Vietnam sisters bring Christmas gifts to victims of COVID, floods

Sr. Anna Vo Thi Ngoi Khen (second from left) and followers of other faiths stand in front of a big crèche on Dec. 12 at her convent in Thua Thien Hue province. (Joachim Pham)
Sr. Anna Vo Thi Ngoi Khen (second from left) and followers of other faiths stand in front of a big crèche on Dec. 12 at her convent in Thua Thien Hue province. (Joachim Pham)

Hue, Vietnam — With people in the region beset by devastating floods and effects of the lingering COVID-19 pandemic, sisters from the Daughters of Our Lady of the Visitation convent in Tien Thanh thought that nativity sets would help bring some joy and hope to area residents amid the difficulties.

Seven sisters and some local youths made more than 60 nativity scenes since Advent began Nov. 28 through Dec. 11. The crèches, about 30 inches by 27 inches, are made of cardboard boxes, thick paper, bamboo and Christmas decorations, and include nativity figurines.

“We have offered all those crèches to poor families, elderly people without relatives and patients as our Christmas gifts so as to console them and bring them Christmas joy,” said Sr. Anna Vo Thi Ngoi Khen, head of the convent based in Kim Doi Parish in the central province of Thua Thien Hue.

Families were also given 200,000 dong (about $9) to get basic food to celebrate the coming Christmas, Khen said. 

The parish serves 500 Catholics among a population of 7,000. Restrictions to isolate villages infected with the Delta variant of COVID-19 in the region were lifted on Nov. 20. 

The nun said local people have been extremely depressed by the prolonged pandemic and floods that destroyed their crops and houses in late November, and consequently many of them start to ignore their faith life. They fear having no jobs and the difficulties next year may bring.

“Crèches are absolutely indispensable to local Catholic families in the Christmas season as they bind the material and spiritual worlds together. However, this year many feel down in the dumps and are not interested in making crèches. We want to help them maintain the Christmas spirit,” the 46-year-old nun said.

Anna Nguyen Thi Hoa, 84, said her granddaughter from Da Nang died of COVID-19 in 2020. She lives with her grandson, who is not Catholic, in a 400-square-foot house provided by benefactors.

“We are really delighted to be given a crèche by the nuns, who bring Christmas atmosphere to our home,” Hoa said. The care of the sisters and reminder of Christmas eases some of her grief for her dead relative.

She said she also receives food and money from the nuns.

Khen said many villagers could not land jobs in Hue and have only two simple meals per day. The sister said the nuns provide rice, bread, fish, meat, vegetables and milk for people in need.

Anna Tran Thi Tuyen from Van Quat village said floods in November washed away all fish on her farm and destroyed more than 37 pounds of rice. She and her husband have to sell duck eggs and dumplings all day to support their three children.

Tuyen said they have no time to make crèches in their homes to celebrate the coming Christmas as they did in the past. “We gratefully get a crèche from the nuns. That is a generous gift to us in this Christmas,” she said.

The Daughters of Our Lady of the Visitation nuns also held a special gathering for 36 single pregnant women on Dec. 10 at their Thien Xuan convent in Luong Van parish in Phu Vang district.

Sr. Mary Bui Thi Vinh, head of the convent, said participants prayed with candles in hands, listened to a Bible passage, sang carols, received Christmas gifts and enjoyed a hearty meal. Gifts including cash, medical oil, clothes and shampoos costing 2.5 million dong (about $109) each.

Vinh said the donations come from benefactors and families whose members have joined the congregation.

The pregnant women, who live with their families, are from Hope Group, set up in 2016 by the nuns. Members meet monthly at the convent to share their joy and sadness and help one another to overcome challenges.

“The gathering is an opportunity for those women, most of them are Buddhists and followers of other indigenous faiths, to understand the meaning of Christmas and be interested in Catholicism,” she said, adding that Christmas joy will lend them emotional strength to overcome the pandemic’s negative effects.

The nuns started to work among local people in 2015, visiting and offering material support, providing scholarships and giving health care to the elderly. They also furnish the pregnant teens with accommodations, food and health care until the birth as a way to keep them from having abortions.

In previous Advents, the nuns took Hope Group members to visit and offer incense at Ngoc Hoi cemetery, where 45,000 aborted fetuses have been buried. They also have made pilgrimages to the national Shrine of Our Lady of La Vang in Quang Tri province. This year they could not do such tours, to avoid COVID-19 infections.

A Buddhist participant whose family name is Hoang said she felt the warm atmosphere of the coming Christmas. “The gathering is a chance for us to meet one another and maintain sisterhood among us. We are really appreciative of all the help the nuns have given us,” she said.   

Vinh, 53, said 18 additional people, including five women from the group, have embraced Catholicism since the nuns started to serve in the parish.

Floods have been a major issue in some regions, said Missionaries of Charity of Vinh Sr. Teresa Tran Thi Oanh from Ninh Cuong community based in Huong Khe district of Ha Tinh province. Local people lack clean water after floods destroyed water supply systems in the region in late November. Poor people must use polluted flood water as they have no money to buy clean water, she added.

“We daily produce 50 to 100 bottles of clean water, 20 liters each, and deliver free of charge to people in need regardless of their background,” Oanh said.

The 36-year-old nun said the sisters use motorbikes to deliver water to the elderly and people with physical disabilities.

On Saturdays during this Advent, the community of five nuns and four novices visit and offer food to 50 families whose members live with mental disabilities, she said. Most of patients have mental disorders at birth and their parents had been in the military. The families face starvation, as the COVID-19 pandemic has left their relatives unemployed for months and other charity groups could not offer them donations.

One particularly painful case involves a woman in her 70s who looks after her three adult children, who have mental disabilities.

“Many shed tears of happiness when we visit and hand food to them. They feel warmth and love of Christmas in this cold winter,” she said, adding that the nuns will continue visiting them after Christmas.

India’s farmers prevail in national protest, Catholic sisters rejoice

Farmers come to the Indian capital on tractors to protest three controversial farm laws that were later repealed after a year of demonstrations outside Delhi. (Jessy Joseph)
Farmers come to the Indian capital on tractors to protest three controversial farm laws that were later repealed after a year of demonstrations outside Delhi. (Jessy Joseph)

New Delhi, India — Catholic nuns are rejoicing in the success of an historic yearlong protest by India’s farmers against federal reforms that deregulated crop prices and opened fields to corporate interests. Many hail the farmers’ stand as the country’s second freedom movement, the first being Gandhi’s.

Sr. Jyoti Pinto, former superior general of the Bethany Sisters in Mangalore and a social worker, applauded the victory of “the longest post-independent struggle in India with the weapon of non-violence.”

India won independence from the British in 1947 after decades of nonviolent protests led by Mahatma Gandhi.

Praising the farmers’ perseverance, Pinto told GSR, “It is an indication that democracy is still alive in India.”

Over the weekend of Dec. 11 and 12, the farmers began folding up their camps outside Delhi, the nation’s capital, after the legislature made good on the federal government’s agreement last month to repeal three controversial 2020 agricultural reforms, drop criminal proceedings against demonstrators and consider adopting minimum crop prices.

