I recently paid a lot of money to volunteer with Frontier for three weeks in Costa Rica as part of their ‘Big Cats, Primates and Turtles’ project. Unfortunately, the experience could not have gone any worse due to several issues which arose in the short time we were on the project.
Firstly, despite the 'Big Cats' advertised in the main heading (along with images and description on their website) this aspect of the project was unavailable due to lack of adequate equipment. According to project staff members London HQ have refused to replace the previous ones which were stolen six months prior. We made several enquirers about this issue, including several conversations with the manager at their London HQ- who often refused to even discuss the situation; instead insisting that we complete and sign a legally binding document (presumably to tie us up and waive our right to any refund or compensation).
Any opportunity of completing “ground-breaking research” (as advertised on the website) was limited due to the number of staff with relevant scientific background/qualifications- one of whom we have had little contact with as she has been forced to station herself at the overflow camp, again due to high numbers. Also, in general there was very limited opportunity to take part in any surveys, due to the number of volunteers; most volunteers averaged no more than three a week.
Health & Safety was also a complete disaster: despite being informed on the phone a few weeks prior to departure date that there will be 25 people on the project, there were approximately 36 volunteers on camp. This concern was compounded by the lack of staff members, several of whom are merely volunteers who have been given responsibilities to compensate for the lack of staff.
This was exposed on our first outing, when i turned around to find one of the volunteers suffering had an asthma attack Fortunately, I turned around soon enough to witness this and was able to rush back and assist her as there were no other staff around. Thankfully, she recovered. Although the staff member(s) were eventually alerted about this situation there were further problems a few hours later on the return walk when three volunteers went missing in the middle of the dense and potentially rainforest. Thankfully they found their way back to the camp; albeit very distressed.
Aside, from these specific incidents, there is a general health & safety concerns with having such an overcrowded campsite in that location.
However, it appeared over-crowdedness wasn’t an issue exclusive to this Frontier project: The one day a member of staff had to remove a tent from the camp to put in the garden of a nearby Frontier teaching volunteer house for the new volunteer(s) to sleep in due to lack of space in the actual house!
Due to the above experience we raised our concerns with project staff and subsequently contacted Frontier in London, and informed them we wanted the issues resolved before returning to camp. They (London office staff) refused to discuss the any specific issues insisting we put our complaint in writing; which we did. We were then requested to meet with the project manager at a nearby town who agreed and apologised for the number of Health & Safety mishaps which had taken place and agreed it was largely due to lack of staff- something which was out of her control. However, Frontier HQ would not be able to send the relevant equipment in order for volunteers to carry out the Big Cats aspect of the project. I then spoke to the manager at London HQ and informed i wasn't prepared to return to the camp until the issues had been resolved. However, in response to the issue about the lack of equipment; the HQ manager highlighted that although that particular survey isn't going on at present there were many examples of great ‘big cats’ research work which had been done in the five years when the project previously had the equipment! Needless to say this was no consolation for me and despite a number of serious issues and legitimate complaints Frontier’s (London HQ) handling of the matter was utterly disgraceful. They appeared to be more concerned to get me to complete the aforementioned legally binding document which was a series of ‘yes/no’ questions such as “Have you read our terms and conditions?” and other largely irrelevant questions, than they were of the Health & Safety of the volunteers and staff.
Strangely the manager at the London office we spoke to also refused to confirm whether Frontier was a non-profit based organisation (they claim they are) or a profitable company, as when you scratch below the surface of their online presence it becomes unclear.
Despite being stranded in a nearby town- unable to go back to camp, the manager refused to even agree to deal with the complaint sooner any sooner than the 'up to 14 days for a response' that their standard complaints procedure dictates. As a result I was forced to spend money i didn't expect to spend and depend on family members to transfer me more funds for food, accommodation etc.
I am completely shocked at what I thought was such an reputable "non-profit organisation" with ethical principles, can be so unprofessional and mislead customers in such a way. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight and more extensive research about frontier it is a lot less surprising. We are currently in dispute with the "non-profit organisation" and are awaiting responses to several correspondence which we have sent to them. However, we have been informed that many of the above issues continue to exist so i would strongly advise anyone to steer clear of this awful company.
P.S. the four stars for 'support' are solely for the project manager and other staff members in Costa Rica, who despite the shortcomings of the project, were supportive of our concerns.