How to be a responsible traveller: Kaya Tip 4: Being a sustainable traveller in a not so sustainable destination

It is easy to be a sustainable traveller on your volunteer abroad or internship placement when there are reminders everywhere; a recycling bin here and signs over there say ‘always take your trash with you” and the country you are visiting has already taken initiatives to be sustainable itself. However, the truth in many developing nations is that they do not have the resources, and their long lasting traditions often seem anything but sustainable. It can be a sad reality when you arrive and realize that being sustainable is not something widely acknowledged in the destination.

So the question facing those that volunteer abroad is how am I able to be sustainable in a country that does not promote its own sustainability?

  1. One of the challenges is the lack of regard for the environment. This may be through poorly kept vehicles polluting the air, the garbage littering the streets or the copious consumption of fossil fuels and deforestation. It can feel overwhelming to see the grand scale and effects these strains have on the environment daily but, by taking a few small steps you can help to lead by example. A few ways to remain sustainable;
    • Always take your rubbish with you and dispose of it in a proper receptacle.
    • If you need to buy water bottles, buy the large liter ones and fill up a smaller bottle as need – saving money and plastic use.
    • Help to educate those around you if you can, in a safe and welcoming manner. Join in on education groups or local initiatives to help teach about the causes and effects of such practices.
  2. There may be questions raised about the ethical standards and treatment of animals during your time abroad. You may see street dogs wandering about, monkeys forced to perform shows or traditional standards that present themselves as a challenge for your moral compass. You are responsible in ensuring that your actions abroad do not relate back to the animal suffering. Look into initiatives to help animals – such as removing chains from elephants in Nepal or local projects to help repopulate endangered populations. Some points to bear in mind are:
    • There is a fine line between culture and cruelty. You should never shame a culture for what is their norm, and do not contribute directly or indirectly to the suffering or abuse of animals. You cannot personally save all the suffering animals, but you can help to make change, by not participating, or helping projects that support efforts to end the issues.
    • Don’t purchase products that are made from animals such as ivory, fur, turtle shells and more.
    • Don’t pay to have your photo taken with wild animals, as this only promotes the capturing of wild animals and condemn them to a life of slavery
    • When it is possible find the most ethical and human horse, donkey and camel rides by checking the animals are in good health, are treated well and have access to food, water and shelter. If you can avoid taking any rides that give you concerns about the animal’s treatment do so.
  3. Lastly, you may come across unsustainable and potentially harmful misunderstandings of capacity, especially when volunteering abroad. In many developing countries there is a lack of formal training in the fields of medicine or building, for example. It is important to remember your own personal capacity for helping, to not do more harm by agreeing to do something you are not trained or unable to do. Many times you will be seen as possessing this knowledge because you are lending your specific skills in this field or because you are perceived to come from a background where education is a priority. However, if you are not properly trained you can hurt yourself, the local community and promote unethical practices.
    • Always understand your personal capacity and what you feel comfortable doing. If you are a nursing student, do not deliver a baby even if urged to do so by a local. Understand that by stepping up to a role you are not properly trained for can hurt others in the long run. Politely say you are not comfortable or trained to do such a task and would rather assist in a different manner.
    • Do not yell or treat locals will disrespect for things they do not understand. If you see teachers hitting their children, do not yell at the teacher. If you are asked to treat the children the same, the politely decline and take the teacher to one time to explain that it is not permitted in your own society.
    • Understand that acceptable level of hygiene and sanitation may differ and although you may ask for certain standards to be met. This might not be possible. Speak with a local onsite to convey any worries you may have, and be considerate when discussing this.

Above all show respect for the people, their culture and their lifestyles. While there may be cultural differences that challenge you and force you to change your perspective, you will not make any difference if you criticize and insult. At times travelling abroad can be a double edged sword; on one hand it brings jobs and valuable income that can help build a path for economic development but on the other hand it can promote unsustainable business and use of resources. Cultural traditions play a crucial factor in the ongoing efforts to try and make people in destinations more aware of their carbon footprints and the impact they have on the world around them. The outcome of change will be that many visitors realizing that they need to support sustainable efforts within the country and hopefully over time this will help to shift ideals and behaviours.

What other ideas can you share to help volunteers, interns and independent travellers when travelling to a destination where sustainability is sadly lacking?