After trying to explain at length the economic importance and intricacies at play of the role of the UK volunteer in terms of forestry and countryside management to a French mayor, He stated that it was an impossibility to realise volunteers as stakeholders in a national sense in France ‘’A homeowner will happily sweep the pavement outside their property, but they are unlikely to do next doors’’.
The volunteer is now a fixed commodity for many UK NGOs and in most cases they provide the platform to allow for strengthening conservation beyond the minimum requirements as well as providing a key to progressive land management and full integration of all stakeholders. I have been privileged to work alongside a BTCV team, on whose faces was displayed the full set of emotions that many of us lose when dealing with land management on a day to day basis. There was no doubt that the young team felt privileged to have the chance to spend one day helping and in return being given the connection with a landscape and the natural world that so many of those on the periphery of the industry take for granted (in my case constructing an otter holt in the grounds of a 4 star hotel overlooking the ancient woodlands that overhang the Helford river).
As a practitioner who has worked in the private sector, my opinion on the voluntary sector is certainly an ongoing love / hate battle.
In terms of progressing towards full sustainable land and forest management in the UK, they are a vital component and quite frankly good fun also. They have been a link for communication to the greatest of landscape stakeholders, the public. And my fond memories of days spent with fellow International Tree Foundation members, tree planting alongside hefty community turn outs, will stay with me as a raison d’etre for continuing my career.
I have always and continue to feel that the voluntary sector has been abused in the UK, it has been responsible in part for the disenfranchisement and decline of the traditional and local practitioner. It has become a necessity for entry into the profession and diminishes chances of paid work in land industry to those who cannot afford to volunteer. It has arguably led to a shift in favour of middle class influence against both the higher and lower classes in all elements of land management. Most dramatically it has led to voids between landowning NGOs and private land owners, which has only been kept from splitting the landscape in two by dominant governmental agencies.
There now exists a situation, in particular relating to the National Trust whose voluntary base is huge and can be undeniably stated as being the masters of the exploitation of volunteers, that some of the UKs cultural heritage is only preserved as a result of the omnipresence of volunteers and no one can question the importance this has for all of us. However in terms of general forestry and land management this is not always the case and as the corporate identity and role in policy making by some other landowning NGOs increases it is leading to unfair competition, particularly when the valuation of ecological systems gains recognition within politics.
Private landowners must also be given the opportunity to gain from the valuable commodity that is the volunteer, and with increasing amounts of private landowners purchasing and managing land for more altruistic purposes and to realise sustainable land management, this notion cannot be disregarded as being one that would not appeal to the potential volunteer. On a local sense the volunteer can be part of the community to whom that landscape belongs. They would properly (and all case study suggests this) welcome the opportunity to engage directly with what may have been a previously closed element of their landscape. And given the choice of this option and volunteering for a large NGO whose executives are paid handsomely the chances of being or feeling ‘duped’ are considerably less.
In terms of the practitioner base there now exist many European schemes, the best of which seems to be the Leonardo Di Vinci programme allowing students to gain experience of traditional land management crafts, which have all but disappeared in their own countries and yet due to much more broad spectrum and intense higher education courses in their own countries allow for a real transfer of knowledge. There is a possible very sad paradox to occur in the future, where the skills and knowledge of UK traditional practitioners will have been exported and embraced in other countries but allowed to die out in the UK. I once had a ‘stagier’ from the INH at Angers, who worked alongside a UK team in the Westcountry of England for only 3 months, but now integrates the skills, which are important and oft ignored elements of sustainable land management, learnt into private practice in France. Some of her colleagues had completely unpaid placements with UK landowning NGOS, and governmental agencies and did nothing more than strim grass verges for the 3 months.
Volunteers are wilfully abused. There is an increasing amount of disdain held by volunteers for those who are charged to manage them. This is largely due to the volunteers simply being treated like an employee. If you feel like this, then seek out another NGO, there are many available or preferably a local group (in many parts of the UK small local groups meet regularly to simply enjoy a day of work – Steeple Woods project, the resulting achievements are far more rewarding than planting up a field for CO2 offset, paid for by a local business, which will be sold anyway). After all charity begins at home and volunteering in real financial terms is a hefty sum to give to any charitable cause.
As the remit of the forestry panel for England appears to cover all trees and woodland in the country and the omissions on the panel have been questioned in terms of being able to fully embrace a sustainable forest management future, (as already mentioned in previous blogs: the lack of an academic, scientific, public or practitioner voice) it can also be argued that the voice of the volunteer is also lacking due to the fact that it will be muffled behind the barrier of those NGOs who assume to know all about the ‘voluntary’ sector but in real terms this knowledge is little more than knowing how to profit from them.