Thousands of farmers had camped on the borders of Delhi since Nov. 26, 2020, and more than 700 of them died from the effects of extreme heat, cold and COVID-19. A few took their own lives.

Welcoming the success of “the longest and greatest historical protest in the entire world,” activist and Presentation Sr. Dorothy Fernandes, says farmers “have given a loud and clear message of what is possible if we are united in purpose and not afraid to pay the price.”

Fernandes, the new national secretary of the Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace, an advocacy group for Catholic religious, told GSR that the farmers won because of their “clarity of thought and meticulous organization of people and resources.”

The farmers were led by the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, or United Farmers’ Front, a coalition of more than 40 farmers’ unions formed in November 2020.

Almost 60% of India’s 1.4 billion population works primarily in agriculture, which represents an estimated 20% share of the country’s economic output, national statistics state.

The protests began after the government hastily passed three farm bills claiming to overhaul the country’s agricultural sector and benefit the farmers. The farmers, on the other hand, saw the laws as a ploy to turn over farmland and markets to corporate interests, undermining their ability to make a living.

The protests began September 2020 in Punjab in the north and spread to other states in India. As the government refused to heed them, the farmers came to the national capital. After their entry was denied, the farmers camped at three main entry points to Delhi.

The government and the farmers had several rounds of futile discussions initially. Meanwhile, members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its supporters labeled the farmers anti-nationals funded by overseas Sikh secessionist groups.

The laws also favored corporate control of the production and distribution of the food crops. The traditional farmers, especially from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, opposed them. The protesting farmers attracted national and international support for their demonstration.

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the farmers were sharply at odds for a year. Modi Nov. 19 surprised the farmers and others by announcing the repeal of the farm laws while addressing the nation. The parliament followed it up a week later by repealing the laws without debate.

Some state governments announced compensation to the relatives of the farmers who had died on the Delhi borders.

The farmers’ union leaders say they will review the situation Jan. 15, 2022, and relaunch the protest if the government fails to keep its promises.

Fernandes’ forum was among Catholic groups that had backed the farmers, although the official church bodies in India stayed away from the stir.

Fernandes and her forum members came to New Delhi to join the farmers. She says the farmers’ protest has helped highlight “the meaning and understanding of struggle in a peaceful democratic manner.”

She hails their determination and sense of purpose, saying, “Even the loss of lives of their brothers and sisters did not deter them from their goal. Instead, the deaths only strengthened them and encouraged them to keep going.”

Presentation Sr. Shalini Mulackal, a leading woman theologian in India, also had joined the farmers on the Delhi borders on several occasions, after realizing the farm laws were aimed at “changing the way agricultural produce is marketed, sold and stored across the country.”

She says she is convinced that the main purpose of the farm laws was to benefit a few corporate houses in India.

The farmers’ protest, she says, was against “the injustices embedded in the new farm laws” that would have harmed not just the farmers but millions of consumers with big business controlling production and supply.

“I look at the farmers’ protest as a sign of hope. They are the only group protesting against the present government and their policies, which are anti-poor, anti-minorities and anti-people,” says Mulackal, who labeled the dispute a “second independence movement” of India.

The farmers’ victory has enthused Holy Cross Sr. Vijaya Sebastian, a social worker and health care activist in a few northern Indian states and a supporter of the farmers’ actions.

“We have to wait and see if the government keeps its promises. We need the deliverables, not the promises,” says Sebastian, who directs the Holy Cross Consortium with nearly 2,000 members in eight provinces in India.

Another supporter is Sr. Ajitha Mathew, a social worker who manages a movement of women farmers in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The member of the Sisters of the Queen of Apostles welcomes the farmers’ victory but remains skeptical about the government keeping its promises.

“I cheer the farmers’ victory after more than a year of protests in the open, fighting scorching sun and freezing winter, and the pandemic,” she told GSR.

Mathew plans to celebrate the victory with her women associates on Dec. 23, which is designated as Farmers Day in India.

Sr. Jofi Joseph in Kerala, southern India, welcomed the end of the farmers’ protest and called for pro-farmer legislation. The member of the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel made headlines in September after the Kerala High Court allowed her and 15 others to kill wild boars that destroyed crops. The wild beasts are as damaging to farmers as corporations, she told GSR, speaking in Malayalam.

Priests and brothers also supported the farmers.

“It is a big victory for the farmers, whatever may be the political compulsions for Prime Minister Modi,” says Indian Missionary Society Fr. Anand Mathew, who had joined the protesting farmers in Delhi with other priests and nuns.

The farmers’ victory “is an inspiration and tremendous encouragement for those of us who are on the path of Satyagraha [a form of nonviolent protest, propagated by Mahatma Gandhi],” said the activist priest, who organized a series of protests, rallies and meetings on the farmers’ issue in Varanasi, his base in Uttar Pradesh state.

“We Farm,” a farmers movement in Kerala, welcomed the end to the protest but hinted the farmers will wait for the actual implementation of government promises.

Mulackal says the present Indian government’s policies are “diametrically opposed” to the Gospel values.

“Showing our solidarity with a group that is clearly standing against anti-Kingdom values is the least we can do as Christians,” asserts the nun who said she was privileged to spend time with the protesting farmers.

Philippine women switch on solar to light their way in a storm

Virgilia Villaruel uses a solar-powered flashlight to light Tinabanan Cave, used as a storm shelter, in Marabut, Philippines, Oct 17, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Geela Garcia

MARABUT, Philippines, – When Haiyan, one of the most powerful tropical cyclones ever recorded, smashed into the central Philippines in 2013, the town of Marabut in Eastern Visayas region suffered zero casualties.

More than 1,000 residents scrambled up 32 feet (9.75 m) of slippery soil and limestone to take refuge inside the Tinabanan Cave, known for providing shelter since colonial times.

Lorna dela Pena, 66, was alone when the super-typhoon landed on Nov. 8, killing more than 6,000 people nationwide and forcing about 4 million from their homes.

She remembered how everything was “washed out” by the storm, but despite being “lost in a daze”, she managed to evacuate.

“There still weren’t stairs to comfortably climb up to the cave. My grandfather’s dream was for it to have stairs,” she said, noting they were finally put in after the Haiyan disaster.

While serving hot porridge to evacuees, dela Pena grasped how important local organisations are to helping communities become more resilient to fiercer weather, as the planet warms.

“It’s stronger when more people unite to help. What one can’t do is possible when everyone unites,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Following that experience, she worked with others in Marabut to build up women’s groups focused on different issues.

Now they take the lead in organising workshops on organic farming, hold discussions on violence against women, and educate and encourage other women to adopt renewable energy.

Azucena Bagunas, 47, and dela Pena are among “solar scholars” trained by the Philippines-based Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC), an international nonprofit that promotes low-carbon development and climate resilience.

In an effort to prepare better for disasters after Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda, the women learned to operate portable solar-powered generators called TekPaks, which they use during evacuations.


