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Volunteerism and the environment: An overview
by Robert Leigh, Senior Policy Specialist, UNV

Greening the environment in Senegal (B. Mikula/UNV)Greening the environment in Senegal (B. Mikula/UNV)
07 August 2008

Bonn, Germany: Volunteerism is one of the longest traditions in environmental activism. The Beijing International Conference on Combating Desertification in 2008 concluded that local community participation in combating desertification and land degradation is crucial to successful resource management. And community initiatives are invariably volunteer-based.

The joint UNDP, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), World Bank and World Resources Institute 2008 report on the world’s resources, 'Roots of Resilience: Growing the Wealth of the Poor', identifies three key volunteer roles.

First, good governance must ensure local community ownership of resource management.  Government-facilitated, community volunteer coastal fisheries monitoring in Fiji has led to increased yields and a revival of traditional volunteer-based social customs. This experience is being replicated in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and the Solomon Islands.

Second, community capacities for ecosystem management must be unlocked. Volunteer involvement in the Indian Government’s Integrated Water Resource Development Project helps ensure community understanding of the impact of their conservation efforts and contributes to greater compliance.
Third, communities must be connected to adaptive networks that help them learn and link to markets.  In remote northern Bangladesh, a successful local wetland livelihood restoration project is being replicated by the Government based on reports from volunteer-led community organisations.

There are many other volunteering initiatives that have already made significant impacts. In Togo, Youth Volunteers for the Environment, coordinating with the Ministry of Health, Energy and Environment, trained women volunteers in rural communities to generate and use solar power for water purification and cooking.  In the process, women gained greater control over their lives.  The National Police Force of Bolivia formed the Green Brigades of young volunteers to raise awareness of biodiversity's importance and to run environmental activities.  The Government of Niger implemented an environment conservation scheme that decentralized responsibility to local volunteer groups and in the process built local capacity to develop sustainable income-generating projects in areas threatened by progressive desertification.

At the global level, hundreds of leading scientists volunteered to take part in the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and received the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for their contribution to enhancing knowledge in this field.

Climate change threatens to undo development gains and is increasing vulnerability, especially among the poor. Volunteers are boosting efforts in areas as desertification monitoring, biodiversity and heritage conservation, environmental policy implementation and comprehensive recycling around the world. It is increasingly apparent that local volunteer engagement is critical to the world's sustainable future.

UNV is administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)