About a month into my trip, my experience in Burma had proven far different than what I'd originally planned; and for that, I was grateful. When my initial intention of volunteering in a monastic school had not come to fruition, it sent me on a journey that brought me far off the beaten path and straight into some of the most intense and fascinating experiences that I’d ever had.
Still, I felt something was missing. My search had uncovered many opportunities for volunteer work, but nothing had really stuck. For this, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat guilty; with all the kindness and hospitality I’d be shown, I felt the need to give something back. As I mulled over my options, what I was searching for came—as most other things in Burma had—quite unexpectedly.
Upon learning about my background in conservation, a monk and social organizer in rural Shan State asked me to speak at a conference organized by leaders from nearby villages to discuss social and environmental issues. The next day, I found myself addressing an audience of about 60 people about plastic pollution and deforestation. Afterward, the other speakers and I were asked to lead discussion groups related to our topic. While given the other topics I wasn’t expecting many participants for mine, I found a surprising amount of genuine interest.
It was in this group that I heard stories of trash-clogged rivers and animals dying from eating plastic; devastating mudslides in the rainy season that turned to water shortages in the dry; rising temperatures and struggles to find fertile soil. While people in cities have the luxury of seeing the environment as an abstract concept, it was an integral part of daily life in rural areas.
While people in cities have the luxury of seeing the environment as an abstract concept, it's an integral part of daily life in rural Burma.
The participants expressed a desire to do something, but admitted to feeling helpless because of a lack of basic education on the subject. Meetings such as this one were opportunities to gain that knowledge, but there were generally very few speakers on environmental subjects. It was here that I saw the opportunity to put my experience and passion to use.
This first talk launched an informal volunteer position as mobile environmental educator in different rural communities. This often involved being part of workshops run by Burmese activists, which focused on bringing social and environmental awareness to remote places while working with participants to create actionable solutions in their communities. Other times, I spoke at meetings with community leaders or for small groups of interested people. This gave me the opportunity to spread environmental awareness while gaining insight into the unique challenges of rural life in Burma.
These communities were a testament to the diversity of Burma, as even neighboring villages had their own unique ethnic identity and set of problems. However, each shared some common issues, particularly waste management and deforestation. I focused on providing basic background information on these subjects, while connecting its effects to human health and livelihoods. Each session included small group activities that focused on getting participants to develop strategies for addressing these problems within their own communities.
Even with my attempts to make these workshops as effective as possible, Burma’s history created some unique challenges. Under the military government, the Burmese education system discouraged critical thinking and emphasized mindless repetition and obedience. This made encouraging group discussions and creative thinking difficult, with my attempts to introduce hands-on learning initially met with confusion. I saw this challenge in my very first group discussion, when I asked my participants how they thought they could implement these ideas in their own communities. After an uncomfortable silence, one man piped up, “Aren’t you just going to tell us?” I had to work to encourage my participants to apply their new knowledge to creating their own solutions, instead of waiting to be given answers.
Burma’s dictatorial rule had also created some feelings of helplessness, especially when it came for asking for any government assistance. Things that developed countries take for granted—like waste disposal—were seen as impossibilities, and any suggestions and petitioning the government were met with complete lack of confidence. Without additional resources, I could not provide ways to solve the problem entirely, only improve the current situation.
This mobile classroom strategy was a far departure from my previous approach to volunteer work, where I committed to a single project for a long period of time, seeing the tangible results of my work. With my time in Burma limited, I did not have that option, and I found myself constantly questioning the effectiveness of my work. In a place facing such overwhelming challenges, was spreading awareness really enough?
The truth is, I will probably never know for certain. My hope lies with the young people eager for change, and with the dedicated organizers who will continue to carry on this work armed with new information. The best I could hope for is that I planted a few seeds that took root in a motivated young mind, someone will the ability to take action for the future of their community and country. In a place just beginning to open to the outside world, even the smallest amount of knowledge can be a powerful thing.Add this article to your reading list