St. Joseph Sisters rescue youths from drug use on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast

A child sniffs toxic glue from a plastic bottle on the streets of Mombasa, a coastal city in southeastern Kenya on the Indian Ocean. The high rate of youths using drugs has visibly affected their lives and the safety of the region. (GSR photo/Doreen Ajiambo)

Mombasa, Kenya — As he looks forward to his university graduation ceremony late this year, 27-year-old Caleb Kanja can’t forget his arduous journey toward his success.

In 2001, he was rescued from the streets of this coastal city in southeastern Kenya along the Indian Ocean by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Mombasa when he was using drugs, especially glue, cannabis, cocaine and heroin.

“I used every kind of drug to make me go high, and I could not fear anything while on the street,” said Kanja, thanking the sisters for rescuing him from drugs and taking him to school. “The sisters helped me to be who I am today. Life was difficult on the street, and I would today be like other youths whose lives have been affected because of drugs.”

Kanja, who is pursuing economics at a local university in Kenya, said he began using drugs at a tender age due to peer pressure after his mother died and left him with his uncaring father.

“I began using drugs as any other child would do in this region,” he said, adding that his father was always drunk and couldn’t guide him. “I ended up on the street and in dens where the addicts hide to use drugs. I used to beg for money so that I could buy glue, which is cheaper compared to other drugs.”

He is among thousands of youths whom the nuns have rescued from using drugs in the coastal region. With help from volunteers, the sisters find dazed youths in abandoned buildings and shanties dotting the shores of the Indian Ocean. They take them to the Grandsons of Abraham, a rescue center that works with the community to find, rehabilitate and educate youths to make them better citizens.

The coastal region comprises six counties, which are also names of the region’s main towns — Mombasa, Taita Taveta, Kwale, Kilifi, Lamu and Tana River. These towns are known as tourist destinations globally for their sun and beaches. But the tourism industry has not yielded job opportunities for many of the region’s youth and young adults. Rather, tourism — and the free flow of drugs to Kenya’s coast — has led to a culture that has trapped primarily boys and young men in a cycle they rarely escape.

The numbers are low for addiction among local girls and women, whose adherence to cultural norms and fear of rejection by society make it unlikely they would end up on the streets.

Findings from the country’s National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse show that drug use is rife in the coastal regions and visibly affects the lives of youths. The report, which was released in 2016, indicates that 29.3% of coastal region residents at the time were currently using at least one addictive substance, including alcohol. In a county-by-county breakdown, Mombasa led with 34.4% of residents using at least one drug, followed by Lamu with 32%, Tana River 31.1%, Kilifi 29.7%, Kwale 26% and Taita Taveta 20.7%.

The report by the national authority, which is mandated to coordinate a multisectoral effort to prevent, control and mitigate alcohol and drug abuse in Kenya, further explains that 12.6% of residents in the coastal regions are using alcohol, 14.7% tobacco, 12% khat (a popular stimulant plant that is chewed), 4.5% bhang, 2.3% heroin, 1.3% prescription drugs, 0.9% cocaine and 0.4% hashish.

Sr. Jane Frances Kamanthe Malika of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Mombasa believes that the region’s proximity to the seashore makes it a hub for narcotics, especially heroin from Southeast Asia and cocaine from Latin America destined for Europe and North America, as detailed in this 2018 research report, funded by the European Union, on “the heroin coast.”

“The drugs in this region are too available, and the children get them too easily,” Malika said, noting that illicit substances have addicted thousands of youths in the region. “Drugs are sold on every street here, making it easier for the youths to get them. The youths always say that the drugs help them feel high and happy so that they forget about their problems.”

Government struggles

Gilbert Kitiyo, recent Mombasa County commissioner, admits that the number of people using drugs in the coastal region is high. Minors as young as 10-15 have been swept into the drug menace, he said. Kitiyo led a multi-agency security team to smoke out drug barons, midlevel dealers and street sellers. In a recent reshuffling of 24 commissioners, Kitiyo was transferred to an eastern Kenya region away from the coast.

“Drug menace in the coastal region cannot end overnight. It’s a fight that is going on, and we are certain as a government we will end it,” Kitiyo told Global Sisters Report in an interview last month.

Kitiyo blamed the judiciary for the slow pace of the regional war on drugs, saying thousands of cases involving drug trafficking were still pending before the Mombasa courts.

“In Mombasa alone, we make an average arrest of over 1,000 people per year with drug-related offenses, but it’s now upon the judiciary to expedite court cases,” he said, adding that, in most cases, they have provided enough evidence to prosecute the suspects.

Nevertheless, corruption by police and lack of political will have been cited as the main challenges facing the fight against drug abuse in the coastal region. In 2019, for example, a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime showed how Kenyan government officials were bribed for years by the Akasha family drug empire to shield them from legal consequences for trafficking drugs and even from extradition to the United States to face drug charges.

It took the intervention of U.S. agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration to arrest Ibrahim Akasha and Baktash Akasha, the sons of the drug baron Ibrahim Akasha. The detectives extradited them from Mombasa to New York to face charges for trying to import banned drugs.

The two were later found guilty. In January 2020, Ibrahim was sentenced to 23 years in prison for trafficking heroin and methamphetamine in the U.S. His brother, Baktash, had been sentenced to 25 years in prison in August 2019. Yet, those who aided them in Kenya remain free after authorities failed to charge them in court.

Bloodshot eyes, blemished faces

Along the streets of the coastal towns, gaunt youths can be seen seated on stones in neglected structures and shanties. Most of the youths here are a pale shadow of their former selves. Their blemished faces and skin and bloodshot eyes are the ravaged features that exaggerate their age due to constant drug abuse.

Festus Modali, one of the youths, who rolls up heroin into cigarettes or injects it directly into his veins, said his brother introduced him to drugs. “I can’t live without using drugs. I will die,” he said.

Pure heroin is sold to the youths and schoolchildren on every corner of these coastal region towns. The drug is smoked or snorted, but most addicts prefer injecting.

Sr. Veronica Wanjiru, a doctor who is the medical director at Mother Amadea Mission Hospital in a Mombasa suburb, said people who inject themselves with drugs were most vulnerable to HIV and viral infections such as hepatitis C.

A World Health Organization website says 23-39% of new hepatitis C infections and 10% of new HIV cases are among IV drug users. Other adverse public health consequences from those who inject drugs include risk of transmitting tuberculosis, viral hepatitis B, and several sexually transmitted infections.

Health experts in the coastal region have said that drug abuse and depression are the leading causes of mental illness.

“We have the largest number of people [in the country] with mental illness due to high use of drugs, especially khat and cannabis,” said Dr. Charles Mwangome, a psychiatrist at Port Reitz Sub-County Hospital in Mombasa. “The patients are all over the streets because their families have rejected some, but we are treating and rehabilitating them.”

Recent Mombasa County Commissioner Kitiyo noted that the illicit drug business has contributed to lawlessness in the region, adding that youths were also dropping out of school to concentrate on consuming drugs.