The TekPaks light up the dark Tinabanan cave, making it easier to count the number of people seeking shelter there, and charge mobile devices to keep communication lines open.

For Bagunas, the most memorable use of the technology was when it helped save a life.

“We were able to use this TekPak to power a nebuliser when someone had an asthma attack,” she recalled.

Bagunas and dela Pena share their knowledge by teaching other women to operate TekPaks and making them aware of the benefits of renewable energy.

Now, whenever a storm is coming, women in Marabut ensure their solar-powered equipment is charged so they are ready to move their communities to safety.

Bagunas said harnessing solar energy was also cheaper than relying on coal-fired electricity from the grid.

“If we use (solar) as our main source of power in our homes, then we don’t even have to pay for electricity,” she said. “As long as you have a panel, you’ll have affordable and reliable power.”

Bagunas also prefers solar as a safer option.

In June, her brother’s house next-door went up in flames when a live electricity wire hit his roof, with the fire reaching some parts of her own house.


According to 2020 data from the Department of Energy, about 60% of the Philippines’ energy still comes from coal and oil, with only about 34% from renewable sources.

But under a 2020-2040 plan, the government aims to shift the country onto a larger share of renewable energy such as solar, rising to half of power generation by the end of that period.

Chuck Baclagon, Asia regional campaigner for, an international group that backs grassroots climate action, said the ICSC’s efforts to bring solar power to communities would help expand clean energy at the local level.

Today’s model of a centralised power system reliant on fossil fuels does little to address energy poverty in remote island areas far from commercial centres, he added.

“The shift to solar energy dispels the myth that we can’t afford to transition,” he said. “The reason why fossil fuel is expensive is that it’s imported so it’s volatile in the market.”

Renewable energy sources like solar, however, are easier to build locally because they harness what is available and has the highest potential in particular locations, he added.

Leah Payud, resilience portfolio manager at Oxfam Philippines, said her aid agency supported initiatives to introduce solar energy in poor rural communities, especially because it helps women and children who are among the most vulnerable to climate change.

“During disasters, the unpaid care work and domestic work of women doubles,” she said, adding their burden is made heavier by having to find an energy source to carry out those jobs.

“Women don’t have access to a clean kitchen to cook their meals, and there is no electricity to lighten their tasks, for example when breastfeeding or sanitising equipment,” she said.

The direct benefits women can gain from clean, cheap and easily available energy mean they should be involved in expanding its adoption, she added.

“They are the mainstream users and energy producers – and without their involvement, renewable energy initiatives can become inappropriate,” she added. “There is no climate justice without gender justice.”

One good way to introduce women to renewable energy is by asking them to draw a 24-hour clock of their chores at home and identifying the energy they use to do them, Payud said.

They then consult with Oxfam staff on how switching energy sources could lighten their responsibilities, making it “very relatable”, she added.

The exercise has revealed that many women spend at least 13 hours a day doing unpaid family care work, a load that has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic due to home-schooling.


On Suluan Island, a three to four-hour boat ride from the mainland, women are tasked with collecting water in energy-deprived areas, putting them at risk when they have to go out after dark.

They have found solar lights more reliable than oil lamps because they do not have to cross the sea to buy fuel for them.

Payud said solar was the best energy source during a disaster, especially when the mains power supply is cut and it is impossible to travel between islands.

After Haiyan, it took half a year to restore grid power in far-flung communities, but that would not have been the case had women had access to alternative energy such as solar, she said.

For dela Pena and Bagunas, women should be at the forefront of tackling climate change and energy poverty because they act as “shock absorbers”.

“Women oversee the whole family, and whenever there are problems, they are the ones who try to address it first,” said Bagunas.

Illegal gold mining booms in Brazilian Amazon, harming environment, health

An illegal miner shows gold extracted from the Madeira River, in Nova Olinda, Amazonas state, Brazil, on Nov. 26. (AP/Edmar Barros)
An illegal miner shows gold extracted from the Madeira River, in Nova Olinda, Amazonas state, Brazil, on Nov. 26. (AP/Edmar Barros)

Hundreds of illegal mining dredges converged on Brazil’s Madeira River in November, creating a floating city near the town of Autazes in the state of Amazonas. The rush — involving as many as 600 vessels, by some estimates — apparently began after news spread that a miner operating illegally there had found gold.

Although the unprecedented event attracted the attention of environmentalists around the world, illegal mining in the Madeira River and other Amazonian waterways is nothing new. Politicians — who sometimes are involved in the ventures — tend to downplay the environmental and social damage caused by illegal mining.

The problem has intensified since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, partly because of his public support for the miners. In addition, a top government official recently authorized seven mines in protected areas, including Indigenous reserves.

Several Catholic Church organizations have spoken out about illegal mining and its impacts, but the complexity of its causes and the great financial interests behind it transform their effort into a David-and-Goliath kind of struggle.

“Illegal mining in the Amazonian rivers requires great investment. Those organizations use helicopters, airplanes and heavy machines in their operations. There’s evidence that they rely on local politicians’ support,” Italian-born Comboni Fr. Dario Bossi, a founding member of the Brazilian bishops’ Mining and Integral Ecology Commission, told EarthBeat.

Indeed, a delegation of local mayors traveled to Brasilia Dec. 1 to meet with Brazil’s defense minister and with legislators from Amazonas, in an effort to pressure them to suspend a police crackdown on the mining boats.

Several members of Congress from Amazonas told the press that although they lamented the environmental impact of mining, people — especially the poor — should be allowed to continue working.

“Every time an operation against mining is launched in the Amazon, local politicians show their support to miners and claim that it’s an activity that generates income,” Danicley de Aguiar, an activist with the environmental group Greenpeace, told EarthBeat. “No doubt it does, but that’s a shortsighted idea. The price we’ll have to pay later is much higher.”

Miners help bankroll the election campaigns of Amazonian politicians, de Aguiar said, adding, “And many times, the politicians themselves are miners — not the ones working in the mud, but those who profit” from the mining.

Amazonian rivers wash vast amounts of sediment from the Andes Mountains in western South America to the Atlantic Ocean on the eastern side of the continent. The sediment contains minerals, including gold. Early miners panned for gold along the rivers, but their modern counterparts use large dredges, suction hoses and sluices.

In rivers, the operations churn up huge amounts of mud, increasing the turbidity of the water, which affects aquatic fauna. When miners move inland, dredging along smaller rivers or in forested areas where rivers used to flow, the destruction is compounded, leaving a denuded landscape pocked with water-filled craters.

A longer-lasting impact comes from mercury used to separate tiny flecks of gold from fine sediment. Typically, workers mix mercury with the gold-bearing sand to form a lump, then blast it with a torch, vaporizing the mercury and leaving behind a lump of gold.

Direct exposure to mercury can cause health problems for workers, including lung, kidney and neurological problems. This kind of unregulated or poorly regulated small-scale mining is also the largest source of atmospheric mercury, which can enter the food chain when it settles onto the land and oceans.

