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Volunteer Work in Colombia


Providencia Island is part of Colombia and is found almost literally in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. Most small Caribbean islands are highly developed, and often reliant on tourism. However, Colombia's Providencia Island, is a relatively remote backwater - undeveloped, untouched, and (thankfully) yet to see mass tourism. Providencia Island offers a unique opportunity for those interested in combining volunteer work in Colombia with a tropical island experience.

By volunteering in Providencia Island, you'll have an amazing experience, contribute towards local conservation and the sustainable development of a poor community and also spend a few months living on a truely beautiful Caribbean Island that is part of Colombia.

Volunteers work with Trees and Reefs Foundation.

About Trees and Reefs Foundation

Trees and Reefs Foundation was established in 1989 with the aim of conserving the land and marine environment of Old Providence Island. The Foundation has a variety of ongoing projects for whom volunteer workers are required.

Trees and Reefs works closely with the Archipelago's (governmental) environmental protection agency, Coralina. For example, Coralina helps fund various projects operated by Trees and Reefs. You can read about the global conservation award won by Coralina in 2010 in this article on the BBC News website. The conservation projects that you as a volunteer would be working on have been globally recognized as examples that set the standard for other conservation agencies and projects to follow.

Projects Needing Volunteers

Conch Project - the conch (see photo to the right) is a type of enormous sea snail that is a endangered species in the waters of Providencia. Together with Coralina, Trees and Reefs Foundation jointly runs a project to conserve the conch and help this creature repopulate the area. Conch farms are established to grow the conch, whose development is closely monitored. Later the conch are released into the wild in various local marine conservation areas. A marine geneticist or marine biology volunteer would be particularly useful for this project.

Lionfish Project - the lionfish are an aggressive fish native to the Pacific Ocean. Over recent years they have become an invasive species throughout the Caribbean, greatly damaging both the coral and native marine life through their predatory instincts and rapid reproduction. Sadly, the largest recorded lionfish has been found in the seas of Providencia Island, where it is becoming an increasing threat to both the local marine life, and the associated way of life of the local fishermen. Trees and Reefs Foundation is part of the team of local organizations who helps try to control the spread of this invasive fish. Again, a marine biology volunteer could immensely help with this project.

Iguana Repopulation Project - enormous iguanas are found throughout Providencia Island. They are a threatened species as they are a traditional source of food for the local islanders. As a means towards conservation, Trees and Reefs Foundation helps local families develop small iguana farms so they don't have to hunt the threatened wild iguanas.

Sustainable Permaculture / Sustainable Agriculture Project - the foundation helps set up pilot permaculture projects with the aim of re-educating the young people of the island about the richness of the local soil and how effective it can be at growing crops. Over recent decades food has increasingly been imported into Providencia rather than being grown locally as it traditionally was. The sustainable permaculture project operated by Trees and Reefs tries to address this issue and help promote sustainable agriculture amongst the 250 farmers on the island. An expert in plant diseases and a specialist in irrigation systems are particularly needed for this project.

Museum of Providencia Project - Trees and Reefs is currently establishing a museum whose theme is of the historical relationship between the local Raizal islander and the sea. The museum will extensively document the fascinating history and culture of the native Raizals of the island. Old fisherman need to be interviewed, old maps and other documents need to be discovered and investigative anthropological and historical work needs to be carried out in both Providencia and in London (UK) to help document the history of the island and it's traditional links to Britain. This is culturally very important work, and is regarded by the islanders as almost like a counter-measure against the invented "Spanish history" that the Colombian government attempts to invent (impose?) with regards to the history of the island, which all the locals will tell you is thoroughly related to Britain, not Colombia! [ed - these are my words and interpretation, no-one elses]. Historians and anthrologists would be particularly useful types of volunteers for this project.

Other Projects - the foundation constantly develops new projects as they present themselves. You might propose new worthwhile projects to the 10 member directive board of the foundation. Please note that not all the projects of the foundation have been listed above.

Types of Volunteers Required

Having given you some background information about the type of work in which Trees and Reefs is involved, you should be able to judge whether you might be able to help in one or ideally a variety of the current projects. Volunteers should be mature, aged at least 23, proactive individuals who are university graduates with an education / work experience background in any of the following fields:

  • Marine Biology - the no.1 requirement for the island is marine biology volunteers.
  • Marine Conservation
  • Sustainable Fishing
  • Sustainable Agriculture
  • Ecology
  • Fishery Engineer
  • Fundraising
  • Coral Reef Conservation and Rejuvenation
  • Conservation (generally)
  • Sustainable Development
  • Other specialists already noted in the projects section eg. Historians, anthropologists, amongst others.
  • Placements that are part of a university course cannot be considered. The Foundation needs experts in their field to help improve and develop their projects.

    Providencia is an English speaking island, however it is preferred (though not necessary) that volunteer workers also understand Spanish, the native language of distant Colombia.

    Volunteer placements last for a minimum of 3 months - very rarely will exceptions be made.

