“Indigenous peoples are culturally distinct societies and communities. The land on which they live and the natural resources on which they depend are inextricably linked to their identities, cultures, livelihoods, as well as their physical and spiritual well-being.”
-The World Bank
There are an estimated 370 million indigenous people. They live across 90 countries, represent 5,000 unique cultures, and speak the majority of the world’s 7,000 languages.
To ensure indigenous peoples can not only preserve their traditions and lifestyle, but also create sustainable futures, the world must pay greater attention to them. You can play a positive role as a volunteer.
As the United Nations notes, indigenous communities throughout the world share common problems “related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples.” They suffer from human rights abuses, unjust land laws, and are forced to deal with inadequate and unequal access to healthcare, education, and employment. These problems can be seen in some alarming statistics:
- Poverty rates among indigenous peoples in Paraguay are 7.9 times higher than the rest of the population.
- Aboriginal Australians have a life expectancy of around 10 years less than non-native Australians.
- The Batwa ‘Pygmy’ people of the Great Lakes region of Africa co-exist with the forest. Today, of the estimated 70,000-87,000 Batwa living there, only 7,000 have regular access to the forest due to commercial deforestation and insecure land tenure.
Though the situation for indigenous communities may seem bad, many organizations and people are doing a lot to turn the tides. As a volunteer, you can join the cause and do good.
What You Can Do
If you want to volunteer abroad with indigenous communities, know main types of programsinclude:
Indigenous peoples have disproportionately high levels of poverty. They account for 5% of the global population, but make up 15% of the poorest. Better access to education is a solution. Teach English, host skills training workshops (like sewing), promote digital literacy, teach music, and more.
For instance, Globalteer has a project in Cambodia that aims at tackling issues the Bunong people face, such as the need for an education system that values their ancient culture and teaches suitable, relevant skills.
Land and environmental preservation
Indigenous peoples have a deep and ancient connection to their land and environment. Maintaining ecological integrity, biodiversity, and environmental health is vital to their cultural survival and preserving all the knowledge they possess.
For example, commercial operations such as logging and mining destroy the environments of indigenous societies. Programs like Fronteering’s initiative in Panama work to preserve these natural areas through cleanups, awareness campaigns, and promotion and protection of indigenous rights.
What many indigenous communities need is a more sustainable development strategy. This way, they can protect their lifestyle and make a living—without having to sacrifice their culture or environment.
Community development programs within indigenous societies typically focus on education, healthcare, construction, and establishing eco-friendly businesses across many areas, from tourism to farming to the arts.
Awareness and understanding of indigenous cultures are absolutely essential if their futures are to be secured. Cultural immersion experiences will have you returning home with more motivation to help indigenous communities.
Frontier is an organization that offers numerous cultural immersion trips, including the Vietnam Hill Tribe Experience. Head to the rural hills of northern Vietnam, and see their ancient culture and way of life.
Keep In Mind!
Doing your research, including reading this article, gives you an idea of what volunteering with indigenous groups is like. However, still come with a completely open mind.
After all, volunteering with indigenous communities may take you outside your comfort zone. That’s a good thing. This is how you grow as a person.
You may encounter lifestyles and beliefs that are very different from your own. Respect their way of life and be ready to learn and listen. This will increase your understanding of the people and help you figure out how you can best benefit the community.
Now, let’s take a look at some recommended organizations and the volunteer programs they offer with indigenous communities.
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Established in 2007, International Volunteer HQ has become one of the most reputable names in volunteering abroad. Featured in publications like National Geographic and The New York Times, IVHQ offers high-quality volunteer abroad programs across more than 40 destinations. In their first 12 years, they placed nearly 100,000 volunteers and interns overseas.
If you want to volunteer abroad with indigenous communities, IVHQ has you covered. See the programs here:
As a volunteer in northern Thailand, you can help indigenous communities gain access to better education by teaching English at a school or assisting at a childcare center. You can also help with outdoor community development work, such as building water tanks, maintaining a vegetable garden, and repairing homes and roads.
This program is a great way to immerse yourself in the community of Thailand’s hill tribes and do some good. Interested? Know program fees begin at just $320 for one week. Sign up here!
As a volunteer, you’ll head to a rural village in the Andes Mountains outside Cusco. There, you’ll live with your host family and contribute to the community by doing construction and agricultural work, as well as assisting with textile production (goods are sold at a local market). You can even learn some traditional weaving skills. This is a program where your work will have a positive tangible impact and you’ll learn a lot about how people in the village live.