And although miners claim that they don’t use mercury when mining in rivers, de Aguiar has his doubts.

“If the government is unable to minimally control the flux of mining boats, how can we be sure they are not using mercury and dumping it in the river?” he asked.

Dredging in riverbeds also stirs up heavy metals — including mercury that occurs naturally in some Amazonian soils — or pollutants deposited in the past, re-contaminating the water and its plant and animal life, de Aguiar said.

When mercury in rivers or streams comes into contact with bacteria, it changes into a form that accumulates in the flesh of fish. The toxic metal becomes more concentrated higher up the food chain, as smaller fish are eaten by larger fish, which are consumed by humans, not only in rural areas but also in large cities like Manaus and Belém.

Consuming large amounts of mercury can cause neurological problems, especially in children, and in pregnant women the mercury can affect the developing fetus.

But mercury is not the only health hazard posed by illegal gold mining in Brazil. For decades, church workers have denounced the presence of illegal miners in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, an area that borders Venezuela and is slightly larger than the U.S. state of Indiana.

Some Yanomami continue to shun contact with wider Brazilian society, making them especially vulnerable to diseases introduced by miners, even common ones like colds or flu. With the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the danger is great even for Yanomami who have resistance to common diseases.

“Mining produces gold and death — death caused by mercury emissions, but also by COVID-19. There are more than 20,000 miners operating in the Yanomami territory. Those invaders have taken the novel coronavirus to the indigenous communities,” Bossi said.

Violent encounters also occur between miners and the territory’s Indigenous inhabitants, including some in the past year that have been related to the pandemic.

Earlier this year, there was a wave of attacks against Yanomami villages by miners angry that the Indigenous communities had put up barriers to keep outsiders away, in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. In one assault caught on camera, miners in boats shot at residents of a Yanomami village, causing women and children to flee.

“There has always been illegal mining in the Yanomami land, but now it has assumed a gigantic proportion. It has been impacting their lives in various ways,” said Luis Ventura, a lay missionary working with the Brazilian bishops’ Indigenous Missionary Council, known as CIMI.

Ventura said villagers who are closest to mining areas avoid contact with the miners, but as a result, they are gradually displaced by the invaders.

“They also feel the impact of mining on their daily lives. They see the water is more turbid, that there are fewer fish,” he said.

Júnior Hekurari, a Yanomami health worker, agreed.

“The water became mud. Even the great rivers are now yellow. We cannot fish anymore in several places where we used to fish,” he told EarthBeat.

Hekurari also said the invaders brought malaria with them.

“They destroyed forest areas and brought the disease,” he said, adding that as many as 1,500 malaria cases have been diagnosed every month among the Yanomami in recent months.

“We see and hear planes and helicopters flying all day long in our territory,” he said. “They move tons of materials and equipment every day.”

In October, two Yanomami children, ages 4 and 5, who were playing by a riverbank were killed when a mining dredge swept them into the river’s deeper water and swift current. The circumstances are not clear, but observers believe they were pulled into deeper water by the dredge’s suction hose.

“Yanomami kids learn how to swim as soon as they can walk. Those kids knew how to swim. They were killed by a machine. It was not an accident,” Hekurari said of the case, which is still being investigated by the police.

Hekurari fears the effects of mercury on his people’s health. A recent study by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, a governmental health research agency, showed that 60% of the Munduruku people, in the state of Pará, have higher levels of mercury in their blood than the maximum recommended by the World Health Organization.

Franciscan Sr. Laura Vicuña Manso, a member of CIMI in the state of Rondônia, said mining also creates internal conflicts in indigenous territories, pitting anti-mining and pro-mining members of the communities against each other.

“Mining is always a source of conflict,” she told EarthBeat. “And it also impacts the indigenous groups living in isolation.”

The impacts of illegal mining stretch far beyond the areas where the miners work, Greenpeace’s de Aguiar said, as some successful miners invest their money in cattle ranches in the Amazon — leading to more deforestation and emission of greenhouse gases.

Meanwhile, people living in communities in the mining areas do not reap benefits.

“The city of Itaituba, in the state of Pará, has been a center of mining for 50 years. If mining really brings progress, it should be a city comparable to London,” de Aguiar said. “But it’s not — it’s a rather poor city.”

Church organizations like the Mining Commission and the Pastoral Land Commission not only denounce the illegal miners operating in the Amazon, but they also try to promote economic alternatives in the region.

“With the high international prices of gold, many traditional communities suddenly became mining communities. We have been trying to stimulate other forms of production that will allow good living conditions, based on agroecology and local production,” Bossi said.

Meanwhile, the bishops’ Mining and Integral Ecology Commission has been campaigning to raise awareness among people who purchase gold about the impacts of mining in the Amazon — much like campaigns aimed at stopping the purchase of “blood diamonds” from Africa. Bossi and Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese raised the issue during the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon region in October 2019, when they suggested that the church stop using liturgical vessels made of gold.

But with the international price of gold driven higher by the pandemic, illegal mining in the Amazon basin is unlikely to end soon. And even if it did, the land devastated by mining will be slow to recover, scientists say.

Even if mining stopped today, the mercury pollution would linger for decades, de Aguiar said, adding, “Decontamination takes a long time.”

‘Disastrous’ plastic use in farming threatens food safety – UN

Farmers cover a field with plastic films in Yuli county, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, northern China.
Farmers cover a field with plastic films in Yuli county, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, northern China. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

The “disastrous” way in which plastic is used in farming across the world is threatening food safety and potentially human health, according to a report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

It says soils contain more microplastic pollution than the oceans and that there is “irrefutable” evidence of the need for better management of the millions of tonnes of plastics used in the food and farming system each year.

The report recognises the benefits of plastic in producing and protecting food, from irrigation and silage bags to fishing gear and tree guards. But the FAO said the use of plastics had become pervasive and that most were currently single-use and were buried, burned or lost after use. It also warned of a growing demand for agricultural plastics.

There is increasing concern about the microplastics formed as larger plastics are broken down, the report said. Microplastics are consumed by people and wildlife and some contain toxic additives and can also carry pathogens. Some marine animals are harmed by eating plastics but little is known about the impact on land animals or people.

“The report serves as a loud call for decisive action to curb the disastrous use of plastics across the agricultural sectors,” said Maria Helena Semedo, deputy director general at the FAO.

“Soils are one of the main receptors of agricultural plastics and are known to contain larger quantities of microplastics than oceans,” she said. “Microplastics can accumulate in food chains, threatening food security, food safety and potentially human health.”

Global soils are the source of all life on land but the FAO warned in December 2020 that their future looked “bleak” without action to halt degradation. Microplastic pollution is also a global problem, pervading the planet from the summit of Mount Everest to the deepest ocean trenches.

The FAO report, which was reviewed by external experts, estimates 12.5m tonnes of plastic products were used in plant and animal production in 2019, and a further 37.3m in food packaging.

Plastic is a versatile material and cheap and easy to make into products, the report says. These include greenhouse and mulching films as well as polymer-coated fertiliser pellets, which release nutrients more slowly and efficiently.

