of living in urban areas in Brazil and Argentina are much higher than in rural areas in Peru, Ecuador or Bolivia, for example.
- Logistical considerations such as travel time to your destination, housing, local transportation, and contact to the outside world are also factors you should keep in mind.
- If you depend on high-speed internet to Skype or chat with your friends and family at home, you might want to consider an urban area, where high-speed internet access is more likely.
- If you volunteer at a remote animal reserve in the Amazon, you will most certainly have none of the usual forms of entertainment or nightlife available to you.
- Weather, climate, and the ecosystem are other important factors to consider. If you don’t like the cold, don’t volunteer in the Bolivian highlands in winter. Likewise, if you can’t handle mosquitoes, tarantulas, and other kinds of creepy-crawlies, you should stay away from the Amazon. Not a day went by in my year and a half in the Brazilian Amazon that I did not come across a small creature that could cause considerable harm to humans, especially in rural areas, where medical attention is sparse.
What Type of Work is Available in South America?
As mentioned before, there are a large number of volunteer opportunities all over South America. You will find work in:
- health care
- social services
- AIDS prevention
- social justice
- human rights
- environmental protection
- preservation work
- animal care
- administrative work
- and many more types of work or service
For example, you could:
- Work for an organization to provide health services to indigenous communities in Argentina.
- Build houses for homeless migrants in the Brazilian Northeast.
- Help street children in Rio de Janeiro.
- Provide AIDS/HIV education for indigenous women in Bolivia.
- Help preserve rare rain forest species in Ecuador.
- Work with river dolphins in the Peruvian Amazon.
- Help with earthquake relief in Chile
Volunteer jobs are available with both public and non-profit organizations. Management style and administrative/management structure vary considerably from one organization to another. As a general rule, public service agencies tend to be more structured and bureaucratic, while small NGOs tend to be the opposite: spontaneous, democratic, but often lacking structure and planning, sometimes making it more difficult for volunteers to find their place in the organization.
My experience is that it is more important to find work you enjoy than to find the perfect organization which might do everything the way you think best. If you enjoy your work it is easier to cope with minor organizational flaws.
How Can I find a Reputable Volunteer Organization or Placement Service?
There are many organizations for volunteers in South America, and it should not be difficult for you to find a position that fits your interests and needs. There are several different ways to find a volunteer position in South America:
- The easiest way is to book a volunteer vacation with a reputable U.S.-based or international placement organization. These companies refer top-notch volunteer placements with renown international organizations (among them the WWF–World Wildlife Fund and many of these South American organizations), but some of them charge very high fees which cover the legitimate requirements and concerns of volunteers in far-away locations which can sometimes be a financial burden for students and would-be volunteers in today’s fragile economic environment.
- There are alternatives to expensive volunteer programs. If you are a little adventurous, you can find volunteer work on your own by contacting a South American NGO or organization directly (www.volunteersouthamerica.net). This is much cheaper than booking a volunteer placement with an organization, but you may have to find your own lodging, and there likely will not be as much support, training, and other services compared to larger placement organizations. If that’s the way you want to go, I recommend that you go with some knowledge of the local language. Instead of searching for volunteer opportunities online without any prior experience or recommendations, it might be a good idea to contact reputable international charity, aid, environmental preservation, and human rights organizations that are active in South America. They may be able to recommend volunteer opportunities for you, since they have wide-spread contacts all over the continent.
The Cost Factor
Volunteer program costs vary widely, and the more research you do, the better you will understand the pricing differences.
- There are many volunteer projects in cooperation with large U.S. or international organizations that charge several thousand dollars per month to participate.
- There are medium-priced volunteer opportunities. For example, you can volunteer at the famous Manu National Park in the Peruvian Amazon, for about US$500 a month.
For example, the very reputable Amigos de Américas includes roundtrip airfare, local transportation, food, lodging, health insurance, supervision, orientations, etc. in the US$4,600 fee for their 7-week South America volunteer programs (participants can either pay or individually fund raise the amount).
The more you research the various options for volunteering, the better you will be able to find a program that you like and that you can afford.
When is the Best Time to Go?
Seasons are reversed in most of South America (south of the equator), which makes our summer their winter. But in the tropics such as the Amazon there are really only two seasons: the dry season, roughly from June to October, and the rainy season from November to May. The rainy season is hot and incredibly humid, and the dry season is hot and dry. The Andean mountains have a continental climate with large temperature changes between seasons. Summers are warm at high altitudes, but winters are quite cold. If it is important for you to work and live in a climate that you enjoy and in which you are comfortable, plan a volunteer stay around your favorite time of year in the country of your interest.
