You might not realise when hiking in Skaftafell or climbing Mt. Esja
that the trails you are walking on were all built by The Environment
Agency Conservation Volunteers. Every summer, a group of international
volunteers arrive in Iceland from all over the world to work on nature
conservation, building walking paths and helping park rangers across
the country. Each year sees between 150 to 200 volunteers from the ages
of 20 to 60 completing up to 600 weeks of work for free. Anyone can
volunteer, even tourists on a weekend trip who want to experience
something more of Iceland than partying in Reykjavík or looking outside
The programme, organised and sponsored by the Environment Agency in
partnership with the British conservation volunteer organisation, is
celebrating its 30th year this July. In 1978, the first team of
volunteers built a wall in Jökulsárgljúfur, leading to many teams
living and working in some of the country’s most beautiful places. This
event will be celebrated with a grand birthday party in Ásbyrgi this
weekend. Grapevine caught up with the project’s supervisor, Chas
Goemans, and three of his newly arrived volunteers before they headed
out into the highlands.
What is the nature of your work?
Mostly it’s trail repairs. That is about 90% of what we do. We have
looked to other countries for how to fix these trails and make them
strong. We take these skills from Europe or North America but because
Iceland is unique in its ecology we have to consider other factors. We
have to consider for example what the frost will do and in England we
don’t have geothermal areas. So we design new things in the areas here.
We take these core skills and develop them for the conditions in
What is your agenda? Is it nature conservation or making nature more accessible to tourists?
It’s a little bit of both but I have to say that the heart of it is
nature conservation. We feel that if we make good paths it can help
protect the more fragile areas. In Dimmuborgir, for example, there were
damages on the lava formations but one strong path improves safety for
visitors and also protects the fragile area. Most often we make the
paths because of people, repairing damage that has already been done.
We don’t go into a pristine area, like Hornstrandir for example, and
build paths everywhere. It’s more a response to damage.
How many volunteers come each year?
This summer we will have about 200 volunteers. Some stay for four
months and others only a few days. Some come as part of their school or
job training, others because they want to experience Iceland’s nature.
We therefore build our programme so people can travel around. The fun
is to see something different. Our volunteers can spend a week on Esja,
a week in Laki and maybe two weeks in Ásbyrgi and so forth. We provide
a place to stay, usually camping in the highlands, and food and travel
Working in the outdoors with a team of international volunteers and
working with nature is a different experience of Iceland. 15-20% of the
people we have this summer are volunteers that have worked here before
so they must find something they like. Not many tourists spend a
weekend in Laki working with the rangers who can tell you everything
about the area. I think that’s what a lot of volunteers appreciate;
it’s not the same as other forms of tourism. It’s a whole other level.
If a tourist is getting bored of Reykjavík and would like to volunteer, can he or she just show up?
Yes. You just simply contact us at The Environment Agency and we can
organise something. Most of the projects are residential so it would be
at least a weekend but they would be welcome to join in.
- CONTACT: The Environment Agency of Iceland Sudurlandsbraut 24, 108 Reykjavik
- WEB: www.ust.is
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