“However, despite the many benefits, agricultural plastics also pose a serious risk of pollution and harm to human and ecosystem health when they are damaged, degraded or discarded in the environment,” the report says.

Data on plastic use is limited, it says, but Asia was estimated to be the largest user, accounting for about half of global usage. Furthermore, the global demand for major products such as greenhouse, mulching and silage films is expected to rise by 50% by 2030.

Only a small fraction of agricultural plastics are collected and recycled. The FAO said: “The urgency for coordinated and decisive action cannot be understated.”

Prof Jonathan Leake, at the University of Sheffield in the UK and a panel member of the UK Sustainable Soils Alliance, said: “Plastic pollution of agricultural soils is a pervasive, persistent problem that threatens soil health throughout much of the world.”Advertisement

He said the impact of plastic was poorly understood, although adverse effects had been seen on earthworms, which played a crucial role in keeping soils and crops healthy.

“We are currently adding large amounts of these unnatural materials into agricultural soils without understanding their long-term effects,” he said. “In the UK the problems are especially serious because of our applications of large amounts of plastic-contaminated sewage sludges and composts. We need to remove the plastics [from these] before they are added to land, as it is impossible to remove them afterwards.”

As a solution, the FAO report cites “the 6R model” – refuse, redesign, reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover. This means adopting farming practices that avoid plastic use, substituting plastic products with natural or biodegradable alternatives, promoting reusable plastic products and improving plastic waste management.

Madagascar food crisis: How a woman helped save her village from starvation

A woman and an man standing in a field
Loharano and her husband Mandilimana have transformed the way they farm

Loharano’s effortless grace belies the hard work that she is doing to stave off the tragedy that is unfolding in parts of her region of Madagascar.

A prolonged drought in the deep south of the island has left 1.3 million people struggling to find food and 28,000 facing starvation. Some have called it the world’s first famine caused by climate change, though this has been disputed.

But Loharano’s village, Tsimanananda, where she is a community leader, has been spared the worst.

It is a tough 45-minute drive from Ambovombe, the regional capital of Androy, one of the regions hardest hit by the sharp drop in rainfall in recent years.

The 4×4 vehicle can barely find a grip on the sandy roads. The view through the dusty windscreen reveals a desert-like dune landscape, stripped of trees and exposed to harsh winds.

It is hard to imagine anything growing here. But Tsimanananda stands out in the landscape.

Loharano’s smile lights up the space around her. She is short and gentle – not the first person you would pick out as the leader in her neighbourhood.

But she quickly invites me into her compound, making me feel at home.

“We suffered a lot from hunger. We planted but it failed every time,” the 43-year-old says, reflecting on a previous drought that started in 2013. But with the help of a local charity, the Agro-ecological Centre of the South (CTAS), this time things are very different.

Shortly after I arrive, Loharano leads a short class under the shade of a tree.

Armed with a poster illustrating farming techniques, she talks to her neighbours, and her husband Mandilimana, about drought-resistant crops and techniques to revitalise the soil.

‘We have breakfast, lunch and dinner’

Over the past seven years, CTAS has helped introduce grains like millet and sorghum and local legume varieties, which grow well in the sandy conditions and improve the soil’s fertility.

The villagers were also taught how to plant natural windbreaks to help protect the crops from the ravages of the elements.

“Now, we have breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Loharano says proudly as she shows off her plot of land where she and Mandilimana have grown an impressive range of crops.

On one end there are rows of millet, then beans, peas and sweet potatoes.

“We eat the husk from the ground millet with sugar and this is the favourite food of the children, their bellies are always full of millet.”

CTAS has replicated this work in 14 other villages in the south of Madagascar helping some 10,000 households, the charity says.

But the small organisation cannot reach everyone and there is clearly enormous need.

Back in the regional capital, Ambovombe, is a sight reminiscent of a war zone.

In a small dusty field, dozens of families have erected makeshift tents – a patchwork of torn mosquito nets, rice sacks and plastic sheets.

But these people, around 400, have fled hunger not conflict.

Unlike Loharano, they were not able to grow any food and had to sell their farms and cattle just to survive.

Climate change controversy

However it is more than just possessions that people have lost.

Mahosoa, who lives here with one of his wives and 12 children, tells me four of his youngest children died at the start of the drought three years ago.

“They died of hunger in the village. They died one by one, day by day. We didn’t eat for one week. Nothing to eat, nothing to drink.”

Mahosoa tells me some of his children go out to beg in the town so they can buy food or water.

Promises of aid from the government have not materialised for them, he says.

The government has distributed food aid in the affected area and has announced dozens of long-term infrastructure projects that could transform the area’s prospects.

Nevertheless, President Andry Rajoelina has been criticised for failing to respond quickly enough to the crisis as the impact of the successive years of drought became more obvious.

Some locals put this down to the historical marginalisation of the region.

“During the war against the French colonialist army, the Antandroy [people from the Androy region] were able to fight against the French colonisers, they were able to use guerrilla tactics,” university lecturer Dr Tsimihole Tovondrafale says.

Because of this, he says the French were not interested in developing the region.

“They didn’t think about how to make roads, dig wells for example, and that’s still the politics of Madagascar since independence up to now.”

Many political commentators blame what they see as the government’s slowness to react for exacerbating the hunger crisis in the south, but Madagascar’s environment minister sees things very differently.

Dr Baomiavotse Vahinala Raharinirina says that the famine is “climactic in its origin”. This chimes with the view of the World Food Programme, which says that the crisis is being driven by climate change.

The recent influential World Weather Attribution report on the drought in Madagascar, which included work from Dr Rondro Barimalala, a Malagasy climate scientist, disputed this.

Researchers found that though the recent rains have been poor and the probability of future droughts may be on the rise, the change in rainfall cannot be attributed to human impact on the climate.

Regardless of the exact cause of the lack of rain, there is no doubt that hundreds of thousands of people will be living with its impact for years to come.

Through her work to improve her village, Loharano is happy her community has avoided the disaster many are facing right now.

But it hurts her to see many more cannot be helped.

“I feel sad for them because they could die of hunger. One day, somebody had nothing and I asked her why.

“She said that they hadn’t eaten since the day before. So I told her to take some of my peas and feed her kids.”

Brick by brick, tree by tree, Carmelite Missionary Sisters plant skills to limit Malawi’s deforestation

Women of the Eco Women Group have embarked on a tree-planting campaign to promote reforestation programs to reduce the effect of climate change in Kalumba Forest, 37 miles north of Malawi's capital, Lilongwe. (Doreen Ajiambo)
Women of the Eco Women Group have embarked on a tree-planting campaign to promote reforestation programs to reduce the effect of climate change in Kalumba Forest, 37 miles north of Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. (Doreen Ajiambo)

KAPIRI, Malawi — Sr. Patricia Chimimba remembers when the forest near her convent in this town outside Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, was so thick with leaves and foliage that one could hardly walk through it.