During free time, enjoy sites in and around nearby Cusco, including Machu Picchu. Want to learn more? Fees begin at $310 for one week. Register here!
The Amazigh people, or Berbers, are an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa. When you volunteer in their community, you’ll have the amazing opportunity to assist with everyday tasks and help them acquire new skills to enhance their daily lives. Teach English to children, host skills training workshops for women, and do agricultural tasks, like feeding animals and harvesting crops.
The program is held two hours away from Marrakech and is a wonderful chance to experience how indigenous communities in Morocco live. Already thinking about flying there? Fees begin at $330 for one week. Find out more here!
Operating across 17 countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, Plan My Gap Year is an award-winning volunteer abroad organization known for their responsible and impactful projects. Established in 2011, they currently place more than 4,000 volunteers abroad per year.
For programs serving indigenous people, consider volunteering in medicine in Ecuador with Plan My Gap Year (see details below).
Serve at Hospital Pablo Arturo Suarez, the second biggest public hospital in Quito. There, you’ll assist staff in different wards (pediatrics, trauma, internal medicine, etc). As a medical volunteer, you’ll encounter indigenous people that traditionally use holistic care. Many are brought to the hospital in a severe state, as they’re in need of modern medications like antibiotics. You can help them get the treatment they need.
To better interact with doctors and patients, it’s advised to study Spanish beforehand if you’re not at an intermediate level. When you’re not working at the hospital, see the sites around Quito and surrounding nature. To learn more, click here! Prices start from $879 for two weeks.
Founded in 2003, Maximo Nivel has become a top destination for volunteer opportunities in Latin America, including education, community development, and conservation programs. Their programs are internationally accredited, which means you may be able to obtain university credit (inquire with your school before going).
Known for their ethical commitment, affordability, and excellent in-country support, Maximo Nivel has earned high praise from past volunteers, like this participant:
“Fabulous summarizes my experience with Máximo Nivel in Costa Rica. It’s an organization that meets absolutely all conditions required for a volunteer to do their jobs optimally.”
If you to volunteer abroad with indigenous communities, Maximo Nivel has some great programs (see details below).
Venture high in the Andes Mountains and experience how an indigenous, Quechua-speaking community lives. Located one hour from Cusco, your responsibilities mainly consist of supporting everyday life. That could mean herding animals, doing light construction, teaching children at a school, and raising corn and potatoes. So you can use your skills to benefit the community in a wide variety of ways.
Are you ready to go off-the-grid and help an indigenous community in the gorgeous Andes Mountains? Get all the details here (from $645 for one week).
Journey to rural Guatemala, where you’ll stay with a Mayan Kaqchikel-speaking family about 30 minutes from Antigua, Guatemala. As a volunteer, expect to do everything from help in the fields to cook meals to make textiles and crafts. During your time, you can communicate by teaching English and learning Kaqchikel.
This program is incredibly immersive and you can do some real good (while learning a lot yourself!). Already thinking about Guatemala? Sign up here (from $645 for one week).
Love Volunteers began in 2009 with a mission to make a difference where needed and provide volunteers with affordable and impactful programs. Today, Love Volunteers offers volunteers the ability to serve in more than 34 countries worldwide. They’re well-respected by volunteers for their transparency, reasonable prices, and commitment to lasting change.
If you want to volunteer abroad with indigenous communities, Love Volunteers has some unique opportunities, including:
This program in Argentina consists of three initiatives:
- Giving educational support for at-risk children living in the slums of Ciudad Oculta, an area 45 minutes from Buenos Aires.
- Hosting celebrations, such as birthday parties, for children of impoverished communities in order to give them a sense of self-worth.
- Improving the wellbeing of people in Perutí, an indigenous village in northeast Argentina that’s located in the Misiones jungle, which is known for its epic waterfalls and majestic wildlife.
The community of Perutí consists of about 85 families that live in poverty due to commercial deforestation and land exploitation. As a volunteer in Perutí, your main role will be to ensure the community has adequate access to water, food, education, and medical services. For this rare cross-cultural exchange opportunity, you truly get the chance to contribute to a long-term humanitarian initiative meant to uplift an indigenous community.
