Coming from Australia, I’d never actually seen a gun in person before, but Wilson had been nothing but casual as he slung his hunting rifle over his shoulder and led us down the path into the forest. The trees were so closely packed that only fingertips of sunlight could touch upon my face and I wondered how we would be able to see any animals in the deep twisting labyrinth of foliage. These are skills that can be taught, which Wilson does in his lessons to the small groups of volunteers that visit Bario to learn hunting skills and work on community projects.
Barking deer are naturally nervous creatures and so you need to trick them if you want to get them close enough to shoot. This is what Wilson explained to me as he threaded a long blade of grass between his fingers and shaped it between his lips. The pressure of his breath on the leaf emitted a shrill pitch that mimicked the call of the barking deer. Wilson’s house backs onto primary rainforest and he is well-versed in the art of survival and hunting skills.
I met Wilson by the side of the road in Bario. The small Malaysian Borneo village, accessible only by air, was the kind of community where you didn’t think twice about jumping in a complete stranger’s car. Wilson’s rough and mud-slicked white 4WD was necessary for navigating the windy logging roads that linked his hilltop home to the rest of the village. He invited my friend and I to visit his house and we crushed ourselves onto a single seat that could barely contain us through the endless bumps and rolls of the mud-destroyed logging track.
The house was isolated and barely built, but it subscribed to the notion that location is everything. Wilson’s property looked out over a verdant green landscape, with the village of Bario nestled amongst mountains and shrouded in the mist that hugged the valley for the entire time that I was there.
To the back of the property stretched green rainforest, which was the focal point of the survival and hunting skills that Wilson teaches volunteers. But on the other side of the coin is the community projects undertaken by the groups. Wilson pointed one out to us as we drove back to our guesthouse with the barking deer carcass in tow. The centre of town consists of six shops, including an internet cafe that is erratically open a couple of times a week, and a stretch of grass that has an abandoned playground on it.
“This was the volunteer project from two years ago” said Wilson, pointing to the playground. It isn’t used. Shiny and inviting to the children’s eyes, the project is impractical in a community where children spend their days either at school or under the watchful eye of the women in the community longhouses.
So what function did this project serve? The volunteer tourism industry seems to be over saturated with programs that fulfil a need to “do good” on any level. This is often at the expense of focused programs that match appropriately skilled volunteers to programs that correctly utilise these skills.
In particular, I find it disturbing and counter-intuitive that the majority of construction projects require no previous construction experience from volunteers. They simply require funding and volunteers with a desire to “do good”. While volunteers’ intentions are clearly well-meaning, they need to make smarter choices of projects that they can meaningfully contribute to.
So what should potential volunteers be considering when choosing an appropriate program?
Are my skills matched to the program? A lack of previous experience for projects like construction or teaching could be harmful if it needs extensive training or constant supervision.
Where is the money going? Many large international volunteering companies charge excessive fees that factor in overhead costs, marketing and profit on top of funds that actually benefit the target communities.
Was the community involved in the decision-making process? Projects by large companies should be in line with community needs and preferably aligned with local organisations.
How sustainable is the project? For example, projects such as English-teaching positions that only last a couple of weeks are unlikely to actually benefit the education of children.
Have you ever taken part in a volunteering project that seemed to make little real difference? Let me know what you think in the comments below.