Nowadays, Kalumba Forest, 37 miles north of Lilongwe, is degraded, replaced by grasslands dotted with tree stumps. Religious leaders and environmentalists say that Malawians’ dependence on firewood and charcoal as their only source of income and to meet their own energy needs has led them to chop down vast portions of the forest.

The impact of deforestation, including water shortages, reduced crop productivity, and disrupting the hydroelectric power supply has prompted Chimimba, with community groups from the Kapiri area, to protect the Kalumba Forest by planting more trees and advocating to bar illegal loggers.

“I have always loved trees and nature in general, and it pains me a lot when I see people cutting down trees,” said Chimimba, a member of the Carmelite Missionary Sisters. “Whenever I wake up, all I think about is the environment and trees, and I think the best way to protect them is by planting more and working to stop encroachers from destroying the remaining ones.”

More than 97% of Malawian households depend on biomass energy — charcoal and wood — to meet their power needs, according to the country’s National Charcoal Strategy, focused on providing solutions such as promoting substitute cooking fuelsThis is because Malawi is ranked the fifth poorest country globally and accessing electricity for cooking is a rare luxury. The majority of those who have electricity still use wood and charcoal for cooking or heating because of the cost, thus exacerbating the health of the forests.

At 2.8%, the southeastern African country of 19 million people has one of the highest annual deforestation rates in Africa, losing 965 square miles (about 250,000 hectares) of tree cover per year, according to government data.

By contrast, Brazil’s Amazon rainforest lost 5,100 square miles and reached its highest annual rate of deforestation — a 22% jump over the previous year — in 15 years, according to national space research data released in November.

From 1972 to 2009, Malawi lost 36% of its original forest area. Forestation efforts have reduced the net loss to only 5% in that 37-year period, but the biological diversity is not equal to that of original forest. If the trend is not addressed, the nation could find itself without trees by 2079, recent research in the region states.

Deforestation can severely affect wildlife, ecosystems, biodiversity and weather patterns.

Along the highways of this landlocked nation, residents can be seen using bicycle transport to move bags of charcoal for sale as fuel. Women sell charcoal on the streets, and young men and women load large carbon bags for sale to restaurants. Massive deforestation and loss of vegetation due to charcoal production has made many large tracts of land in the countryside lie bare. The land, therefore, offers no resistance against floods and droughts.

Drivers of deforestation

More than two-thirds of Malawi’s population live below the international poverty line of $1.90 a day, according to World Bank statistics. The majority of the impoverished depend on small-scale farming for their livelihoods, Chimimba said, adding that the growing population has forced residents to convert forested land to agricultural land.

“Most of the residents here are poor, and sometimes they are forced to cut trees to survive,” she said. “They cut trees and produce charcoal to generate income so that they can pay fees for their children and buy food in case there is a drought that results in a poor harvest.”

Mary Nankokwe, a Kapiri resident, agreed. Although she knows that it’s illegal to cut down trees for charcoal production, a recent prolonged drought that brought starvation and hunger forced her to give up farming in favor of selling charcoal as fuel, she said.

“I used to depend on farming, but due to extreme weather that leads to poor harvest, it made me turn to the sale of charcoal and wood to survive,” said the 38-year-old mother of three whose husband died in 2017. “Being a widow, I had to get involved in charcoal burning [making charcoal out of burned wood to sell as heating or cooking fuel] to provide for my children and pay for their fees. I’m very poor, and I don’t have other means of providing for myself and my children, so this is the only way. Maybe if I get money, I can start another business.”

Davis Kunkeyani, a village administrator overseeing Kapiri, said most homes in the country are built of bricks fired with wood logged from forests, further contributing to deforestation. Kapiri, like other towns across Malawi, is also in high demand for bricks to construct public structures such as schools, hospitals and trading shops, he said.

Several reports in Malawi show that firing bricks consumes roughly 850,000 metric tons of fuelwood annually. The report said that if the situation is not addressed, the country could lose all its trees in 25 to 30 years from the brick industry alone.

“Bricks require a lot of wood to fire brick kilns, and this leads people to cut down trees to meet the demands,” said Kunkeyani, noting that the practice has resulted in massive deforestation, land degradation and soil erosion.

Weak laws

Chimimba said weak laws and enforcement of existing rules have been ineffective.

The country’s law states that authorities should take away charcoal and timber from sellers and confiscate equipment for those found cutting down trees.

In its National Charcoal Strategy report, the government admits a need to strengthen law enforcement to end deforestation, noting that in recent decades “law enforcement related to charcoal production and marketing has been inadequate, inconsistent and ineffective.”

“The authorities need to do more to save the country’s forests, including introducing stiffer punishment for those found cutting trees and selling charcoal and timber,” Chimimba said. “Unfortunately, those destroying our forests are walking freely with impunity despite the dangers deforestation has brought to us.”

Closing the gap

But religious sisters are boldly confronting the deforestation crisis and taking several critical steps toward a solution.

In 2015, Chimimba founded Eco Women Group, a nonprofit organization that empowers women to save the environment. The group equips women with skills to make briquettes, practice apiculture or farming that does not adversely affect the environment, and plant trees to reduce deforestation in the area.

To ensure that they provide an alternative energy source to reduce deforestation, the organization has trained women to make briquettes as a substitute for charcoal. A briquette is a compressed block made from flammable items, such as charcoal dust, sawdust and clay, with an ability to start and maintain a fire, essentially for cooking, explained Chimimba. Due to the lack of resources, women are now using cartons to make the briquettes, she added.

“The initiative has reduced the cutting down of trees, and we are now saving our only forest in the region,” said Chimimba, revealing that her organization has more than 600 members divided into 10 groups representing every village in Kapiri. “Using briquettes saves time, as women no longer have to walk for a long distance to look for firewood and is healthier because they don’t emit smoke.”

Marlene Usiku is among hundreds of women who have received training from the Eco Women Group on making briquettes. She said the product produces fuel in her household and helps her earn a sustainable income.

“We are now using briquettes instead of charcoal or firewood. I’m making more briquettes every day and selling to other households for an income so that I can sustain my family,” said the 30-year-old mother of two, who noted that most charcoal producers in the region are women. “We have been encouraged to train other women on how to make briquettes and use it as a clean source of energy to save the forests and also earn an income.”

The sisters with the group of women have also planted thousands of trees to replace those that encroachers have cut. For example, early this year, the sisters launched a tree-planting campaign to promote reforestation programs to reduce climate change caused by excess carbon emission in the atmosphere.

Sr. Marieta Makina, a member of the Carmelite Missionary Sisters who works with Chimimba, said they have been training women on plant propagation so that they can establish their tree nurseries, replace trees that have been cut on their homestead and sell the rest of the seedlings to earn an income.

The sisters are determined as well to find the solution to severe drought and hunger. Climate change due to deforestation has significantly affected food production in the country. The sisters are touring villages to train the women’s groups about the importance of farming. The thrice weekly training involves land preparation, planting, weed management and new farming methods that can survive the harsh climatic changes.

