Volunteering for Piedra Blanca, Ecuador

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By C. Hardyment.

I signed up for as a volunteer with Challenges Worldwide, a well known UK based volunteer placement charity, in 2004 (sadly Challanges Worldwide have now pulled out of offering volunteer placements in Ecuador). They told me about the options of volunteering in San Luis de Pambil and working with Piedra Blanca - it all sounded great to me - however they didn't have a huge amount of details about what exactly I'd be doing in Ecuador, nor where any of the money for the proposed ecotourism project was going to come from. I had just graduted from Edinburgh University, and written a dissertation on community ecotourism initiatives in Belize, and wanted to apply my newly found knowledge. When I set off for Ecuador from London in February 2004, I'd paid for a 3 month volunteer placement but had little idea of what I was getting myself into. It turned out to be a fantastic idea, and I ended up volunteering for over 6 months.

For most of this time I, and two other volunteers (Adam and Claudia, who worked on different CRACYP projects but had great advice for that of Piedra Blanca) were living with the family of Raul Cabrera, who is president on CRACYP, the NGO that organizes volunteer placements with Piedra Blanca. Raul has two great kids that were aged 3 and 6. His Colombian wife was our fantastic cook, and gateway to the local gossip of the town. I can genuinely say that we all had a great laugh every single night, and we all made many friends in the local community (err.... Adam hooked up with the Cabrera's maid/family help, Claudia hooked up with Marcelo who is now President of Piedra Blanca, and I hooked up with a girl from Quito - it proved a rather long journey).

Raul Cabrera (over 90% of volunteers live with Raul and his family) is one of the most forward looking and passionate people I've ever worked with. He's an ASHOKA fellow and an inspirational leader. He's massively popular in the region as CRACYP has organized so many important sustainable development projects over the years - almost everyone knows who he is. Raul could easily choose to become a politician, but instead he dedicates himself tirelessly to his NGO and it's work of sustainable development and reforestation in Ecuador.

When I arrived in the area, there was only really an outline plan for an ecotourism project in Piedra Blanca. Nothing was present - no infrastructure, no cabana - just an idea as suggested by the previous volunteers, who had spent a long time drumming up the local population's enthusiasm in the concept of ecotourism, and had applied to the UN for a grant for the project, but had failed to be granted the capital by them.

It was a seemingly impossible situation - no money, no infrastructure, just a vague plan. I worked hard to explain to the community of Piedra Blanca why the project was important for them - I visited almost every family and explained to them that if the project proceeded, they would be economically better off. I tried to design a more concise framework for the ecotourism project whereby as many people were involved as possible and emphasis was placed up local conservation at the same time.

We got a break after about a month. Working with CRACYP, they always seem to get a break somehow. Once or twice a year, CRACYP organizes the two/three week placements of large groups of 16-18 year old volunteers from the US charity Global Routes to do sustainable development projects in this part of Ecuador - on this occasion it was decided that they would fund and help to build the planned ecolodge in Piedra Blanca. Much planning was involved until they actually came in June 2004.

My work initially consisted of explaining the planned project to the local community, drumming up enthusiasm, and planning how everything would ultimately function. We came up with a framework with regards to how the power structures should theoretically operate, and planned how we would deal with tourists when they arrived. By the time Global Routes arrived with the cash and volunteer labour to construct the cabana, I'd arranged for a Swiss architect friend who I had met in Quito (Damien Rudaz - cheers buddy) to come up with the design for the ecolodge and we got building it. The Global Routes volunteers worked alongside the community to build the ecolodge we had planned. After a couple of weeks the ecolodge was built, albeit lacking a few rather important features.

All the structure was pretty much there - the cabana was 90% ready, but we realized that we'd run out of money (this was in 2004). The $15,000 or so that Global Routes had brought hadn't quite stretched far enough, yet the Piedra Blanca ecolodge and ecotourism project was so close to being functional. I had to end my on-site volunteer placement at the end of August 2004, but vowed to stay involved (I've since returned 3 times, I manage this website and continue to recruit future volunteers - indeed if you enquire about volunteering at Piedra Blanca, it willl probably be me that responds).

Trickles of individual tourists plus the occasional large group (50+) of tourists started to arrive over the next few years. Sadly the ecolodge wasn't quite ready to accommodate these tourists, but instead they camped in tents or stayed in the houses of local families. None-the-less the ball started to roll.

A website was developed (this one) to promote the region, and adverts on the website used to generate extra funding for the ecotourism project. For a couple of years local issues of flooding, excessive rains and nearby volcanic eruptions, combined with constraintive economic conditions meant that the Piedra Blanca Eco-project had to be put to one side as members of the local community had to dedicate themselves to survival (ie. farming). Still this website started to accumulate much needed extra funds (by 2007 about $5000 per year was being accumulated, which we describe as coming from "virtual tourists"). The local community, headed by the new proactive president Marcelo Calero, found additional funding and by late November 2008 the newly found capital had been used to finalize the cabana and get it ready for regular use (I write this in 2008).

My only regrets about volunteering with CRACYP and Piedra Blanca were that I didn't stay in Ecuador longer (my envisaged 3 months became 7 months but I could easily have stayed for much longer) and that my Spanish was only to an intermediate/advanced level (it really helps to understand everything). Still I had one of the best, and most rewarding times of my life. I learnt more in those 7 months than I have done in any other 7 months of my life, and had a momentously royal laugh at the same time. I'm still fully involved 4 years later, recruiting potential volunteers and managing this website. Get in touch and help the project develop further - my email is chris@piedrablanca.org .

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Volunteer Work in Ecuador at Piedra Blanca