“The youths are not going to school. They are busy on the streets engaging in drugs, and they are a threat to security as some engage in theft and pickpocketing,” he said.

Sisters intervene

However, with the help of social workers, religious sisters are battling to end the drug menace in the coastal region. They believe that victims of drug abuse, especially youths, could still be productive in society if they are helped and rehabilitated.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Mombasa run Grandsons of Abraham, a rescue center in Mombasa and Kilifi. They rescue addicts from the streets and drug dens and assist them in recovering from addiction before providing them with education and life skills.

Malika, the St. Joseph sister who is leading the fight against drug abuse in the coastal region, visits the dens, abandoned structures, alleys and huts where the addicts hide to smoke, sniff or inject drugs. She talks to the youths about the dangers of drug abuse and its likely consequences.

“I visit those places with social workers twice every week to talk to the boys so that they willingly come to the rescue center,” she said, explaining that they give the boys a chance to decide on coming to the center themselves after persuading them about the dangers caused by substance abuse and the importance of rehabilitation.

“We don’t take them by force from the streets, but we do talk to them and convince them to come on their own,” Malika said. “We believe that if the decision is made by oneself, then it’s from the heart, and it makes it easier for rehabilitation.”

Once off the streets, the youths are given a week to rest before they begin counseling sessions and treatment. The sisters said that those who have been on drugs for a long time or are sick are taken to hospitals for treatment.

“We begin by putting these youths on medication and a healthy diet to try and flush out drugs from their system, a process that takes at least three months,” said Wanjiru, whose hospital works with Grandsons of Abraham to treat drug addicts.

Malika said that after recovery, the youths are made aware of the dangers of using drugs. They provide educational scholarships to the children who are still young and willing to go back to school and complete their education. Those who can’t go back are enrolled in vocational training in farming, welding, plumbing, masonry and computer skills.

“After the child has recovered, we try to trace their families and reintegrate them back. Those who don’t have families stay at our center,” she said, citing challenges with the children they reintegrate into the communities.

“We have come to realize that these youths are rejected again by their families and end up in the streets,” Malika conceded, adding that the sisters will try again in such cases.

The sisters have also been conducting campaigns on drugs and substances across the region’s towns to educate youths on their effects and remind parents of their responsibilities. They also have engaged them in sports such as beach soccer and basketball.

“When youths engage in sports, they become busy and avoid drugs. Most of them are influenced by their peers to engage in drugs because they are idle,” said Malika.

In the meantime, Kanja, the current college student the sisters pulled from the streets of Mombasa, is appealing to well-wishers to continue rescuing drug addicts, as many do not even recall how they began using drugs.

“They are innocent, and they need help,” he said. “They should be assisted so that they can become better people in the society.”

New York girl missing for two years found alive in a hidden staircase room

Paislee Shultis, 6, was found by New York police in a makeshift room underneath a staircase in the girl’s grandfather’s house. Photograph: Saugerties Police Department/Reuters

Two years after she went missing, a six-year-old girl has been found alive and in good health in a makeshift room underneath a staircase in a house in New York state, according to police who said they suspected she was abducted by her biological non-custodial parents.

Officers found the girl, Paislee Shultis, on Monday in a house in the town of Saugerties, two years after she went missing from Spencer, New York, about 180 miles (290 km) to the west, the Saugerties police department said in a statement on Tuesday.

At the time, police believed her biological parents, Kimberly Cooper, 33, and Kirk Shultis Jr, 32, abducted her, they said. The couple did not have custody of the girl, police said.

On Monday, police said they received a tip about the girl’s whereabouts and obtained a search warrant.

They said they went to the girl’s grandfather’s house where they searched for about an hour before locating the child hidden in a makeshift room, under a closed staircase leading to the basement.

Upon removing the step boards, the girl and her mother Kimberly were found hiding in the dark and wet enclosure, police said.

Paislee was taken to police headquarters where paramedics examined her, police told the Daily Freeman, the community’s local newspaper. The girl was in good health and released to her legal guardian.

Police arrested her parents and the girl’s grandfather Kirk Shultis, 57. They face charges of custodial interference and endangering the welfare of a child.

Police said they interviewed Kirk Shultis Jr several times since the girl went missing. He maintained that he had no knowledge of her location and told officers that he had not seen the child.

In Burkina Faso, Muslims and Christians show how to live as one

Sr. Ojonoka Acheneje, a Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul, distributes food to internally displaced persons in the Diocese of Nouna, Burkina Faso. (Courtesy of Janet E. Deinanaghan)
Sr. Ojonoka Acheneje, a Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul, distributes food to internally displaced persons in the Diocese of Nouna, Burkina Faso. (Courtesy of Janet E. Deinanaghan)

Burkina Faso is a landlocked country bounded by Mali, Niger, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. The country obtained its independence in 1960 from France and was then known as Upper Volta. The name Burkina Faso — which means “Land of Incorruptible People” — was adopted in 1984. The capital, Ouagadougou, is in the center of the country.

Burkina Faso is a predominantly Muslim country (61%), with 19% Catholic, 15% following traditional religions, 4% Protestant and about 1% nonreligious. The seat of the Roman Catholic archbishopric is in Ouagadougou, and there are several bishoprics throughout the country.

I am a Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul, missioned to Burkina Faso in 2017 to work in the Nouna Diocese as an English language teacher. After three months of an intensive French language course in Togo — because I am from Nigeria and knew no French — I arrived on Nov. 28. I was sent to teach English language in our new inclusive school that had just opened in October that year.

I had a mixed feeling of fear and excitement, going to a different country and learning a new culture and way of life totally different from what I was used to in Nigeria. The good thing was that another of my sisters, Sr. Ojonoka Acheneje, was sent to the same school — I to teach and she as bursar — which made the experience more agreeable.

My first surprise in arriving in Burkina Faso as a missionary was the free spirit and simplicity of the people there. Coming from a background in Nigeria where Christianity has become a “badge” people wear around like the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ days did, I was profoundly struck with the simplicity of faith practiced among the people here.

To top it all off, I realized that it wasn’t taboo for a Christian to invite a Muslim relation or friend to attend a function in our church, and vice versa! In fact, it is not a taboo for a Christian woman to be married to a Muslim — she can still live her faith fully as a Catholic or other Christian. Many of the staff members of our school are married to a Christian or a Muslim person.

One day, I went on a home visitation in the village with one of my sisters, and we entered the home of a Catholic family. We saw the younger daughter of the family praying outside on her mat. She was a Muslim while her elder sister — whom we were visiting — was sitting nearby praying her rosary. It was such a beautiful and evangelizing sight for me. And our friend said that’s how they have been practicing their faith in the family, without any trouble.

The bank manager of the local Ecobank is married to a Catholic, while he himself is a Muslim. He said he loves the Catholic church and her songs, and that he has no problem with his wife practicing her faith. He further added that in moments of need, he books a Mass for his private intentions and attends when he has the time. His wife, too, goes to the mosque with him whenever she can.

