Is ‘voluntourism’ the new colonialism?” is an article that made its way around the internet recently. Although absurdly titled and poorly written, the article does make one important point about international volunteering: participants are people of privilege. Despite entering into situations they cannot possibly understand fully, volunteers often perceive themselves as the primary problem solvers. These volunteers fail to comprehend that sustainable change does not mean taking the lead, but empowering locals to do so. It means asking residents what problems they have identified and helping them acquire the resources to implement solutions.

A few months ago, we worked with Children of the Border to build 20 latrines in La Fond-Jeannette, Haiti. The Haitians don’t lack latrines because they don’t know how to build them. They lack latrines because the international aid money for post-earthquake rebuilding has disappeared into politicians’ pockets, leaving communities outside Port Au Prince without paved roads. It takes several hours and hundreds of dollars to transport construction materials a few kilometers in the mountains just over the border from The Dominican Republic. We helped the residents of La Fond-Jeannette get the materials and then they taught us how to build the latrines.

Before arriving in Minca, Colombia, we were told by Misión Gaia that we would be promoting responsible resource use and sustainable development of the tourism industry. What would volunteers who had never worked in agriculture have to offer locals who had stewarded fertile farmland through generations of conflict? We didn’t know until we arrived in Minca and had a chance to hear about the problem from the farmers themselves.

After surviving decades of occupation by the military and the paramilitary, disappearances, murders, displacement, and never-ending bribes, the residents of Minca are now contending with the peacetime invasion of extranjeros, or outsiders, buying up their land and driving them out of business. Take, for example, Casa Loma, the most popular hostel in Minca. The hostel is situated on land that is sacred to the indigenous Colombians. Is, not was. The land was taken right from underneath the indigenous Colombians and turned into a campground for tourists. Tents encircle a ring of carved stone altars and figures that are no longer used for religious ceremonies, even though the people who carved them are still alive. The most successful restaurants and businesses in Minca are run by Westerners who can speak the language of the tourists, who understand how to attract vacationers using social media and have the resources to advertise. That is the new colonialism. Within ten years, there may not be any Colombians left in Minca.

Although we are not agricultural experts, there are ways we can help the Minca farmers retain their land and their livelihoods. Now that we have a better understanding of the situation we are helping them design websites and develop social media strategies. We are translating materials and formatting them in ways that will appeal to the increasing numbers of tourists that visit Minca. One family we’ve worked with has operated a successful finca, or farm, called “No Hay Como Dios” (There is no one like God/God has no equal) for decades. The owners are a warm, friendly family with rich land for hiking and working, incredible views, and amazing food and lodgings. And now, thanks to our godless efforts, Finca No Hay Como Dios has a multi-media rich, internet savvy campaign to attract lodgers.

Privilege is often an obstacle to understanding and communication, but here in Minca it allows us to give locals the tools they need to protect some of the most biodiverse and fertile land on the planet. In addition to helping with web design, social media strategy, and English, we are building composters and preparing seedbeds. Not because the locals don’t know how to do it themselves, but because they have neither the time nor the money to do so. They are surviving day to day, and any leg up is a foothold. Will you lend a hand? https://donate.pathfindersproject.com