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Volunteer Work in Brazil

How to Embark on a Meaningful South American Adventure

Volunteer in Brazil -- Harvesting and processing the manioc roots
Manioc root, often harvested by the entire extended family, is one of the few income sources for rural communities in Brazil.

In recent years the numbers of international volunteers have increased significantly as more and more people are looking for meaningful ways to spend time abroad. At a time of increased global conflict, natural disasters, and continuing humanitarian crises, many people prefer to help people in need instead of just vacationing in a foreign country. But volunteering is much more than just helping out in a foreign country—it brings people from different cultures together and encourages respect and understanding.

There is a well-known Brazilian saying: “Brazil is the land of the future, and always will be,” which points to the fact that Brazil has great potential. But despite its economic and technological prowess there is much poverty and a lack of health facilities and an adequate educational system, in addition to increasing environmental problems.

Since the end of the military government in the mid 1980s, Brazil’s civil society has increasingly become involved in those areas where the public sector has so far failed miserably: mainly in helping Brazil’s poor achieve a dignified way of life. There are today many local and international NGOs working in a large number of fields to improve the lives of Brazilians, to protect the environment and threatened species, and to protect human rights and the dignity of human life.

Many of these NGOs get international funding and work with international volunteer groups, and it is this diversity of locations and volunteer opportunities that make Brazil an ideal destination for a short- or long-term volunteer assignment. Another important reason to volunteer in Brazil is the Brazilian people. North Americans are quite welcome here, and Brazilians are very friendly, hospitable, and forthcoming toward foreigners generally.

Deforestation along the Amazon
A truck loaded with uncertified, illegal mahogany—preventing illegal logging is a huge challenge for NGOs working in the Amazon.

Find the Right Program

If you intend to volunteer in Brazil, it will not be difficult to find a volunteer placement that fits your interests, skills, and previous experience. There are projects that help street children, educate about AIDS, provide health services to the poor, build houses for the homeless, provide after-school programs for disadvantaged youth, coach sports, and teach a variety of skills—from music to dancing to English. Most volunteer work is in urban areas, where the need is greatest and the concentration of NGOs and volunteer opportunities is high. There are also a few opportunities for environmental work and assistance to people in small and rural communities in the Amazon and other remote areas of Brazil. NGOs work with native tribes in the health sector, with Amazonian fishermen to prevent overfishing, with settlers to teach sustainable farming techniques, and with conservationists to help protect and preserve endangered species and rainforests.

Time and Cost: Programs last from one week to several months and the cost can vary drastically between programs. A local NGO can offer you a volunteer placement in education, childcare, or community projects for a very modest fee, whereas a week working with marine mammals on Brazil’s coast can cost you $2,000 with a U.S.-based organization. Your fees go toward supporting the project you work for, but not every volunteer can pay such high fees in addition to international airfares. Some organizations offer short-term volunteer vacations. While these programs provide a glimpse into Brazil’s social reality for socially conscious tourists, these voluntourists do not get much hands-on experience. Unless you have really very little time, one or even just two weeks is not enough for a volunteer assignment. It simply does not allow the kind of immersion that most volunteers seek and that makes volunteering such a valuable experience.

Research: Find out the details about your prospective volunteer organization. Has there been any media coverage of the organization’s activities? Some websites include a news section, where you can read articles about the organization. Some volunteer organizations provide a feedback section on their website, where you can read the comments of previous volunteers. Although there is no association that provides oversight and regulates the activities of volunteer organizations, some are members of or cooperate with reputable international organizations, such as UN Volunteers, UNESCO, and the International Volunteer Programs Association (IVPA), which gives some indication of the organizations’ goals and integrity. Read the mission statement so you clearly understand what cause you are supporting and how your fees are used. Bear in mind that some organizations operate for profit, while others are nonprofit, registered in the U.S. as a charity under Internal Revenue Section 501(c)(3), which might entitle you to a tax write-off of some of your program fees.