Interested? Fees begin at $779 for two weeks. You’ll also have plenty of free time to explore Buenos Aires, a bustling city with everything from great opera to great steakhouses. Find out more here!
Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s most ethnically diverse cities and home to many indigenous peoples. As a volunteer in this program, you’ll provide indigenous youth from impoverished communities with quality education that’s culturally appropriate. Duties include teaching art classes, running a computer lab, and hosting after-school activities. You’ll also work on proposals and fundraising projects. By doing so, you’ll help put the children in a better position to break the cycle of poverty.
Sound like the program for you? Fees begin at just $259 for one week. When you’re not volunteering, explore the city, which is famous for Monte Albán, a pre-Columbian archaeological site, and its array of gorgeous colonial buildings, like Templo de Santo Domingo. Get all the program info here!
Founded in 2009, Agape Volunteers provides volunteers with unique and impactful service opportunities across Africa. Agape Volunteers offers free travel insurance, along with affordable price tags and full program transparency. Well-respected for their commitment to creating sustainable progress, past volunteers have many great things to say about Agape Volunteers, like this participant:
Agape Volunteers was there to help at every step. I stayed in Kenya for just under a month – if it wasn’t for the day job dragging me back I’d still be there.
If you’re looking to volunteer abroad with indigenous communities in Africa, consider Agape Volunteers’ programs and adventures in Kenya and Ghana.
As a volunteer, you can teach English, math, and science to children, or serve as a medical volunteer and give extra support to communities in need. All of these volunteer programs in Nairobi start from £590 for one week (or USD equivalent). They can be easily combined with the three day Maasai cultural excursion (£150).
For the excursion, spend three days living alongside the Maasai tribe, an ethnic group with a long-preserved culture and a traditional way of life. Experience their unique and proud culture, participating in activities like spear throwing, spiritual ceremonies, and evening feasts. Converse with tribe elders and sleep in a manyatta (huts). Indeed, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Find out more about the Maasai cultural immersion here!
Choose among a variety of service opportunities. For instance, you could serve as a medical volunteer, or teach music (each program begins from £510 for one week). Your volunteer program in Ghana can be combined with a Ghanaian Village experience (£150), where you’ll see the rich cultural heritage of rural Ghana firsthand.
In addition to volunteering and learning about the traditions that remain strong in Ghanaian villages, you’ll have time to sightsee. Travel around the capital Accra, journey through Kakum National Park, and more. Ready to make a difference in Ghana? Plan your trip here!
Established in 1992, Projects Abroad sends more than 10,000 volunteers abroad per year. Featured in publications like CNN and BBC, Projects Abroad receives high ratings for their excellent in-country support and meaningful programs. They’ve been able to catalyze real change through their service efforts.
For volunteer abroad programs with indigenous communities, Projects Abroad has some unique options (read below!)
Have a strong passion for human rights? Then this intern abroad program suits you. Tackle key issues in Cordoba, such as poverty, difficulty accessing reproductive services, poor prison conditions, and ongoing discrimination against indigenous people. You’ll assist with legal cases, host education workshops, run legal clinics, and organize outreach events. As an intern, you’ll help raise awareness about human rights issues and empower Argentina’s most marginalized people, including the indigenous communities in and around Cordoba.
When you’re not fighting for equality, explore Cordoba, Argentina’s second-biggest city. The city is an eclectic blend of cultures, with various indigenous tribes, Spanish-Argentines, Italian-Argentines, and immigrant groups calling Cordoba home. Wish to get more details? Click here! Fees begin at $2,865 for two weeks.
The Khmer people are a Southeast Asian ethnic group indigenous to Cambodia, as well as northeast Thailand, southern Laos, and southern Vietnam. During the program, you’ll spend a few days in a traditional, rural Khmer village, helping with daily tasks like harvesting rice and teaching the children English. You’ll also spend time traveling, seeing the capital Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Kampot, and other sites.
This cultural immersion project truly allows you to understand Khmer culture and the history of Cambodia. Learn basic Khmer words and phrases, cook some traditional cuisine, take a puppet-making class, and more. Sound like a wonderful time? Register on the site! Fees begin at $2,270 for one week.
GoEco is a leading voluntourism company that offers more than 150 programs across the world. Established in 2006, GoEco sent more than 15,000 volunteers abroad in their first 12 years of operation. They were recognized at the Top Volunteer Abroad Organization in 2015 by GoAbroad.
