My body ached all over. Carrying twenty five kilo bags of gravel will do that to you. My clean clothes were brown and muddy. It was my first day as a volunteer with Madidi Travel’s rainforest reserve Serere. Five weeks of conservation work without electricity or hot water in the Bolivian Amazon was to follow. I was filled with both excitement and apprehension.
Having never done prior conservation work, I may have been forgiven for having naively inaccurate preconceptions of what it entails. What I imagined drew largely from what I had seen on television, where selfless nature lovers cradled wounded animals and gently fed them milk from a little bottle, or staked out endangered animals to tranquilize, tag and later monitor via GPS tracking. Really heroic stuff. I now know that the other ninety percent of conservation work that was not often publicized was all hard labor and if it was done well, it was invisible and not so glamorous.
Park founder Rosa Maria Ruiz soon dispelled my ignorance with the reality of her conservation work. Hunting, logging, net fishing, corrupt politicians, mutinous staff, rampant alcoholism and absurdly comical displays of elitism, vanity and machismo were just some of the issues looming over Madidi Travel’s operation. One afternoon, we found the bloated corpse of caiman floating on the lake. Its tail had been cut off. As though further proof was needed, I also saw vendors selling hunted meat from the park at local town fares. It was both excitingly eye opening and deeply frustrating to be aware of such insurmountable problems. I realized the importance of ongoing responsible tourism to displace and curtail destructive practices.
In light of these threats, we worked relentlessly: trail maintenance, construction, clearing weeds from fruit plantations, animal rehabilitation and more. I collapsed into bed every night depleted. Maybe that’s why I never felt the warm fuzzy sense of self admiration that usually accompanied volunteering. Instead, I learned skills I never imagined: the utility of the machete, navigating dugout canoes, cooking Bolivian dishes, and although I could not speak the forest language like the staff, I learned to recognize the sounds and smells of some animals. But some lessons were learned from the forest. Mosquitoes, horseflies, fire ants, ticks and wasps fed on me daily, reminding me that nothing can exist in this ecosystem without participating.