Volunteering in Belize

Want to help others less fortunate than you? Want to make the world a better place? Then you may want to investigate volunteer opportunities in Belize. There are basically three kinds of volunteer opportunities available:

Church and mission trips. This typically involves a week to several weeks of volunteer work in a medical or dental clinic, or building churches or homes, or other hands-on assistance. Usually these volunteer groups are based outside Belize, often at a church or school or as a part of a local medical society. In most cases, volunteers pay for their own transportation to Belize, along with personal expenses in the country, but food and lodging may be provided by the mission. Your best bet is to contact your church, college, or local medical society and ask if they know of upcoming mission trips to Belize.

Independent volunteering. Find a worthwhile organization and volunteer your services. Conservation organizations, churches, libraries, medical clinics, humane societies, and schools are among those that may welcome volunteers. You typically won't receive any lodging or food in return for your volunteer activities. To arrange this kind of independent volunteer work, you usually need to be in Belize and make personal contact with the organization you are seeking to help.

Organized volunteer programs. These volunteer programs often revolve around conservation, such as working with wildlife or reef preservation. A few programs offer volunteer opportunities in education, animal care, or social work. Some programs require volunteers to pay a placement fee, which can be several hundred U.S. dollars or more, plus pay for room, board, and transportation to Belize. In other programs, volunteers do not pay a fee and they may receive food and lodging in exchange for their volunteer work, but they usually have to pay transportation and incidental expenses out of pocket. For longer-term volunteering, consider the U.S. Peace Corps, which currently has more than 30 volunteers here.

Some organizations that accept volunteers in Belize:

Belize Audubon Society. The Belize Audubon Society is the oldest and largest conservation group in Belize. It manages seven protected areas and parks in Belize and accepts qualified volunteers to assist in its park management, conservation, tourism development, and other programs. The BAS usually requires a minimum three-month commitment for its overseas volunteers working inland, and one month for volunteers in the marine program. Although the BAS prefers to partner with universities to get its interns, it does also accept individual volunteer applications. The BAS does not pay for lodging or living expenses. 12 Fort St., Fort George, Belize City, Belize District. 223/5004; www.belizeaudubon.org. Varies by location.

Belize Botanic Gardens. Belize Botanic Gardens, 45 acres of tropical gardens at duPlooy's Lodge near San Ignacio, accepts occasional interns for field work in fields such as ethnobotany, botany, environmental science, environmental education, and tropical ecology, and also volunteers who have skills in horticulture, organic agriculture, landscape design and related fields. Volunteers pay a fee for food and lodging. Big Eddy, Chial Rd., duPlooy's Lodge, San Ignacio, Cayo. 824/3101; www.belizebotanic.org.

Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center. The Belize Zoo, one of the great conservation organizations in Central America, and the associated Tropical Education Center have a wide range of education and outreach programs. A few motivated volunteers/interns are accepted to assist Belize Zoo and TEC programs. The zoo says it's looking for interns to help guide and teach Belizean students, to help manage the animals, and in certain professional and skill areas. Internships are usually two to four weeks in length. The zoo provides food and accommodations, but interns pay a weekly fee of US$300. To apply, at least eight weeks in advance send a letter of inquiry by mail, fax, or email indicating your reasons for applying, areas of interest, education, and experience, and a medical certificate from a physician with your health status. Mile 29, George Price Hwy., Belmopan, Cayo. 822/8000; www.belizezoo.org.

Cornerstone Foundation. This nonprofit's programs include cultural, community service, office work, HIV/AIDS outreach, construction, natural healing, and community volunteer programs in Cayo District. Volunteers commit for a minimum of one week and up to three months. For longer programs, individuals pay US$585 a month for bunk-style housing and food. Fees for one-week programs start at US$199. Volunteers at Cornerstone must have medical insurance. 27 Far West St., San Ignacio, Cayo. 667/0210; www.cornerstonefoundationbelize.org.

Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. Monkey Bay is a private wildlife sanctuary and environmental education center on 1,060 acres near the Belize Zoo, with satellite campuses in the Mountain Pine Ridge and on Tobacco Caye. It has some volunteer intern opportunities in conservation and community service. Volunteers are expected to work about 30 hours a week. Monkey Bay also offers education programs on ecology, first aid, and natural history for students and others, ranging from a few days to more than a month. These education programs have various fees. In addition, Monkey Bay rents rustic accommodations to visitors. Mile 31.5 George Price Hwy., Belmopan, Cayo. 822/8032; www.belizestudyabroad.net.