There are so many other families like these in Burkina Faso — where siblings have different faith beliefs, yet they live together amicably. We hear of siblings from both Muslim and Christian backgrounds celebrating a burial ceremony for their late parents in the same compound, and all goes well. I have had the privilege of being invited by Muslim friends for either a marriage ceremony or the Ramadan celebration in their homes, and I found it very evangelizing.

That is why I agree with the words of Pope Francis in addressing the attendees of the John 17 Movement gathering, where he stated, “Division is the work of the father of lies.” Therefore, he said, we should live as one, since we are all brothers and sisters, and disciples of Christ.

Our community arrived in the Nouna Diocese on Aug. 5, 2009, with the first three sisters — Felicia Ezeimo, Esther Ekpo and Toyin Abegunde — who had come to teach, tend the sick and do social work. These were the specific areas of need presented to the Daughters of Charity in Nigeria for which the sisters were sent to work.

The sisters arrived with joy; though they started with nothing on the ground, they worked so hard that after eight years of toil, they identified the need to start a second local community, to run an inclusive school for children with disabilities since in the process of their field work in the villages they had identified many who needed those services.

This gave birth to the new inclusive school that we now have in the diocese. It started with 68 students in 2017 and has now grown to 3,014 in 2022 — out of which 70 are children with special needs, such as autism, Down syndrome, physical handicaps and hearing impairment. Seven Daughters of Charity live and work in two communities in this diocese, in the following ministries: education, social, pastoral and prison apostolates.

However, only one Burkinabe has joined us so far, a young girl from a Catholic family — Amandine Ouedraogo — who is doing her postulant formation in Nigeria now. But in the Province of Algeria there is a Daughter of Charity from Burkina Faso, Sister Georgette, who joined us before the arrival of the sisters from Nigeria. We pray and hope that many other girls will join us in the service of the poor here.

This beautiful way of life is being destroyed by the upsurge of fanatics now in Burkina Faso who want the world under their control and want no other religion except theirs. This is not the intention of God, who gave us freedom to practice whatever religion we wish to practice if it helps us to love him and our neighbors more. They claim Western education is bad and that only Arabic should be taught in schools!

This is the reason we have had several attacks and schools burned in the country. We were attacked on Nov. 22, 2021, and have been displaced ourselves. The school has been temporarily closed but we managed to get some abandoned buildings to continue teaching here.

Life has changed for all of us recently and it is not easy, but we thank God who protected us and kept us safe. Things seem bleak for now, but the government is gradually trying to quell the insurgents, even as the church prays for peace to reign.

Amid pandemic, Indigenous Mexican workers in US fight to be heard

Advocates with MICOP speak with workers in Californiafields
Advocacy groups say that Mexican Indigenous farmworkers are especially vulnerable to various forms of exploitation, such as wage theft [Courtesy Vanessa Teran/MICOP]

Oxnard, California, United States – When Arcenio Lopez made the journey to the United States from his hometown of San Francisco Higos in the Mexican state of Oaxaca in 2003, he was just 21 years old. Spanish was commonly heard in his hometown, along with Mixteco, a language spoken by Indigenous Mixtec, or Nuu Savi, communities in southern Mexico.

In California, Lopez found work in the strawberry fields surrounding a small city called Oxnard in Ventura County, around 100 kilometres (62 miles) northwest of Los Angeles.

Many workers who spent hours hunched over picking berries also had origins in Indigenous communities in Mexico, and spoke native languages such as Mixteco, Zapoteco, Purepecha and Triqui. Some spoke little Spanish, inciting scorn from Mexican foremen and some colleagues in the fields who looked down on Indigenous workers.

Lopez, now the executive director of the Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), which serves the Mexican Indigenous population of Oxnard and several neighbouring counties in southern California, says anti-Indigenous racism continues to follow workers across the border. “This goes all the way back to the history of colonisation,” he told Al Jazeera. “We carry this trauma in our DNA.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought additional challenges, as community members struggle to find resources in Indigenous languages and to take advantage of public programmes for vaccination and testing, after decades of immigrants being discouraged from utilising public assistance.

Community groups have thus stepped in to bridge the gulf of trust between the government and Indigenous migrant workers.

Legacy of discrimination

Even before the pandemic, advocates have said anti-Indigenous racism and a lack of resources in native languages made Indigenous workers vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, including wage theft.

“A lot of farm labour is paid by the piece,” Jorge Toledano, a Mixtec community organiser with MICOP, told Al Jazeera. “If an Indigenous worker brings in a basket of strawberries, the supervisor might cheat them by marking it down as less fruit than is actually there in a language they don’t know, so the worker gets paid less.”

Sarait Martinez, an Indigenous Zapotec who heads the Centro Binacional para el Desarrollo Indigena Oaxaqueno (CBDIO) in California’s Central Valley, said there is “a lot of anti-Indigenous racism in the Mexican community”.

“It can be intimidating for people to demand their rights,” Martinez told Al Jazeera. “But if you work up the courage to contact the government to tell them about a workplace violation, what do you do if no one at the agency speaks your language?”

Such language barriers can have lethal consequences. In July 2021, Gerardo Martinez, a 19-year-old Zapotec man, was shot and killed by police in the city of Salinas. Martinez was holding what appeared to be a handgun and did not respond to demands from police given in Spanish. But the weapon in question turned out to be a BB gun, and Martinez was a monolingual native speaker who did not understand Spanish.

California has never thoroughly surveyed the state’s Mexican Indigenous population, and estimates of their size and composition in the labour force vary. The most comprehensive effort was the Indigenous Farmworker Study, carried out by the California Endowment and California Rural Legal Assistance in 2010.

The study estimated that there were approximately 120,000 Mexican Indigenous farmworkers in California, mostly in the Central Valley and Central Coast regions. Yet, despite their substantial representation in California’s $50bn agricultural industry, Martinez says authorities have shown only limited interest in understanding such communities – although this has started to change during the pandemic, amid growing pressure from Indigenous advocates.

“We ask counties and different departments how they track Indigenous needs, like language needs, and they don’t have an answer,” Martinez said. “Institutions are not allocating the right amount of resources to ensure our communities have access to information and services in their languages. The fact that we’re invisible among those services really impacts the way they serve us.”

Lilia Garcia-Brower, the California state labour commissioner who oversees enforcement of wage and hour laws, told Al Jazeera that her office has worked with community organisations before and during the pandemic, and has partnered with MICOP and CBDIO on “labour caravans” that seek to inform workers of their rights.

“One of the ways to ensure we’re available to workers is to partner with organisations the community trusts. We want to make sure those relationships continue,” Garcia-Brower said. “Those investments are one component, but they also can’t replace a more institutional effort to accommodate workers in multiple languages.”

During the pandemic, a lack of information in native languages has created confusion, leaving gaps quickly filled by rumours and conspiracy theories. “If you can’t find answers to your questions, maybe you look to social media instead,” said Lopez, who recently penned a column highlighting the spread of misinformation among Mexican Indigenous communities on social media.