Doing It on Your Own

If you are adventurous you can find volunteer work on your own by contacting a Brazilian NGO directly. This is much cheaper than booking a volunteer placement with an organization, but you’ll have to do all the legwork on your own, which takes time, and you should probably be able to speak Portuguese. Many NGO directors I have talked to in Brazil are interested in working with international volunteers because they are under-funded and understaffed and need all the help they can get. But if you arrange your volunteer position directly with an NGO you may have to find your own living arrangements and there may not be the same kind of support and training provided by organizations that place volunteers. The best way to find a Brazilian NGO is through a reputable international foundation that specializes in the type of activity you are interested in. The WWF (World Wildlife Fund) for example, supports projects in the Amazon, and the website describes local NGOs that have been given grants. International charity, aid, and human rights organizations can also point you in the right direction to find a suitable NGO for volunteering, since they often work with local Brazilian groups. Action without Borders (www.idealist.org) has a database of volunteer organizations on the website, which is a useful tool for finding a volunteer opportunity on your own.

The Challenges of Volunteer Work

Be realistic: It is important to be realistic about your skills and abilities. Working with disadvantaged youth in a shantytown may not be the best choice if you have never worked with children before. Likewise, if you have lived in a big city all your life it might not be the best idea to venture straight to a remote research station in the Amazon. Volunteer work is a great adventure that provides an opportunity to explore your limits, but keep in mind that just living in another country can be a considerable challenge. Keep in mind that some programs have high cancellation fees should you decide to drop out early.

Research: Each location presents unique challenges, and it is important to do some research to know ahead of time what you are getting yourself into. Working in a shantytown in Rio de Janeiro or helping build low-income housing in Recife, you will be able to enjoy a lively urban lifestyle in your off-time, but you are also faced with the problems of urban life in Brazil: violence, pollution, an overstretched infrastructure, and petty crime. On the other hand, in a small town in the Amazon you will have none of the urban amenities and entertainment, but your stay will be free of the annoyances common in Brazil’s cities. In both cases you will have to make some adjustments to your lifestyle and creature comforts. When I studied at a university in Rio de Janeiro, one of my classes offered credit for volunteering at a community center in Rio’s largest favela (as shantytowns are known in Brazil), Rocinha. It was not an easy environment to work in. In addition to the initial language problems and the loosely structured program, the residents viewed me and the other foreign students with suspicion; foreigners do not usually venture into favelas. It took some time for the news to spread that we were actually volunteering there, after which our presence was welcomed by the residents. When I volunteered with a private reforestation project in the Amazon, I faced different challenges altogether: the relentless heat and humidity in the Amazon, the vast distances to the nearest town, and being woken up at sunrise by raucous parrots and greeted at bedtime by tarantulas on my bedroom ceiling.

Cultural Differences

In addition to the physical challenges of a tropical environment, it is also important to be aware of cultural differences, not only in terms of language, mentality and customs but also in management styles and in the way projects are run. Problems are often solved when they arise and only at the last minute. Strategizing and planning ahead play little role in the day-to-day life of most NGOs. But this is the Brazilian way, and Brazilians have found that, with a little charm and by maintaining good relations with key players, it is always possible to make the impossible happen and jump bureaucratic hurdles. This does not mean that things are overly chaotic in Brazil; it just means that things work differently and that it takes most foreigners some time to get used to.

Helping out in areas of great social need and environmental threats is not an easy task, but foreigners will be rewarded by knowing that their work makes a difference. In addition to helping people in need, you also get a chance to make friends with Brazilians and get to know this vast and fascinating country. Regardless of where you decide to volunteer and what type of work you will perform, you can count on having a memorable and meaningful adventure in Brazil

A Choice of Volunteer Programs

Before committing to a volunteer program you should ask a number of important questions:

  • Does your placement include a language course? Is there a bilingual coordinator or staff available? Language skills are less essential in environmental work, but are important if you work with people, although few volunteer placement organizations have language requirements.
  • How well are your volunteer responsibilities defined, and will you get assistance, training, and an adequate orientation?
  • Does your organization arrange for room and board, and are there additional costs? Is your residence close to your work site?
  • Will you get a stipend, or does the program offer scholarships for participants who cannot pay the full program fee?
  • Is there a minimum required stay, or is the length of your volunteer assignment flexible? What is your work schedule, and will you have time to relax and take trips to nearby places of interest?
  • What are the travel costs in addition to your placement fee? Are travel and health insurance included?