The sisters provide the women with seeds and train them to create small gardens, Chimimba said, noting that these gardens are meant to provide household food and help the women earn an income from vegetables sales.

Using small buckets of water, the sisters devised an irrigation method where a water tap and pipe that runs through the entire garden is connected to the bucket. The technique enables the vegetables to be watered despite having little water available, Makina said.

“To have food, you don’t need a lot of water, and that’s why we teach these women that, with little water, they can be able to have food,” she said. “This has enabled them even to earn an income, which is a good thing.”

The initiatives are helping Kapiri residents move out of poverty as they save the environment.

“Today, I don’t think of cutting down trees to make charcoal for sale,” Usiku said. “The sisters have taught us to engage in alternative sources of income to take care of our families and save the trees.”

Kunkeyani thanked the sisters for saving the only remaining forest in the region and empowering residents, saying that was the only way to end deforestation. “It’s important to empower the poor because it’s poverty that is making locals destroy our forests,” he said.

Meanwhile, Chimimba hopes that the programs they are implementing in Kapiri will spread to other country regions to save the remaining forests.

“We may be a few, and maybe our efforts will not change much, but I believe that others will come to defend the forests,” she said. “We will not let Malawi become a desert. It’s our responsibility to take care of the environment.”

Ethiopia’s speed schools give child labourers a second chance

LOYA, Ethiopia, Nov 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Genet’s father died four years ago, it cut short her fledgling studies, forcing the 12-year-old Ethiopian girl to drop out of school and take a babysitting job to help her mother make ends meet.

But a charity’s accelerated schooling programme has helped Genet and more than 2,000 other children in Ethiopia get back to the classroom this term – resuming studies disrupted by conflict, poverty and child labour.

“I’m happy to go back to school for the second time,” said Genet, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, adding that she felt especially fortunate because her younger brother still has to herd cattle to help the family scrape by.

Standing in the yard at Loya Primary School, she showed off a large name tag reading “meteorologist” – one of the individual responsibilities assigned to each of the 25 pupils in her second-chance classroom in the Sidama region.

“It might rain today,” she said earnestly, explaining that her classmates had jobs ranging from plant carer to newsreader.

Children enrolled in the 10-month speed school programme cover the same learning outcomes as others would in the first three years of school – and eventually rejoin mainstream classes in the fourth grade.

“We really work with the most vulnerable children at the margins, who have been denied the chance to learn,” said Caitlin Baron, founder and chief executive of Luminos Fund, the education charity behind the accelerated schooling programme.

“The government has done its part in order to make education access possible. But … the system is so stretched (that) when children are at the margins … there’s no practical way for the government schooling system to actually provide remediation and give children a second chance.”

Still, access to education has improved significantly in Ethiopia over the past two decades with primary school net enrollment tripling between 2000 and 2016, according to the U.N. Children’s Fund, UNICEF.

Four years ago, the government began replicating the Luminos Fund’s model and more than 200,000 children were attending state- and partner-funded speed school classes in 2020.

But amid a civil war, drought and floods, school enrollment has stagnated. Some 3.2 million children of primary-school-age were out of school in 2020, said Yohannes Wogasso, director general of school improvement at the Ministry of Education.

Girls are often kept at home to help with chores or married off, while boys mainly work in the fields in the nation of 115 million, where about 16 million children work.


Launched about a decade ago in Ethiopia, the Luminos programme has helped some 130,000 vulnerable children aged about 10 access education with a curriculum focused on play and songs to prepare them to transition back into government schools.

Some of the children have never been to school, others like Genet dropped out early.

Singing, playing instruments and clapping their hands, children divided into groups of five smiled and laughed as they recited the syllables of the Sidama language in one second-chance classroom.

Located in government primary schools, the classrooms are bright and decorated with banners, each one has a model shop and bank. In one corner, the letters of the alphabet, handmade in clay, are on display.

“For children who’ve been in a labouring environment, that sense of empowerment, that sense of safety that comes from being in a warm, welcoming classroom is a powerful entry point back into the school system,” Baron said.

Prolonged and repeated school closures during the past two years due to COVID-19 have resulted in increased drop-out rates, disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable children according to the U.N. cultural agency, UNESCO.

Even before the pandemic struck, 59 million children of primary school age were missing out on their education globally – most of them in Africa.

Ethiopian schools closed in March last year and reopened gradually from October 2020, with dropout rates lower than initially feared, according to data gathered by the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) programme, a global research project.

Pauline Rose, international research team lead on the RISE Ethiopia team and professor of international education at the University of Cambridge, said speed schools could help children catch up on lost learning.

“Accelerated education learning programmes are vital to address both those who are out of school and learning loss for those who are still in school, but at risk of not remaining there,” she said.


Alemayehu Hailu Gebre, Ethiopia director for the Luminos Fund, which also operates in Lebanon and Liberia, said all government schools should have at least one second-chance classroom to cater for older children.

Research conducted by the Centre for International Education at the University of Sussex found that six years after completing the programme, three-quarters of the students were still in school and progressing faster than their peers.

But despite the government’s push to expand the model, officials say there are limitations that must be addressed.

“This programme is designed only for children who are over-age, and who also have some time to attend a daily programme,” said Yohannes, adding that officials were trying to adapt it to target hard-to-reach groups such as nomadic herdsmen.

Rose said the huge number of children in need of speed schools was also a major challenge in Ethiopia.

“Reaching this number will require a large number of facilitators with relevant training,” she said.

Alem, another 12-year-old girl attending a second-chance classroom, said she dreams of becoming a doctor one day.

For now, however, Alem – whose name has also been changed – still has to clean and cook when she gets home from school.

“We’re trying to reduce the workload and help her. We understand she’s now busy studying,” said Hamaro Hanka, an acquaintance of Alem’s parents who offered her board and lodging in exchange for domestic work when his wife died.

“She has served us already as much as she could so I want to give her an opportunity.”

Insecurity, lack of resources challenge Congo sisters’ health care work

Daughters of the Resurrection in the waiting room of one of their clinics in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Courtesy of Rose Namulisa Balaluka)
Daughters of the Resurrection in the waiting room of one of their clinics in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Courtesy of Rose Namulisa Balaluka)

Bukavu, the capital of South-Kivu province, lies in the east corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo, bordering Rwanda. We have been plagued by insecurity since 1996, particularly following the Rwandan genocide. Three of our sisters were killed by the Alliance of Democratic Forces for Liberation of Congo in 1998, and another was abducted in 2017.

Massive displacement of populations and alarming emergence of disease, poverty, malnutrition and starvation continue for most families. Sexual violence is rampant and abandonment of families by fathers is common, leaving women particularly vulnerable.

These human-made problems are only worsened by those of nature, as this region of Congo is prone to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes that send people running for their lives.

When COVID-19 arrived, the blanket of insecurity and fear increased as it now had a new face. People were traumatized as family members began to die, for apparently no reason. They still feel that if someone tests positive, life has just come to an end. Bantu people love life and so have a strong desire for it, the longer the better!