Groups such as MICOP have used radio stations to share information on the pandemic, worker’s rights and updates to immigration law, all in Indigenous languages. In Oxnard, MICOP runs 94.1 Radio Indigena, which features 40 hours of weekly live programming in Spanish, Zapoteco, Purepecha and a variety of Mixteco dialects.

In the Central Valley, a station called Radio Bilingue also offers programmes in Spanish and Mixteco. Many staff at these stations are Indigenous, making them a reliable source because of their roots in the communities they aim to reach.

Keeping up with constantly shifting pandemic guidelines and updates – and translating all of that information into many languages – is time-intensive. To deal with the scale of need in the community, MICOP has expanded from 70 staff to 120 since March 2020, Lopez said, “Delta, Omicron, new CDC guidelines; we have to stay on top of all this information, then translate it into several languages so it can reach people in a timely manner.”

The difficulty has been heightened by a political climate in which migrants, especially the undocumented, are hesitant to ask the state for assistance. Even workers who are entitled to use government programmes often avoid doing so, worried that relying on welfare programmes could hurt their chances of obtaining citizenship.

In such an atmosphere, admonitions by the state to get tested and vaccinated for free may appear contradictory. “It’s hard to undo something that has been so ingrained for such a long time,” Martinez said.

While community groups can help to bridge the gap between state institutions and community members, that responsibility – largely due to a void left by government agencies – can also be exhausting. “There’s collaboration we haven’t seen before with the state,” Martinez said. “We’d like to ensure the changes we see are structural, and there are more agencies hiring people who speak these languages.”

Toledano, despite the challenges his community faces, feels hopeful about the future because of the power in organising. When he first came to California, he saw a video of legendary labour rights activist Cesar Chavez and was spurred into workplace organising.

“When we’re divided, we can be taken advantage of,” Toledano said. “But when we fight together, then we’re in charge and we can demand our rights. Nothing will change until we make them hear us.”

Illegal overfishing by Chinese trawlers leaves Sierra Leone locals ‘starving’

Traders at Tombo market descaling fish.
Traders at Tombo market descaling fish. Photograph: Peter Yeung

Along Tombo’s crumbling waterfront, dozens of hand-painted wooden boats are arriving in the blistering midday sun with the day’s catch for the scrum of the market in one of Sierra Leone’s largest fishing ports.

In a scrap of shade at the bustling dock, Joseph Fofana, a 36-year-old fisherman, is repairing a torn net. Fofana says he earns about 50,000 leone (£3.30) for a brutal, 14-hour day at sea, crammed in with 20 men, all paying the owner for use of his vessel. “This is the only job we can do,” he says. “It’s not my choice. God carried me here. But we are suffering.”

Every day, about 13,000 small boats like Fofana’s cast off from Sierra Leone’s 314-mile (506km) coastline. Fisheries employ 500,000 of the west African nation’s nearly 8 million people, represent 12% of the economy and are the source of 80% of the population’s protein consumption.

But a dozen fishermen interviewed by the Guardian say their catch is dwindling rapidly due to sustained overfishing on a large scale. “Many years ago, you could see fish in the water from here, even big ones,” says Fofana. “Not any more. There’s less fish than ever before.”

Tombo’s fishing community put the blame squarely on foreign fleets. About 40% of industrial licences are owned by Chinese vessels; though legal, locals say they pay meagre fees for their permits, under-declare their catch and add little to the local economy.

At the same time, illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing is a huge problem, costing Sierra Leone $50m a year, President Julius Maada Bio said in 2018. Last year, a joint operation by the Sierra Leonean navy and the conservation organisation Sea Shepherd Global led to the arrest of five foreign-owned fishing vessels in two days, including two Chinese-flagged trawlers found to be fishing without a licence.

Those in Tombo who have protested at the illegal fishing say they face violence from the crews. Alusine Kargbo, a 34-year-old mackerel fisherman, says trawlers’ crews threw boiling water at him when he confronted them over fishing in areas where trawling is prohibited. “Before, the trawlers weren’t in our zones, now they are,” Kargbo says. “The difference is so great [in terms of his catches] compared with before, I’m struggling to feed my children.”

Others are being forced farther afield in search of fish. Ibrahim Bangura, 47, often goes on three-day fishing trips into the Atlantic, a deadly venture in the rainy season. But while the potential reward is greater, he says conflicts with Chinese trawlers are more likely. “There’s so, so many of them,” says Bangura. “They disturb my property, trash my nets. And if you try to stop them, they will fight you.”

In addition to dominating licensed markets, China is consistently ranked as the worst offender for IUU fishing in a global index of 152 countries. Across west Africa, illegal trawling is devastating marine ecosystems and undermining local fisheries, which are a critical source of jobs and food security. A study in 2017 found that Sierra Leone, Senegal, Mauritania, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea lose $2.3bn (£1.7bn) a year due to IUU fishing, which amounts to 65% of the legal reported catch.


Some experts warn that Sierra Leone’s coastal communities face devastating consequences of legal and illegal overfishing. “The Chinese fleet has been taking the profits of the fisheries for 30 years and the impact on fish stocks has been terrible,” says Stephen Akester, an adviser to Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources between 2009 and 2021. “The resources are disappearing, fishermen are suffering, families are starving. Many have just one meal a day.”

“Imagine working for weeks and not being able to catch food,” says Woody Backie Koroma of the Sierra Leone Artisanal Fishermen Union. “They are getting debts. They go to bed without food.”

Such is the strain, says Koroma, that one debt-ridden fisherman in Tombo killed himself last year after his boat was confiscated by the local authorities.

Efforts to manage the sector, including the creation of an inshore exclusion zone that prohibits all but subsistence fishing in the six nautical miles closest to shore, installing movement trackers on industrial trawlers and creating community fishing associations to promote sustainability, have so far had limited impact due to policing and funding challenges, according to officials. A month-long ban on industrial fishing in 2019 was criticised as being too short to allow stocks to replenish.

“We receive a lot of reports and intelligence of illegal fishing,” says Abbas Kamara, an officer at Tombo’s fisheries ministry. “But it’s difficult to corroborate. The trawlers work day and night.

“Fish is very important to Tombo – it’s how people survive – but the fish go to the Chinese,” says Kamara.

The Chinese embassy in Freetown did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.

Amara Kalone, at the Environmental Justice Foundation, a charity that monitored foreign vessels in Sierra Leone until last year when funding for the project ran out, says fleets are adapting their tactics to evade restrictions brought against industrial fishing.

“Semi-industrial ships are coming closer to the estuaries, and they are in a legal grey area,” he says. “Other crews are using very fine, monofilament nets, which are illegal but hard to track.”

Another major concern is the rise of marauding fishing crews from neighbouring countries such as Guinea and Liberia, which catch juvenile fish in protected breeding grounds, fatally undermining fish populations, according to Salieu Sankoh, coordinator of the West Africa Regional Fisheries Programme in Sierra Leone. “It’s a serious threat to the nutrition of the population,” he says. “Some local boats go to the sea and come back with nothing.”


In Tombo, as the sky turns orange over Sierra Leone’s Western Peninsula and the ocean becomes unusually still, a sense of despair sets in for the many artisanal fishers struggling to stay afloat.

