Adéle and Laura are volunteering with LIFE Volunteer Escapes in Portugal. The project trains students in ecological and conservation activities. It runs through the European Solidary Corps, the EU programme for young people to volunteer in Europe.
LIFE Volunteer Escapes is one of 3 LIFE projects present in Brussels at the 2019 European Youth Week. The week celebrates youth activities in events throughout Europe.
Adéle, a law student from France, and Laura, a Lithuanian biology and ecology student, took time out from their work to speak to LIFE about their experiences volunteering.
The placements are organised by Montis, a Portuguese NGO which specialises in ecological land management.
Did you know anything about conservation or environmental protection before you started?
“I grew up in a small town but never really spent time in the countryside”, said Adéle. “I felt this was really something I was missing.” She decided to check out the options for conservation volunteering on the European Solidarity Corps website, and found vacancies with Volunteer Escapes.
In contrast, Laura grew up in the city and studied biology, and then followed this with a Master’s in ecology. “I’d previously spent a couple of months in the European Voluntary Service [the precursor to ESC], and I really enjoyed the experience”, she said.
Placements run for 6 months, so both young women also saw the chance to move to a different country in Europe where they had never been and were not familiar with. “The landscape, the species, they are all so different here!”, both said.
Activities are based around Vouzela, a historical town nestled in a hilly region in the centre of Portugal.
What are you working on?
Volunteers spend most of their time outside. “We are in the fields a lot, planting trees, and doing what you’d call natural engineering – looking after waterways, clearing branches that block streams, keeping an eye on invasive species”, they described.
The young women are also getting involved in crowdfunding for Montis, and sharing news and pictures about the activities on social media.
So you are learning plenty from your time on the project?
“Of course!” said Laura. “There is so much to learn! Not only all the practical things from working in the field, learning about the local environment and species, but also all the experiences you get from working and living with a small group, all from different places but working together on the same activities.”
“I discovered even more than I thought could exist”, added Adéle. “You really learn new ways of thinking. For example, we had to help build a controlled fire to clear some of the ground. This was really something completely against all my instincts, but we worked together with experienced staff so we could clear the area. The experts gave all the explanation and support we needed.”
And having volunteers on the project is a win for the staff there too. “Since we come with new questions, the experts here are sometimes forced to think more about their work too”, the students explained.
Any ideas where this will take you next?
On top of the concrete conservation work, both students are confident of the value of the time for their own futures. “It’s really a semi-professional experience”, said Adéle. “I want to combine what I’m learning here with my legal studies and get involved in environmental law.”
Having studied ecology already, for Laura it’s a chance to apply her studies in the real world. “With this, I can see how environmental NGOs work from the inside, and that’s really valuable”.