    Volunteers are expected to leave behind them a strong, relevant, long lasting, positive contribution towards local conservation and sustainable development projects. In return, the foundation expects to offer you a rewarding and memorable experience. Plus, you get to live in paradise for a few months!

    With whom will you be working?

    For your volunteer work, you will be based in the office of Trees and Reefs Foundation - the office is beautifully located next to the Caribbean sea and just outside of the main town of the island.

    You will work alongside the Director of the NGO, a friendly lady named Arelis Howard, who is currently the only full time employee of the Foundation. Arelis has great experience in local conservation and sustainable development issues having worked for many years with Coralina, the local authority in charge of the conservation of the local environment. Arelis has over 10 years experience managing and working with volunteers on the island. Other than her work as Director of the NGO, Arelis is also the manager of the restaurant Bamboo on Santa Catalina Island. Arelis is fluent in English, Spanish and her native Creole language. Arelis also works as a consultant for both Coralina and Conservation International.

    Where & How will you be working?

    Your work will be based in the Foundations office on the edge of the main town in Providencia Island. It's a simple office but there's internet and some computers. Depending upon your expertise, you will probably participate in regular field visits. Please don't come with the expectation that you will be scuba diving every other day - it rarely works out this way!  You can read about a past volunteer's experience at this blog.

    Adapting to the local Culture

    To do voluntary work with the Foundation you will need to be an adaptable, flexible and patient person. Your background and culture is likely to be very different from the background and culture of the local people with whom you will be working. For example, time-keeping in Colombia (indeed throughout rural Latin America) is very relaxed - you might arrange to have a meeting at 8am, but no-one will show up until 10am! You will need to be a flexible and patient person to deal with scenarios that many people from a "Western" educated background might at times find frustrating. Things in Colombia happen slowly. Things in Providencia happen even more slowly! You should be prepared for a slower pace of life here, and not get frustrated when things happen slower than they would in your own society. Having said that, you must be a pro-active person who can make things happen when faced with obstacles that are seemingly difficult to overcome.

    Practical Information & How to Apply

    Volunteers will live with a local family (an English speaking, Raizal family) and pay 900,000 Colombian pesos per month (approx US $450) to cover the costs of all their food and accommodation. The accommodation is simple but clean - you'll sleep under a mosquito net, and the house where you live will have neither air-conditioning nor hot water (neither of which are common on the island). This of 900,000 pesos per month is higher than we would like it to be, but the cost of living on the island is high as almost everything (drinking water, most food, etc) is imported from the exterior. The foundation receives limited funding and cannot sponsor volunteer placements.

    Volunteer placements last for a minimum of 3 months. Exceptionally highly qualified, genuine experts in their fields might be able to volunteer for a shorter period of time.

    Those seriously interested should send their CV and a cover letter detailing their expertise, aims, ambitions and reasons for wanting to volunteer in Providencia to chris@paisatours.com. Please include the time frame when emailing - for how long are you available, and from when?

    About Me

    I'm British, I manage this website (the internets most visited independent travel guide to Colombia), and I now live on Providencia Island (Colombia). Here I work with Trees and Reefs director Arelis to help her recruit volunteers for what is a highly worthwhile foundation that does some very important work for the island.

    I can honestly say that the opportunities to volunteer here in Providencia are unlike any I have heard of elsewhere in Latin America - this small community of 5000 people really could use foreign expertise to conserve it's very fragile (UNESCO Biosphere Reserve) environment, whilst at the same time you as a volunteer get to spend months living on a tropical paradise Caribbean island.

    In the past I myself have worked as a volunteer in many parts of Latin America - so I know what you, as a potential volunteer, expect. For the last 6 years, I have recruited volunteers for the Ecuadorean NGO CRACYP and the Piedra Blanca Community Ecotourism Project, volunteers who have helped contribute towards various sustainable development and ecotourism projects in Ecuador. Recently, I have started recruiting volunteers to work in Providencia. I won't personally be organising your volunteer placement here in Providencia - your placement will be organized by Trees and Reefs. I simply do the initial recruiting and put relevant candidates in touch with the Foundation. If you prefer to skip me out and go straight to the foundation just say so - but remember I'm here to help, and to judge whether the placement would be suitable for both you and the Foundation.


    Volunteering in Providencia, Colombia:
    Conch Conservation Volunteering in Colombia & the Caribbean
    The Conch (above) of the island need to be conserved.

    Lionfish Hunting in Providencia, Colombia
    Above a group of scuba diving volunteers working towards lionfish control, an invasive species.

    Traditional food and cultural preservation
    Trees and Reefs Foundation also works with the local community to help conserve the traditional culture. Eg. Traditional island food preparation techniques (above) are being preserved through a variety of cultural preservation projects.

    Providencia's Beaches
    Providencia's beaches are quite exceptional - possibly the most beautiful in Colombia. Of course, you'll get to enjoy them if you choose to volunteer in Providencia Island, Colombia.



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