Low hauls mean that Ali Mamy Koroma, a 40-year-old fisherman with two wives and six children, has had to borrow 1m leone (£65) to pay his bills. “I feel like I’m drowning,” says Koroma, slumped against the wall at the back of Tombo’s indoor market. “But I can’t swim. There is no way out.”

Activists demand stop to Japan-funded coal plant in climate-vulnerable Bangladesh

MUMBAI,- Japan should stop funding the construction of a coal-fired power plant in Bangladesh as the emissions it produces will accelerate global warming and put the low-lying country at greater risk of climate-change impacts, youth activists said on Friday.

Japanese trading house Sumitomo Corp, along with Toshiba and IHI Corporation, is building the Matarbari power plant in Maheshkhali near the southeastern coastal town of Cox’s Bazar, funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

Climate campaigners said the project contradicts Japan’s commitment, made with other wealthy G7 nations last May, to end funding for “unabated” coal power overseas by the end of 2021.

Coal is considered unabated when it is burned for power or heat without using technology to capture the resulting emissions, a system not yet widely used in power generation.

The power plant under construction at Cox’s Bazar, along the world’s longest beach, puts the lives and livelihoods of locals at risk and will add to broader climate woes, activists said.

Bangladeshi officials said all possible measures were being taken to reduce the negative consequences of the fossil-fuel power plant.

Kentaro Yamamoto, an activist with student movement Fridays for Future Japan, said international support for such energy infrastructure was being offered to Asian countries as “development assistance” but was “destroying the environment”.

Launching a campaign to demand that Sumitomo and JICA stop work on the project, activists and environmental scientists from the region said Japan should stop investing in dirty energy, in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius in line with internationally agreed climate goals.

“This project is hurting the people of Bangladesh and this planet. About 20,000 people have lost land, homes and jobs, flooding will get worse and about 14,000 people could lose their lives due to the toxic waste,” Yamamoto told an online event.

The Bangladesh power plant is at odds with global efforts to curb climate change, and Sumitomo’s own commitment to become carbon neutral by 2050, activists said.

“Achieving net-zero targets by 2050 does not mean burning coal until the last minute. It is far too late to construct new coal power plants now,” said Roger Smith, Japan project manager at Mighty Earth, an advocacy organisation.

A spokesman for Sumitomo, which began building Matarbari in 2017, said the plant would be operated by the Bangladesh government and was not at odds with Sumitomo’s own net-zero goal as the Japanese firm will end all coal-fired generation business in the late 2040s.


About 8% of Bangladesh’s electricity supply comes from coal.

Last year it cancelled 10 out of 18 coal-fired plants it had planned to set up, amid rising costs for the polluting fuel and growing calls from activists to source more of the nation’s power from renewable energy sources.

Mohammad Hossain, head of Power Cell, a technical arm of the Bangladesh energy ministry, said the government had not received a petition from climate activists to stop the Matarbari project.

“We have already cancelled power plants with an intention to cut down emissions but this is an ongoing project and there is no question to cancel it,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The state-run plant – which is expected to be operational by 2024 – would use new technologies to limit emissions, minimise water intake and reduce fly ash to avoid environmental harm, he added.

“Our country is growing fast – its energy demand is growing. This project has been taken up looking at the demands of 2030,” Hossain said.

Activists said funding fossil fuel use put economic concerns ahead of people’s safety in a country whose low elevation, high population density and weak infrastructure make it highly vulnerable to climate change.

“We have the capacity to transition to renewable energy and (we) need the support of Japan to make this transition but not for a coal power plant that is aimed at their profit,” said Farzana Faruk Jhumu of the Bangladesh arm of Fridays for Future.

JICA said that, as a government agency, it was following national policy and aimed to promote international cooperation.

Albania: Afghan women start eatery to help refugees feel at home

AfghanRestaurant Inside Albanian Pizzeri
For Afghans, the small space has become a conduit to another world, where they gather over familiar flavour to discuss the news from back home [Ruchi Kumar/Al Jazeera]

Shengjin city, Albania – The smell of freshly baked bread wafts from the kitchen of a small pizzeria in Shengjin city – a small coastal town in Albania. The bread, however, is not part of the usual offerings on the menu of Bella Vita Pizzeria, but in fact, a version of the Afghan naan, a quintessential traditional bread from Afghanistan that embodies much of the war-torn nation’s food culture.

The naan is only one of the five new dishes that are now being prepared in the kitchen of this Albanian pizzeria that has agreed to share its space with a makeshift Afghan restaurant started by two Afghan refugee women – Hasiba Atakpal, a renowned journalist, and Negina Khalil, the first female prosecutor in the remote province of Ghor in Afghanistan.

“We have lobia (red bean curry), qabili pulaw (Afghan meat and rice delicacy), bolanis (stuffed fried bread), banjan borani (eggplant in tomato sauce),” said Khalil, who was a prominent member of Afghanistan’s legal fraternity, investigating cases of children recruited by Afghan armed groups such as Taliban, ISIL (ISIS) affiliates. “And just like in Afghanistan, every meal is served with the naan,” she added.

The familiar aromas of bread and spices invite the roughly 1,200 Afghan refugees in Shengjin to indulge in a nostalgia-evoking culinary experience, more than 5,500km (3,400 miles) away from the homes they left escaping persecution after Taliban seized the country in August last year. In all, nearly 3,000 Afghans have found refuge in Albania, most of them rescued by international aid agencies.

While it was Khalil’s work prosecuting armed groups and criminals that put her at extreme risk, Atakpal’s bold, front-line reporting as a correspondent for the TOLOnews – Afghanistan’s biggest news channel – earned her threats from Taliban fighters who disapproved of her work.

Both women were forced to leave Kabul, but continue to dedicate their energies to serving their Afghan compatriots.

Atakpal and Khalil’s restaurant, called Ghezaye Afghani (which means Afghan cuisines in Dari, one of the Afghan languages), does not have a business address – it exists within the local pizzeria that offered their space to the two enterprising women.

“We started this restaurant three months ago when we saw how much Afghans who escaped to Albania missed the food from home. Everyone here [at the refugee centre] is dealing with trauma, and we wanted to do something to bring smiles to their faces,” explained Atakpal.

The two women, who first met at the refugee processing centre in the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar, approached the local restaurant outside the Rafelo resort in Shengjin where they were being housed. All Afghans have been accommodated at designated refugee centres.

Thousands of Afghans were brought to Qatar after they were airlifted out of Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s return to power in August, and as the US-led foreign troops prepared to exit the country after 20 years of war.

“We shared our problem with them; about how the Afghan community missed the local food. We explained the idea we had about starting an Afghan kitchen, and they readily gave us permission to use their restaurant space to cook and serve, at no cost,” Atakpal said.

With a place secured, the two women, who are now good friends, sought out finding produce to prepare affordable authentic meals, and at times had to substitute them with the closest available ingredients. “It is not that hard to find ingredients.

“But our focus has been to prepare food that isn’t expensive so the people can afford them because nearly all our customers are refugees here, like us,” Khalil added.

