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Caritas Uganda Bemoans Growing Environmental Disasters Owing to Deforestation

A poster announcing the May 21 webinar closing celebrations making the Laudato Si Year in the Africa region. Credit: Courtesy Photo

As the Catholic Church across the globe marks the Laudato Si’ week, taking stock of the gains made in the conservation of the environment, Caritas Uganda is condemning the growing environmental challenges that the Catholic Church entity links to massive deforestation in the East African nation.

In a Thursday, May 20 meeting that was organized by Caritas Africa to give various Caritas Africa member organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa countries an opportunity to share their experiences of Laudato Si’, the second Encyclical Letter of Pope Francis in which he calls for collective efforts toward caring “for our common home,” Research and Policy Advocacy Coordinator of Caritas Uganda, Godfrey Onentho, said that the country is experiencing a “massive degradation of the environment.”

Mr. Onentho blamed the degradation on what he referred to as the widespread cutting and destruction of vegetation in various parts of the country.

“In fact, experts say that Uganda is losing close to 55,000 acres of vegetation cover every year and this portends a huge problem for us,” he told participants in the virtual event that brought together Caritas officers from across Africa.

The Caritas official highlighted challenges affecting the people in Uganda owing to the destruction of the environment including drought and declining farm yields, flooding, and landslides.

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Mr. Onentho said that there is even more environmental degradation in the urban areas of the East African country owing to an increase in the number of factories, second hand vehicles, and millions of motorcycles as well as uncontrolled burning of waste in cities.

“What we have witnessed in the last several years is an upward trajectory in the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that Uganda releases to the air. From about 106,256 tonnes in 1950 to about 5.53 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in the year 2018 is very significant,” the Caritas official of the Uganda Episcopal Conference (UEC) said.

In her opening remarks at the event, the Policy and Advocacy Officer of Caritas Africa, Lucy Esipila, invited participants to reflect on the changes that have been realized in the conservation of the environment in their respective countries and the changes they still aspired to see.

Elaborating on the call for eco-conversion in Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’, the Caritas Africa official said, “We need to take note that it is the small things that make a difference. When you plant some trees, when you get involved in waste management activities, when you are involved in advocacy around policy areas that touch on the environment, when you speak out on behalf of the poor, this is what Pope Francis means when he talks about ecological conversion.”

Ms. Esipila also brought to the attention of the participants the issue concerning the relationship between social and environmental issues as enshrined in the Holy Father’s 2015 Encyclical Letter.

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“Our ecological approach must also think about the social approach,” the Nairobi-based Caritas Africa official said, and added, “We must hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

She said that among communities in Africa living in areas that are susceptible to drought and floods owing to environmental degradation, it is the poor who suffer the most.

“We need to think about environmental justice when we are doing our interventions,” the Kenyan-born Caritas official said.

In Sierra Leone for instance, people living in informal settlements have, for years, endured flooding and lack of clean drinking water owing to lengthy degradation of the environment.

From Caritas Sierra Leone, Michael Bangura attributed the yearly flooding in the country’s capital city, Freetown, to poor sanitation among other environment-related challenges.

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“The environmental issues and the sanitation challenges in Freetown have been growing and that is why in 2017 we had a mudslide that took the lives of over 1,000 people,” Mr. Bangura recalled.

Access to drinking water is a challenge in the West African nation, the Caritas Sierra Leone official said, and explained, “There is a serious scramble for access to clean drinking water in Freetown and even in the rural villages and children are unable to go to school because of this challenge.”

He further said that the Church-based organization has resolved to try and improve the sanitation and other environmental issues that are contributing to flooding and to other disasters in the country.

“At the moment, we just rolled out a project together with Freetown city council in cleaning all the drainages in the capital city Freetown as an act of proactive measure towards the approaching rainy season,” Mr. Bangura said.

Caritas officials from other African countries also shared their Laudato Si’ experiences and presented interventions they were coordinating in their respective countries.

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Chimwemwe Sakunda, a representative from Caritas Malawi, said that the organization’s major concern is the popularization of Laudato Si in the country’s eight Catholic Dioceses.

Ms. Sakunda said that awareness had been created through the radio stations especially the Catholic ones where public statements had been made concerning the conservation of the environment. Some messages have also been disseminated through social media.  

Caritas Malawi had also coordinated the planting of over 2,500 trees at St. Paul Seminary in the country’s Catholic Diocese Mangochi.

Caritas Malawi does not, however, enjoy enough government support, Ms. Sakunda lamented.

“There is a huge knowledge gap on the role of the Church in environmental conservation,” she said, and added, “There isn’t much appreciation. There is no validation and allocation of resources from the government is almost non-existent.”

Samuel Zan Akologo who represented Caritas Ghana lauded the Ghana Catholic Bishops Conference (GCBC) for approving and supporting development of the comprehensive “Care for our Common Home Program” which encompasses environmental interventions such as tree planting, electronic and plastic waste management and solar energy.

This program, Mr. Akologo said, is not only helping to preserve the environment but it is also creating employment among the youth.

A plastic recycling plant born from the program, for instance, is employing over 40 young people who lost their jobs during the COVID-19 lockdown in the country last year.

“As at the end of April, we had taken out 12,000 kilograms of plastic from the streets and gutters of the city,” the Caritas Ghana official said.

“For the Ghana Catholic Bishops Conference, the spirit and injection of Laudato Si is not merely to be celebrated but must manifest in long-term concrete action plans that promote integral human development,” Mr. Akologo said, adding that the aim of the Bishop's charity arm is to plant one million trees by the end of the year 2021.

On his part, Eugene Kabilika from Caritas Zambia said that officials of the organizations are training the locals on environmentally friendly technologies such as the use of energy-saving stoves to reduce deforestation in the country.

Caritas Zambia has also been convincing people that agro-ecology works in terms of promoting farming activities that conserve the richness of the soil, including the use of organic manure in the place of fertilizers and chemicals.

Farmers have also been urged to go back to using indigenous seeds that are more resistant to pests and diseases to limit the need to use inorganic pesticides.

Since last year, Caritas Africa has been involved in a number of projects to raise awareness on the Laudato Si’ and its message of the care of the environment.

Highlighting some of the wins of Caritas Africa so far, Ms. Esipila said, “We rolled out our advocacy program and it embraces an integral human development approach. In the month of July last, we hosted a side event in the United Nations High Level political forum where presentations were made through the lens of Laudato Si’.”

The Caritas Africa official also mentioned a meeting the organization held last year with the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) where Caritas Africa explored the possibility of being accredited by the UN agency.

Additionally, last year, the Regional Catholic organization worked on a survey on the humanitarian and Community Managed Disaster Risk Reduction(CMDRR) context of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Reporting about the survey, Ms. Esipila said, “We are using this information to develop a manual on Community Managed Disaster Rate Reduction and we are tying it to advocacy and governance.”

She told participants at the virtual event that Caritas Africa has also been granted the observer status at the governing body of the UNEP.

“This is a very important step because it recognizes the role that civil society plays in providing expertise and scientific knowledge and informing governments of the local needs and opinions as well as identifying on the ground the realities of policy decisions,” the Caritas Africa official said.