GoEco has volunteer projects in a variety of areas, including opportunities to help indigenous communities (see below).
Contribute to indigenous communities in Laos through education. GoEco has two programs in Laos (both start from $550 for one week):
- Educational Outreach in Vientiane: Head to a local village, where you’ll teach less privileged children English. See all the French-colonial architecture and Buddhist temples in Vientiane, like Pha That Luang, during free time. Intrigued? Get more details here!
- Village Child Care in Ban Houakhoua Village: Care for children from disadvantaged families as you experience life in rural Laos. Duties include teaching English and practicing basic hygiene. Want to learn more? Click here!
Preservation of Canada’s environment is crucial to the sustainability of indigenous peoples and communities in the country. As a volunteer on this project, you’ll restore nature trails, catalog native and invasive plant species, and assist at salmon hatcheries. Your work may take place in national parks or within indigenous communities. A key part of the project is helping out in those communities with various projects, such as gardening.
While volunteering, you’ll be surrounded by some of the most beautiful nature in North America. From the subarctic to the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, soak up the Canadian wilderness! Ready to join? Sign up on GoEco’s site (from $1,580 for two weeks)!
Fronteering aims to give volunteers real, raw experiences in new cultures and in unspoiled locations. Their core mission is to preserve the natural environment of their unique destinations and uplift the indigenous communities that live there. For these reasons, Fronteering is a top choice if you want to volunteer abroad with indigenous communities.
Listed below are some Fronteering programs that work to sustain the way of life of indigenous peoples:
For many Amerindian communities, Guyana is a last true paradise where they can hold on to their traditional way of life. 80% of the country is covered by tropical wilderness, and that’s where most Amerindians live. Sadly, their livelihood is under threat from loggers, miners, and poachers. As a volunteer, your role will be to help these indigenous communities build sustainable futures, ones in which they can preserve their unique culture and be prosperous.
Some great volunteer programs in Guyana include:
- Sustainable Farming in Rupununi Savannah (from $1,495 for four weeks): Enjoy life in the splendid grasslands. Assist the local Amerindian communities in developing sustainable farming and eco-tourism operations. This will empower them to earn a living, while conserving the environment. Want to learn more? Click here!
- Teach in the Amazon (from $1,795 for four weeks): Teach math, science, English, and computer skills in an Amerindian community, and help the youth improve their future prospects. Stay with a host family and assist them with tasks like fishing and cooking. See the Amazon jungle during free time. You just may catch a glimpse of a jaguar. How awesome does that sound? Register for the project here!
Fronteering also runs a more general volunteer travel program in the Amazon (from $2,495 for four weeks). For this program, you’ll immerse yourself in an Amerindian community and help in a variety of ways, from building eco-friendly infrastructure to teaching IT skills to developing sustainable tourism projects. For instance, you may help with constructing tree-top viewing platforms so visitors and locals can spot wildlife and take in views. Interested? Discover more on Fronteering’s site!
In order to preserve their lifestyles and develop sustainably, the indigenous peoples of Yukon must effectively manage their land and wildlife. As a wilderness research volunteer, your duties may include tracking caribou populations, doing vegetation surveys, and monitoring wetlands. During your time here, the vibrant history of the land and First Nations will amaze and inspire you.
Are you ready to learn new traditions and customs as you help a First Nation community preserve their land and build a brighter future? Then get ready for a trip to Yukon, where some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes await. Sign up here (from $945 for two weeks)!
Ready To Volunteer Abroad With Indigenous Communities?
Choosing the right volunteer or intern abroad program for working with indigenous peoples should depend not only on your interests and budget, but also where you can have the most positive impact and learn the most. As long as you come with a willingness to listen, learn, and help in constructive ways, you’ll have an incredibly powerful experience.
In addition to reading this article, check out the resources below. See how you can volunteer abroad with indigenous communities in a manner that’s ethically responsible, promotes their rights as native peoples, conserves their culture and environment, and creates sustainable development.
How to Volunteer Abroad Ethically
How to Pick a Program and Fundraise for Your Trip
Other Opportunities to Volunteer with Indigenous and Aboriginal Communities
Nick Callos · Writer
With a BA in English Literature & Writing from Boston College, Nick researches and writes about volunteer, intern, and teach abroad programs worldwide. He has studied abroad and taught English in Chengdu, China, and aims to help fellow travelers make a lasting impact on the communities they visit.