They also hired another Afghan woman to prepare the dishes, since both women had limited cooking experience. “Back home, I was always so busy, I hardly spent time in the kitchen. But now my family find it very interesting that now I spend at least three days a week in the kitchen,” Atakpal quipped.

The restaurant has also gained a significant following among the local residents in Shengjin – home to about 8,000 people.

“It is so joyful when Albanian people come to us asking for our qabili pulaw and lobia. I feel this space helps us build a relationship with the Albanians who have been so nice to Afghans and welcomed us with open arms,” Atakpal said, adding that she hoped their little restaurant-within-a-restaurant leaves a positive legacy of Afghans who passed through Albania in their time of crisis.

They have applied for asylum in the United States and Canada, but it could take as long as a year to be accepted.

For Afghans, the small space has become a conduit to another world, where they gather over familiar flavours to discuss the news from back home.

“We get customers, Afghans from all walks of life, from across tribes and provinces, sharing a common loss and sorrow. It helps bring the community together,” Atakpal said. “It has been such a positive space, that sometimes when the restaurant is close, people come seeking us to ask when we will open,” she added.

Despite its popularity, the four-month-old business has not yet made much profit. In fact, there are days when they barely meet costs. But the women insist that the idea of this venture was never to make profits, rather to help Afghans in exile cope with the trauma they face. “Our best profit is that our people come and enjoy their time here and have their food.

For instance, many Afghan kids are used to eating only Afghan food, and when they visit us, the happiness on their face while devouring one of our delicacies, is everything for me,” Atakpal said.

But, there is another group of Afghan children that Atakpal hopes to serve through the restaurant – a group of 45 young girls, who are child labourers, enrolled in a small private school that Atakpal founded last year, in Kabul.

“We had to shut the school when the Taliban took over, but restarted four months ago. However, we have been forced underground and all activities are now held discreetly,” Atakpal said, speaking passionately about wanting to keep the school afloat even as the future of girls’ education remains uncertain in Afghanistan. She has managed to partly fund the school with the extra income she earns by working as a freelance journalist and editor.

Despite international pressure, higher education and public universities for Afghan women have remained closed since the Taliban takeover last year. While the Taliban recently announced that schools and universities for Afghan girls would resume in March, many educationists remain sceptical.

Meanwhile, underground schools like Atakpal’s have cropped up across the country, operating despite pressure from local Taliban fighters.

“We have students from grade five to 10, and cover all subjects in that syllabus. All teachers are currently working as volunteers, and many are my university friends. However, there are expenses for schools supplies, and also we compensate the students for their time since they are losing working hours when they attend the school,” Atakpal explained.

“Currently, the restaurant doesn’t make any profits to help support the school, and I am working another job as a journalist to pay for the costs to fund the school,” she said, adding that she hoped she can expand her business to eventually support the school in Afghanistan.

Neither Atakpal nor Khalil knows what their future hold, as they wait for asylum confirmation.

“We lost everything, and are back to how things were 20 years ago, where women don’t have rights, access to education, there is no justice system, there hardly any Afghan journalists left, and people are miserable,” Atakpal said.

Khalil’s mother was assassinated by the Taliban in 2020, while she and her brother were attacked during a visit to her mum’s grave. Atakpal’s family members are still based in Kabul.

“But even now if things change, even a little bit, we will both go back in a heartbeat. If not, we will continue to work for Afghanistan no matter which part of the world we are in. We will continue our fight and hope to bring change,” Atakpal said.

Meanwhile, both women hope that their restaurant will continue even long after they are gone, kept alive by Afghans who might choose to stay.

“If nothing else, we will request the owner to continue to keep some of the Afghan delicacies on the menu, as a token to our shared experiences,” Atakpal said.

Sisters support recovery efforts in Philippines after typhoon destruction

Within days after the typhoon hit, Missionary Sisters of Mary sisters sort through donated goods to repack and send to various communities in need, in Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu province, in the Philippines. (Courtesy of Missionary Sisters of Mary)
Within days after the typhoon hit, Missionary Sisters of Mary sisters sort through donated goods to repack and send to various communities in need, in Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu province, in the Philippines. (Courtesy of Missionary Sisters of Mary)

Manila, Philippines — More than six weeks after a super typhoon raked a large swatch of the central and southern Philippines, Catholic sisters are assessing damages, starting to repair buildings and assisting their neighbors in the storm-affected area, part of a massive rebuilding effort in the wake of destruction.

Typhoon Odette (known internationally as Rai) landed in Mindanao on Dec. 16 and wreaked havoc in the island nation with multiple landfalls until it exited the Philippines two days later. Some 2.5 million families (9.1 million people) in 38 provinces were affected by the typhoon, with 409 reported dead and nearly 1,400 injured. Infrastructure and agriculture losses top $670 million.

Power and communication lines are being restored, although because of the ongoing challenges with communication, interviews with sisters for this story were conducted via email. Aid has been pledged by the United States, Canada, China and South Korea, while a United Nations agency called for $107.2 million to support urgent humanitarian needs over the next six months. Pope Francis on Jan. 18 sent an initial contribution of 100,000 euro (about $113,000) through the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

Once the storm abated, sisters immediately swung into action to assist, though the government reimposition of travel restrictions due to the spike in COVID-19 cases in January has made reaching those in need even more difficult. Border checkpoints requiring negative RT-PCR results upon entering has become an added burden to logistics and volunteers.

Medical Mission Sr. Rowena Pineda, chair of the Sisters Association of Mindanao, said the two-day relief effort they did in December as part of the civic group Balsa Mindanao included distribution of relief goods, conducting psychosocial intervention, and providing a cellphone charging station for 1,000 families in Surigao City, one of the hardest hit areas.  Balsa Mindanao is scheduled to return to Surigao City on Feb. 3-5 to bring shelter material, provide psychosocial intervention, and an additional cellphone charging station.

Observing pandemic protocols was difficult as not everyone wore facemasks or observed physical distancing when lining up to receive their packages. “There were challenges in making people comply because they were hungry,” she said. The sisters also saw how evacuation centers were overcrowded, that there was lack of access to potable water — with cases of water-borne diseases reported — and a lack of clean water to maintain hygiene.

Missionary Sisters of Mary also assisted with relief efforts. Sr. Felicidad Solatorio said she and her fellow Missionary Sisters of Mary in Mindanao have not been affected as much as her sisters in the Visayas. The pre-novitiate formation house and convent in Mindanao were damaged by falling trees. But the three MSM sisters who manage an elementary school on Bohol Island in Visayas have to deal with repairs to their convent and a massive clean-up. When the typhoon hit, she said the sisters could feel the ceiling and walls of their convent shaking.

“The roofs were not blown off because some of the fallen branches of the trees surrounding the school and convent landed and pierced them creating some holes thereby [allowing] the flow of water [to enter] their premises,” Solatorio said. If the roofs had blown off, the damage would have been even more extensive.

She added that when the typhoon left, the sisters visited and spoke with their neighbors to assess their conditions. “All suffered the same, lack of water supply and no electricity.”