In terms of work opportunities, there is no real difference between seasons, since NGOs, government and aid organizations are active year-round. One exception is animal preservation work that is sometimes seasonal. If you help to preserve dolphins, whales or river turtles, the preservation work follows the life cycle of the animals. For example, preservation work with river turtles in the Amazon is most active, when the turtles start laying their eggs on sandy riverbanks at the beginning of the dry season (June-July).
What Are the Requirements of Volunteering in South America?
Some volunteer positions require basic Spanish or Portuguese language skills or certain fundamental educational or professional experience, but most organizations are happy to receive any help they can get, and they will accept almost anyone interested in working for them. Some volunteer programs also have a required minimum stay due to the extent of the training or the type of work involved. Nonetheless, if you are willing to volunteer for at least two weeks, you should find a position without a problem.
Keep in mind that a basic health exam or health insurance policy may be required for some volunteer activities, since aid organizations and NGOs don’t want to be responsible for your health care expenses should you fall ill. There are also visa requirements that differ from country to country. Many volunteers enter as tourists and extend their tourist stay if their volunteer opportunity lasts longer than expected. However, most South American countries officially require volunteers to get a specific volunteer visa. Just make sure you don’t give immigration officials the misleading answers if you enter South America as a tourist with the intent to work as a volunteer.
What Are the Local Working Conditions Like?
Working conditions depend both on the location of your volunteer position and the financial situation of the organization for whom you are working:
- An organization or placement service that charges a high fee to volunteers usually assures that their participants are lodged comfortably and that they have basic services available to them, such as internet access, electricity (air conditioning), and telephone access. Health insurance, orientations, local transport, and excursions may also be included.
- If you work for a small, under-funded, local organization, you may not be charged any fees, but working conditions may be much more unpredictable. When I participated in a volunteer project through my university in Rio de Janeiro, we volunteers were simply told to go the community center in a nearby shantytown and set up our own volunteer art, music, and English classes for the local children. Due to the lack of support, not many of us foreign exchange students lasted through the school year.
The location of your placement is another important factor that impacts working conditions:
- Much volunteer work is available in urban areas, where the need is greatest and where there is often the largest concentration of NGOs. Volunteers have the benefits of enjoying city life and city amenities. But working in impoverished neighborhoods in South American cities can also be stressful and dangerous.
- Working in rural areas, on the other hand, tends to be a more peaceful and less stressful experience, but volunteers often lack even the most basic amenities they may be used to.
In sum, before finalizing your choice, make sure you find out as much about the local working conditions as you can, since they can easily spoil your volunteer vacation or, on the other hand, turn it into an experience of a lifetime.
For more information and a list of articles by participants along with many major programs and resources, check out our Volunteer in South America page.
Resources for Volunteering Abroad in South America
General information about volunteering, its impact and implications:
Tourism Concern, a British non-profit organization that works to ensure that tourism benefits local communities, provides information about the impact of volunteering: www.tourismconcern.org.uk.
Ethical Volunteering, www.ethicalvolunteering.org, offers advice & information for people who are interested in international volunteering and want to make sure that what they do is of value to themselves and the people they work with. The website has an ethical volunteering guide available for download: www.ethicalvolunteering.org.
Gap Year Research, www.gapyearresearch.org, is a website for people doing, or interested in research on the gap year, international volunteering and volunteertourism.
Voluntourism.org, www.voluntourism.org, provides information about short-term volunteering as well as listings of volunteer vacations.
International Volunteer Programs Association (IVPA), www.volunteerinternational.org, is an alliance of non-governmental organizations involved in international volunteer work and internship exchanges.
Voluntourism Gal Research, voluntourismgal.wordpress.com/voluntourism-research/ and its interesting survey from the perspective of volunteer organizations (.pdf).
Finding a Volunteer Opportunity:
To find volunteer opportunities, check out the extensive volunteering abroad section of TransitionsAbroad.com, with our Best Volunteer Abroad Web Sites.
Books about International Volunteering:
How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas by Joseph Collins, Zahara Heckscher (our volunteer abroad editor), and Stefano DeZerega. A classic work on the issues involved in volunteering and a must-read.
Green Volunteers: The World Guide to Voluntary Work in Nature by Fabio Ausenda.
Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others by Bill McMillon, Doug Cutchins, Anne Geissinger, and Ed Asner.
Volker Poelzl is a senior consulting editor and frequent contributor to Transitions Abroad. He studied and volunteered in Brazil and has traveled in six South American countries. You can contact him at email@example.com.