Plenty Belize. Plenty Belize, an independent sister organization of Plenty International, has been working in Belize since 1990. It's currently helping the Maya and Garifuna communities in Toledo District with agriculture, school gardens, health, nutrition, solar energy, women’s development, micro-enterprise, and education programs. Contact Plenty for current needs, as programs in Belize change from year to year. Volunteers have to pay their own expenses, including transportation to the project site and living expenses while in Belize. Plenty International, Punta Gorda, Toledo. 931/964–4323; 722/2198; www.plenty.org.

WWOOF Belize. WWOOF is an Internet-based social networking organization that connects organic farms in some 50 countries (including Belize) with volunteers. WWOOFING in Belize allows you to trade work on an organic farm in return for room and board and in some cases a small stipend. Conditions and terms of work vary considerably from farm to farm, but keep in mind you'll usually be involved in hard physical labor for several hours a day under hot, humid, and buggy conditions. Farms usually require a minimum of one week's commitment, but some require several weeks or months. Currently there are several dozen farms in the WWOOF Belize network. To participate in WWOOF Belize, you have to join WWOOF Belize and pay a fee of US$5 for membership. (A discounted combined membership for Belize plus Mexico, Costa Rica, and Guatemala is US$33.) Membership gives you information about farms in Belize that are looking for volunteer workers—you contact the farms. www.wwooflatinamerica.com/group/wwoofbelize.

Ecotourism in Belize

Central America is one of the original ecotourism destinations; as a result, you'll see the term used liberally. For lodging it can be used to describe a deluxe private cabana on a well-tended beach or a hut in the middle of nowhere with pit toilets. It may also point to environmental conservation efforts by parks or tour companies that are conscious of natural resources and their role in not depleting them. Or it may mean just the opposite. Wildlife parks, butterfly farms, rain forests, and Mayan ruins are some of the incredible eco-destinations in Belize. Mountain biking, bird-watching, jungle hiking, scuba diving, cave tubing, fishing, and white-water rafting are just some of the eco-activities.

You can do your part to protect the natural heritage of Belize and the Tikal area of Guatemala by being an ecologically sensitive traveler. Where possible, choose green hotels, those that have taken care to protect the environment and that have energy-efficient cooking, lighting, and cooling systems, and that recycle and dispose of waste responsibly. Among these lodges and hotels are Hickatee Cottages near Punta Gorda; duPlooy’s Lodge, Table Rock Jungle Lodge, and The Lodge at Chaa Creek near San Ignacio; Blancaneaux Lodge in the Mountain Pine Ridge; and Hamanasi on the beach in Hopkins. Be culturally sensitive, as both countries have highly diverse populations, each with different cultural attitudes and perspectives. Also, try to do business with companies that hire local people for positions at all levels, and where possible choose local restaurants and hotels over chain properties. When diving or snorkeling, avoid touching or breaking coral. Don't take part in swim-with-dolphins or swim-with-manatees tours, and don't touch nurse sharks or stingrays (even if your guide invites you to do so). Most naturalists say these programs disturb the animals. Also, use eco-friendly sunscreen. On caving or hiking trips, take nothing but photographs and leave nothing of yours behind. When visiting Mayan sites, never remove anything, not even a tiny shard of pottery.

For the most part, Belize has reaped the benefits of the growing tourism industry, drawing in much-needed capital to bolster national coffers. Without taxes and revenues from tourism, now the largest sector of the Belize economy, the government of Belize would be broke, unable to fund basic national services. The costs of tourism are less obvious, however. Among other effects, indigenous communities are undermined by increasingly tourist-oriented economies—cultivating a plot of land may no longer support a family, but selling knickknacks in the streets just might. Where tourists come, expats often follow, and land, especially beachfront land, is quickly priced out of the reach of locals. Mass cruise tourism is a particular problem; Belize gets three times as many day-trippers from cruise ships as it does overnight visitors, and cruise passengers outnumber Belize residents by three to one. On days when several large cruise ships are in port, thousands of cruise passengers overwhelm fragile environments in rivers, caves, reef areas, and at archeological sites. It is mostly only a handful of local businesses, mainly tender boat owners and well-connected tour operators, that benefit financially. The new NCL cruise port on Harvest Caye off Placencia poses a particular risk to the limited infrastructure and resources of southern Belize. There's no easy solution to this dilemma, and balancing the advantages of tourism against its drawbacks is, and will remain, a constant struggle for Belize. The long-term effects are as much dependent on the attitudes and behavior of visitors as they are on prudent national policies.

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