On Dec. 20, five Mercy sisters traveled nearly more than 300 miles (more than 480 kilometers) from northern Mindanao Island to a town on Leyte Island to provide aid to 300 families affected by the typhoon. A Mercy sister is from that town and her family reached out to the congregation after the typhoon hit asking them to help the community.

The sisters, who are based in Lanao del Norte province, northern Mindanao, saw the devastation wreaked by the typhoon and spoke to people along the way. Mercy Sr. Helen Libo-on said that residents spoke of how those living along the coast were told to take shelter in the high school that was on a mountain. “They thought it was the safest areas, but it wasn’t,” she recounted. “The glass windows were broken and the children were quick to shelter themselves under the tables.” She said people eventually moved to a different evacuation center. “It was a good decision that the people living in the coastal areas evacuated since all the houses in the coastal areas were blown away both by the waves and the strong winds.”

The sisters, a driver and a brother and brother-in-law of one of the sisters traveled for two days by truck and ferry to get to Leyte Island, finally reaching the town of San Francisco in Southern Leyte province late at night on Dec. 22.

The next morning, Libo-on said locals helped them repack the rice, water, dried fish, canned goods, coffee, sugar, biscuits, soaps, laundry detergent, and pails into bags for easier distribution. She added that those who helped also created a list of who lived in the community since they only brought goods for 300 households.

“They were so glad to see us since that was the first time they received help. Everything was ready for distribution, which went fast because everything was in order,” Libo-on said. A few of the packed goods were given to families who came from neighboring communities and others were set aside to be distributed to families who lived in the coastal areas and whose houses were washed out.

They immediately left the town to return to Mindanao to prepare for other missions, she said, but had to wait for 20 hours at the port to a get a ferry back.

Before returning to their convents the sisters made a stop at a city where Mercy Sr. Derby Mercado had relatives as it was already around 7 p.m. and it was nearly time for the online midnight Mass. “Sister Derby’s family took care of our food, so we were able to eat after the Mass and had a good night’s sleep,” Libo-on said. They were able to join other Mercy sisters for Christmas Day. “It was a very exhausting mission but our hearts were full with gladness because we know we made some people happy in spite of their sad experience of Typhoon Odette,” Libo-on said of their five-day journey.

Other Mercy sisters also had to deal with the aftermath of the typhoon on Camiguin Island where they administer a high school and a college. Mercy Sr. Maria Gesila Daypuyat, principal of Columbia St. Michael’s Parish High School, said the typhoon “has caused destruction of houses of our students and employees as well as our school properties and facilities including power outages and Wi-Fi or internet disconnection or collapse.”

Daypuyat said the building housing the school library, some offices and the convent where the sisters reside were severely damaged by a huge acacia tree that fell on it.

Mercy Sr. M. Raphael Amante, directress of Fatima College of Camiguin, said that 14 trees in the campus have been uprooted and damaged several facilities and electrical wirings. The strong winds also damaged the roofs of buildings and windows broke, causing water damage inside the offices. Amante said that the college was actually celebrating its centenary foundation as the first Catholic school on the island this school year. “Recovery efforts are still underway and we are doing our best to gradually restore what had been damaged according to the available resources we have.”

Daypuyat and Amante both said that they were hoping for the generosity of donors to help with their recovery and restoration efforts. Aside from various natural calamities that they have had to endure, the pandemic has also affected their enrollment numbers resulting in some losses to the financial and economic operations in their two schools. “We remain hopeful we can overcome these challenges with God’s grace and mercy,” they added in an email.

In Cebu City, Missionary Catechists of St. Therese of the Infant Jesus Sister Ma. Corazon Talay said that the typhoon damaged the roof of their convent and the covered walkway in front of it. She explained that their convent was already old and had termites, so they were already planning to have it renovated even before the typhoon hit.

Talay added that the Association of Consecrated Women of Cebu, of which she is chair, decided to donate some of their own funds plus money raised from their Advent Recollection for a Cause via Zoom to Caritas Cebu to help with their initial relief efforts.

The typhoon also changed the Association’s plans to commemorate the 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines. She said that they had planned several activities including a day for planting fruit bearing trees to celebrate the Jubilee of Consecrated Women of Cebu on Feb. 2 (World Day of Consecrated Life). “We decided instead to assist some communities that are still struggling and are hard-up because of the severe damage in their area.”

The various religious congregations, she said, have been “doing their respective charity works to the communities that are badly hit, such as providing potable water and food. They also assist in rebuilding damaged houses and give assistance to poor families in the remote areas.”

Philippine bishops urge church finances to disconnect from fossil fuels

Residents walk through mud in Manila, Philippines, Nov. 14, 2020, after flooding caused by Typhoon Vamco. (CNS/Reuters/Eloisa Lopez)
Residents walk through mud in Manila, Philippines, Nov. 14, 2020, after flooding caused by Typhoon Vamco. (CNS/Reuters/Eloisa Lopez

In one of the strongest declarations on climate change to date from the Catholic Church, the bishops of the Philippines have called for the local church to decline any donations with ties to the fossil fuel and extractive industries as part of a full-scale effort to disconnect church finances from the production of coal, oil and gas.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines delivered the directive, along with calling for church institutions to press their banks to phase out fossil fuel holdings, in a pastoral statement issued Jan. 28, the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Titled “A Call for Unity and Action amid a Climate Emergency and Planetary Crisis,” the statement also outlines a plan for a national program to implement Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” — including participation in the Vatican’s Laudato Si’ Action Platform — and places church support behind a legislative proposal to recognize the legal rights of nature.

“The cries of the earth and the poor have only grown louder in recent years due to the economic, environmental, and social losses and damages inflicted by both crises” of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, “which were created from exploitative human activities,” the Philippine bishops said in a press release.

Signed by conference president Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan, the pastoral statement laments that even as the pandemic has upended life, killed more than 5.6 million people globally and paused much economic activity, many past polluting practices have restarted.

“This is concerning as, while suffering from the impact of the pandemic, climate-vulnerable nations have also experienced intensifying calamities due to the instability of our biosphere,” the bishops wrote, a reference to multiple deadly tropical storms, including Super Typhoon Rai in December, that have battered the island nation in the past decade.

Home to nearly 110 million people, the Philippines is one of the countries most at risk to the impacts of climate change, including more severe storms and storm surges, rising sea levels and ocean acidification that affects fishing. The capital of Manila is one of the fastest-sinking cities in the world.

That vulnerability, the bishops’ conference said, places upon the country “the moral imperative of pursuing the most sustainable development pathway possible for the sake of current and future generations,” particularly through its national elections in May.

While early on it appeared the pandemic may mark a turning point on global warming, the years 2020 and 2021 rank as the second and fifth hottest years on record, respectively. And after a small decline in 2020, global emissions rebounded nearly 5% to pre-pandemic levels in the past year.

The Philippine bishops said that despite Francis’ encyclical and their earlier ecological pastoral letter, in 2019, “we continue to suffer an increasingly warming world and ailing biosphere triggered by exploitative practices that benefit the wealthy few but cause poverty and hunger to many.”