Our local congregation, the Daughters of the Resurrection, founded in 1966, had developed many health centers in South-Kivu province, but continuing insecurity and COVID-19 closed them down. Now, we have only two centers operating, but with extremely limited resources. The government offers no assistance to us, so it is up to us to find ways to finance all we do.

We lack electricity or generators that would allow us to perform preclinical and biochemical examinations, X-rays or scanning. We have too few beds or even latrines for the numbers of patients, and our protocols for water, sanitation and hygiene are also limited.

Our focus is women’s health, as this was the intent of our foundress. We do our best to offer ante- and post-natal care for pregnant women, and delivery services, including cesarean birthing, but our operating rooms are not properly equipped. We deliver up to 12 babies in a day.

Women, in general, are very vulnerable in this region. Rape is common, as is domestic violence, even against very young women. Girls are led into prostitution to help alleviate family poverty, as there are few ways to earn money. Women are frequently abandoned, leaving them as sole providers of their families.

These conditions have led us to offer marriage and trauma counseling, including instruction for wedding rite preparation. It is our hope we can help prevent broken marriages.

Limited resources of finance and personnel and common concern for maternity care motivated us to work in collaboration with two congregations that also have health centers in this region: Sisters of St. Dorothy of Cemmo and Sisters of Mary Queen of Apostles from Bukavu. We share supplies and equipment and programs to educate the populations on prevention of diarrhea and diabetes. We also teach hygiene and COVID-19 prevention and refer patients to one another’s facilities.

All three communities have nutrition centers in which we assist families and children in addressing malnutrition, which is rampant. The constant insecurity prevents families from farming and storing food.

To fight malnutrition, we first treat those already suffering from it by giving them nutritional supplements, antibiotics, and antimalarial and dewormer drugs. For pregnant and breastfeeding women, we offer additional food with sosoma (bone) broth.

Then as preventative strategies, we try to sensitize the population, teach them self-management in best food practices, and show them the importance of growing vegetables, doing small farming and raising livestock. Since most of the malnourished people come from poor families, we teach them some business practices so they can begin some revenue-generating activities for family autonomy.

This collaboration among our three congregations attracted the attention of a nongovernmental organization, Medicines for Humanity, from the United States, with an office in Cameroon. It has been assisting us now for some months, as its focus is also maternal and child health. It has helped us with equipment, educational COVID-19 materials and protective gear.

Although we keep trying to educate the population on the value of scientific methods that bring real results and well-being, encouraging childhood vaccinations, deworming and providing nutrition supplements, it is challenging, as we are confronted daily with the dangers of traditional healing methods.

The people turn to these because of ignorance and the high cost of modern medicine throughout the country. These alternatives are often in the hands of traditional, religious charlatans who set up pharmacies for consultations and unsafe drugs.

Their methods of healing often depend on witchcraft and sorcery. Prophet-healers promise healing by combining African medical traditions and Christian prayers and Bible readings. They preach mystical ideas and beliefs to discourage the use of modern health care methods, to get money for their services.

Diseases that people cannot explain are blamed on “child sorcerers.” These children, sometimes selected by the church “preachers” or even schoolteachers, are diagnosed as a witch, and their families are required to pay money to have them exorcised or even killed. At other times, the children, once identified in this way, both girls and boys, are just abandoned and become street children, surviving on their own.

Some of the high national medical costs result from neglect by our national leaders. Government hospitals and health centers lack equipment, medicines and even water for treatment and care. Working conditions for nurses and doctors in these facilities are deplorable. Even though civil law requires that staff be paid fairly, salaries are extremely low or not paid at all.

Patients pay the price for these conditions, and are often held like prisoners in the hospital for weeks and months even after recovery, unable to pay their bills.

We, as sisters, are committed to serving our people to the best of our ability. I don’t think our situation here is very different from what other sisters experience in other areas of Congo. Our hearts remain faithful to our charism and mission of care for families since 1966, when we were founded by Mother Hadewych to help the people — particularly the women — suffering the effects of the war of Mulele, an uprising that was part of the Congolese movement for independence.

Her own congregation was reluctant to do this work, so she sought permission from the bishop and began recruiting young women of the area, forming them into a religious community to serve those suffering families of Bukavu. Our spirituality of love of Christ in his passion, death and resurrection strengthens us to give hope to the suffering among us.

UN launches record humanitarian appeal for 2022 as needs soar

OCHA chief Martin Griffiths named Ethiopia as one of the most concerning humanitarian crisis [Edmund Blair/Reuters]

The UN has warned that the need for humanitarian aid is skyrocketing worldwide and will reach an all-time high next year, as the pandemic, climate change and conflict push more people to the brink of famine.

The United Nations’ humanitarian agency OCHA on Thursday appealed for a record $41bn to help 183 million people who are the most in need of life-saving assistance – up from the $35bn requested for 2021 and double the amount sought four years ago.

The number of people in need “has never been as high as this”, Martin Griffiths, the head of OCHA, told a news conference on Thursday.

“The climate crisis is hitting the world’s most vulnerable people first and worst. Protracted conflicts grind on, and instability has worsened in several parts of the world, notably Ethiopia, Myanmar and Afghanistan,” Griffiths said.

In its Global Humanitarian Overview report, OCHA said 274 million people worldwide will need some form of emergency assistance next year, up 17 percent from the figure for 2021, which was a record high.

It said one in 29 people will need help in 2022, marking a 250 percent increase since 2015 when one in 95 needed assistance.

The appeal, which pulls together needs from an array of UN agencies and their partners, is likely to fall short of its ambitions.

This year donors provided more than $17bn, less than half of what the UN requested.

“We’re aware that we’re not going to get the $41bn, much as we will try hard,” Griffiths said.

The UN humanitarian chief cited estimates by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization that 45 million people are at risk of famine in dozens of countries.

“Humanitarian aid matters,” Griffiths said, adding that the UN was able to stop famine affecting half a million people in South Sudan and delivered health care to 10 million people in Yemen.

Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia and Sudan are the five extensive crises requiring the most funding, topped by $4.5bn sought for Taliban-ruled Afghanistan where “needs are skyrocketing”, the UN agency said in a report to donors.

In Afghanistan, more than 24 million people require life-saving assistance, a dramatic increase driven by political tumult, economic shocks, and severe food insecurity.

Al Jazeera’s diplomatic correspondent James Bays said an emergency appeal for Afghanistan in September was more than 100 percent funded, but the collapse of the economy coupled with the worst drought in decades meant that much more funding is now needed.

“UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths struggled when asked to name the worst crisis,” Bays said.

Griffiths eventually settled on Ethiopia, saying the capacity that would be needed to respond to the East African country’s implosion was “almost impossible to imagine.”

But he stressed there were many other dire situations, with violence and unrest continuing to force millions to flee their homes.

By 2050, as many as 216 million people could be forced to move within their own countries due to the effects of global warming, OCHA’s report estimated.

Climate change is contributing to rising hunger and food insecurity, with famine-like conditions remaining a “real and terrifying possibility for 45 million people in 43 countries around the world”, it warned.