Volunteer opportunities are constantly changing. Some projects are maintained permanently by NGOs, while others are short-term efforts based on specific grants. Volunteer organizations also change partners and take on new ones. Here’s an overview of selected volunteer organizations and the programs they currently offer in Brazil:

Associação Iko Poran works with a number of NGOs in Rio de Janeiro, mostly engaged in community development projects in low-income communities (often with children and youth), such as art/music education, community health projects, citizenship, and more. Programs range from 2 to 24 weeks, with lodging included (but not food). Portuguese courses are available for a fee. Program fee: $660 (approx.) for up to four weeks; each additional week is $80. Fees vary depending on the exchange rate.
Contact: Rua Doutor Julio Otoni 571, Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro RJ, CEP: 20241-400, Brazil; 011-55-21-2205-1365, fax. 011-55-21-2205-2765; www.ikoporan.org.

Amizade, Ltd.: The current program partners with several Brazilian NGOs and is based in the Amazon city of Santarém, working with street children; $1,510 for 2 weeks, $1,600 per month; $830 each additional month for the long-term program.
Contact: PO Box 110107, Pittsburgh, PA 15232; 888-973-4443, fax. 412-441-6655; volunteer@amizade.org, www.amizade.org.

Cross-Cultural Solutions: The current Brazil program is based in Salvador, helping with community-based projects in shantytowns. Programs last from 2-12 weeks ($2,389 for 2 weeks; $261 each additional week; $4,996 for the 12-week program. Also offers international internship positions for academic credit. Fees are tax deductible; fund-raising assistance available.
Contact: 2 Clinton Place, New Rochelle, NY 10801; 800-380-4777 or 914-632-0022; info@crossculturalsolutions.org, www.crossculturalsolutions.org.

Amigos de Iracambi: Offers volunteer opportunities with rainforest preservation efforts at the Iracambi Atlantic Rainforest Research and Conservation Center in Minas Gerais state. Minimum stay is one month ($400), with consecutive months costing less.
Contact: Fazenda Iracambi, Caixa Postal No. 1, Rosário da Limeira – MG, CEP: 36878-000, Brazil; 011-55-32- 3721-1436, fax. 011-55-32-3722-4909; iracambi@iracambi.com, www.iracambi.com.

Volunteers for International Partnership: Current programs include working with at-risk children in São Paulo, Florainópolis, and Natal, working with manatees in Balbina (Amazonas state), and environmental protection in Bahia state; Portuguese courses and homestays included; $2,225 for 2 months, $2,425 for 3 months.
Contact: PO Box 6141, Brattleboro, VT 05302; 802-258-3467, fax. 802-258-3467; info@partnershipvolunteers.org, www.partnershipvolunteers.org.

Volunteers for Peace: Offers affordable volunteer opportunities near Fortaleza (Ceará state), currently including a project for dental students providing clinical assistance, teaching English to children, and working at a childcare facility. An additional placement fee of $500 is charged for all programs. Contact: vfp@vfp.org, www.vfp.org.

Earthwatch Institute: Provides volunteer opportunities in scientific field research and education, in conservation efforts in the Pantanal (13 days; $2,095–$2,695) and protection efforts for dolphins, seals, and whales along the coast in São Paulo state.
Contact: www.earthwatch.org.

Global Vision International, GVI offers volunteer conservation work in Brazil, such as working with river dolphins at the internationally known Mamirauá Institute for Sustainable Development on the Amazon River ( US $2330 for 2 weeks, $2720 for 3 weeks, $3110 for 4 weeks ; food and accommodation included) and helping to protect Humpback whales in the state of Bahia ($1775 for 2 weeks, $2145 for 3 weeks and $2605 for 4 weeks ; food and accommodation included).
Contact: Global Vision International, 252 Newbury Street, Number 4, Boston, MA, 02116, USA. Call Toll free on 888-653-6028; info@gviusa.com, www.gvi.co.uk.

U.S. citizens need a visa to enter Brazil. Officially, volunteers require a non-immigrant work visa. Check with your volunteer organization and the Brazilian consulate for details: Embassy of Brazil in the U.S.