In that 2019 pastoral letter, the Philippine bishops directed Catholic institutions to cease investments in coal-fired power plants, mining companies and other extractive projects, becoming one of at least a half dozen national bishops’ conferences so far to join the fossil fuel divestment movement.

Their latest pastoral statement pushes further.

In it, the bishops reaffirmed their support of the Paris Agreement goal of holding average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and to achieve that by achieving deep and rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. They urged the Philippines to peak its own emissions “much earlier,” and said key to that will be rechanneling finances to “disable the coal industry” as well as ending “fossil gas,” an alternative term some environmental activists use for natural gas.

In that vein, the bishops urged parishes and church organizations to review their banks’ activities for social and environmental issues, and where there’s financial exposure to fossil fuels, to press for the phase out of such investments. Absent a divestment policy, the bishops directed Catholic institutions to withdraw their finances from those banking centers no later than 2025.

“We are now all the more aware that many of the financial institutions in whom we place our trust have been instrumental in the rise of fossil fuels, as well as other destructive and exploitative industries like mining and logging. It is unacceptable that finances so graciously provided to us are used for such industries. Financial resources must be used solely for the Common Good, Integrity of Creation, and the Glory of our Creator,” they said.

Instead, the bishops said that finances should be steered toward investments in renewable energy and ecological restoration and protection projects, and church groups should “lead by example” by adopting renewable energy and other sustainability systems in their own facilities and communities. They also encouraged the development of education campaigns to promote divestment within congregations, schools and communities.

The bishops also asked that church organizations adopt a “non-acceptance” policy regarding donations of any kind from owners, operators and representatives of extractive industries, listing specifically coal, natural gas, mining, quarrying and logging.

In a statement, Fr. Antonio Labiao, executive secretary of Caritas Philippines, said that with the financial guidance “the Catholic Church has drawn the line. We will ensure that our due-diligence policies are in place. It is not anymore business as usual.”

Christina Leaño, associate director of Laudato Si’ Movement, told EarthBeat that the document’s specifics make clear that the church intends “to pull the moral license from the fossil fuel industry.”

She added that the bishops’ proposal to deny donations from owners and operators of fossil fuel and extractive companies is a “pretty drastic” statement, especially in a country that is the most dangerous in Asia for environmental defenders that has only increased during President Rodrigo Duterte’s time in office.

While other bishops’ conferences have encouraged divestment, as did the bishops’ final document from the 2019 Amazon synod, Leano said that none have been as explicit as what the Philippine bishops’ conference has now put forward.

“They’re taking it to the next level. And they’re being very specific as opposed to kind of a broad statement,” she said.

Explaining their directives on finances, the Philippine bishops cited the Laudato Si’ implementation guidelines released by the Vatican in June 2020, which recommended fossil fuel divestment and reinvestment in renewable energy and sustainability initiatives.

Since Laudato Si’ was issued, the Catholic Church in the Philippines has been a leader in responding to the pope’s call in that papal document to “protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.”

Beyond finances, the new pastoral statement builds upon that work by expanding its National Laudato Si’ Program, which grew out of the 2019 pastoral letter.

The bishops’ conference recommitted to creating an ecology desk within each of its 78 dioceses and archdioceses, with 15 already established, and directed bishops and religious superiors to prioritize support in their budgets for their work.

The conference also said it will institutionalize annual celebrations of the Season of Creation, in September, and Laudato Si’ Week “to nourish our spirituality and awaken our identity as members of a single, sacred-Earth community called to care for our Common Home and all life in it.”

The bishops’ conference also lent their support to a rights of nature campaign around legislation currently in both houses of Congress. In addition, they called for government departments to involve local and Indigenous communities in all decisions around ecologically and socially hazardous projects, and for increased protections for environmental defenders and the lands they seek to protect.

The rights of nature bill, the bishops said, “can push forward a Philippine society where mining, fossil fuels, development aggression, and other forms of ecological destruction are cast away.”

Leano said that for the bishops to include such language around biodiversity “and even to recognize that non-human [creatures] have rights is a huge thing.”

She told EarthBeat the pastoral statement reinforces the Philippines as a leader on climate and ecological justice, and represents a call to action to the rest of the church, including in the United States.

“It’s really a call to go inward and say, how are we going to respond? How are we going to respond to the climate crisis? How are we going to respond to what our brothers and sisters in the Philippines are doing?”

Catholic Church in France raises $22 million for abuse victims

Jean-Marc Sauvé speaks at the launch of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church report in Paris, France, Oct. 5, 2021
Screenshot from CIASE Facebook page.

The Catholic Church in France has secured more than $22 million in compensation for victims of child sex abuse.

The news comes about four months after a report estimated that hundreds of thousands of children were abused in the Catholic Church in France over the past 70 years. 

“It’s a first step,” said Gilles Vermot-Desroches in an interview with Agence France-Presse. Vermot-Desroches is president of the Selam fund, which is responsible for gathering compensation for victims.

An initial $5.6 million has reportedly already been set aside for compensation claims under investigation by an independent panel. 

It is unclear how the compensation fund was sourced. French bishops voted during their plenary assembly in November to sell off real estate and movable property of some Catholic dioceses. The Church also reportedly invited clergy and laity to make donations. 

The Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church published a report on child sex abuse in the Catholic Church in France in October. 

The report estimated 216,000 children were abused by priests, deacons, monks or nuns from 1950 to 2020.

It added that when abuse by other Church workers was also taken into account, “the estimated number of child victims rises to 330,000 for the whole of the period.”

Catholic bishops in France responded to the report with promises of a “vast program of renewal” of their governance practices and the possibility of mediation and compensation for abuse victims. 

They also established working groups to address and prevent abuse.

At the end of their plenary assembly in November, the bishops knelt in an act of penance in Lourdes as an image of a weeping child was unveiled and an abuse victim shared their testimony. 

Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort of Reims, president of the French bishops’ conference, said at the time that the bishops had recognized the Church’s “institutional responsibility” for the report’s findings.

“We felt God’s gaze on us, because we felt disgust and fear rise up in us as we realized what so many people had experienced and were experiencing in terms of suffering, even though they had the right to receive the light, the consolation, the hope of God,” the archbishop said.

Some members of a French Catholic academy criticized the methodology of the abuse report, arguing the report lacked “scientific rigor.” 

“The disproportionate assessment of this scourge feeds the narrative of a ‘systemic’ character and lays the groundwork for proposals to bring down the Church-institution,” they said.

The critique’s authors noted that the report recognized that there was no causal link between celibacy and sexual abuse.

But they said that “recommendation 4 deals with priestly celibacy and invites [the Church] ‘to identify the ethical requirements of consecrated celibacy, in particular with regard to the representation of the priest and the risk incurred of bestowing on him the status of hero, or of placing him in a position of dominance.’”

They argued that “this recommendation falls outside the scope of the commission’s competence.”

The critique prompted a backlash, with several members of the academy, founded in 2008, resigning.