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Volunteer Work Projects in Brazil

How to Embark on a Meaningful South American Adventure

Volunteers for wildlife conservation projects in the Amazon of Brazil are needed.
Volunteers for wildlife conservation projects in the Amazon of Brazil are needed.

In recent years, international volunteers have increased significantly as more people seek 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, a lack of health facilities, an inadequate educational system, and increasing environmental problems.

Brazil's civil society has increasingly become involved in those areas where the public sector has failed miserably, mainly in helping Brazil's poor achieve a dignified way of life. Today, many local and international NGOs work in many fields to improve Brazilians' lives, protect the environment and threatened species, and 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 makes Brazil an ideal destination for a short- or long-term volunteer assignment. Another vital reason to volunteer in Brazil is the Brazilian people. North Americans are welcome here, and Brazilians are generally friendly, hospitable, and forthcoming toward foreigners.

Volunteers for nature conservation in the Amazon are in need
Volunteers for nature conservation in the Amazon are needed.

Find the Right Volunteer Projects in Brazil

If you intend to volunteer in Brazil, it will be easy to find a volunteer placement that fits your interests, skills, and previous experience. Some projects help street children, educate them about AIDS, provide health services to people experiencing poverty, build houses for people without homes, provide after-school programs for disadvantaged youth, coach sports, and teach various 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, settlers to teach sustainable farming techniques, and 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. In contrast, a week working with marine mammals on Brazil's coast can cost you at least $2,000 with a U.S.-based organization. Your fees go toward supporting the project you work for, but only some volunteers 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 only get a little hands-on experience. It would be best if you had more time to have more than one or two weeks 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 no association 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 to understand what cause you support and how your fees are used. Remember 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.

Finding Volunteer Work on Your Own

If you are adventurous, you can find volunteer work by contacting a Brazilian NGO directly. This is cheaper than booking a volunteer placement with an organization. Still, you'll have to do all the legwork independently, 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 underfunded and understaffed and need all the help they can get. But suppose you arrange your volunteer position directly with an NGO. In that case, you may have to find your own living arrangements, and there may be different kinds of support and training provided by organizations that place volunteers. The best way to find a Brazilian NGO is through a reputable international foundation specializing in the type of activity you are interested in. FOR EXAMPLE, the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) 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. Idealist has a massive database of volunteer organizations on the website, and is a useful tool for finding a volunteer opportunity on your own.

The Challenges of Volunteer Projects and Work in Brazil

Be realistic: Being realistic about your skills and abilities is essential. Working with disadvantaged youth in a shantytown may not be the best choice if you have never worked with children. 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 allows you to explore your limits, but keep in mind that 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 vital to research to know what you are getting yourself into ahead of time. 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 no 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 a challenging environment to work in. In addition to the initial language problems and the loosely structured program, the residents viewed me and the other international 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 in language, mentality, customs, management styles, and how 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. Brazilians have found that, with a bit of 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 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 easy, but foreigners will be rewarded by knowing that their work makes a difference. In addition to helping people in need, you also get 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 in Brazil

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 vital if you work with people, although only some 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 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 visit 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. NGOs maintain some projects permanently, 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:

Amizade, Ltd.: The current program partners with several Brazilian NGOs and is based in the Amazon city of Santarém, working on the management of land and biodiversity and the volunteering in education and for the health of those who move to the town and are impoverished.

Amigos de Iracambi: Offers volunteer opportunities with rainforest preservation efforts at the Iracambi Atlantic Rainforest Research and Conservation Center in Minas Gerais state.

Earthwatch Institute: Provides volunteer opportunities in scientific field research and education in conservation efforts on Wildlife and Reforestation in Brazil (7+ days; $2,175) to protect animals and the jungle near Rio.

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.

Related Articles by Volker Poelzl
The Race to Save the Amazon in Brazil
Traveling Down the Amazon: A Pictorial Essay
Related Topics
Volunteer in Brazil
Living in Brazil: Key Expatriate Resources

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