Pope Francis went to the church at its geographic peripheries in September, visiting Mozambique in Africa and two Indian Ocean island-states, Madagascar and Mauritius. Catholic Relief Services’ James Hazen joined the pope at a meeting with Madagascar’s political leaders on Sept. 7 and during Mass at the Soamandrakizay diocesan field in Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital city, on Sept. 8.
“There was a million people there yesterday,” Mr. Hazen marveled, calling it a “joyous occasion” that despite the large numbers “was actually quite calm.”
“People were just so happy and honored to be there. There was such really positive energy.” Mr. Hazen, who spoke with America via Skype on Sept. 9, serves as Madagascar’s acting country representative for C.R.S.
“I think [the pope’s visit] gave people a lot of hope,” he said.
When outsiders think of Madagascar, “its lemurs and its baobab trees and its beautiful beaches” most often come to mind, Mr. Hazen said. “And it’s true that all those things exist here, but I think the pope’s visit kind of brings it back to the people and letting [Malagasy] people know that they are thought of, that he came here to speak to them and also [to remind them] that every person…has a responsibility” to protect Madagascar’s ecosystem.
Ecological restoration in Madagascar is locked in a race against deforestation as hard-pressed Malagasy turn to the forests to make charcoal, build homes or clear the forest for subsistence food production.
Mr. Hazen described Madagascar as among the nations of the world most vulnerable to the unpredictable effects of climate change. “We’ve seen lots of cyclones that seem to be more intense…. We’ve had erratic rainfalls and droughts in the south of the country.” He sees the various challenges Madagascar confronts as an expression of the central concern of the pope’s encyclical “Laudato Si.’”
It was a message emphasized by the pope himself when he quoted “Laudato Si’” in a brief address to government officials on Sept. 7: "We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental," he said.
“Madagascar is a very important place in the world in terms of the environment,” Mr. Hazen said, a time capsule of evolution that is the island home to hundreds of species unique to the island. The island-nation is home to 5 percent of the world’s plant and animal species, and 95 percent of Madagascar’s reptiles and 89 percent of its plant life exist nowhere else on earth, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Madagascar is also the eighth poorest nation in the world, Mr. Hazen said. According to the United Nations’ World Food Program, 92 percent of its people live on less than $1.90 per day. Chronic malnutrition is a major public health concern, affecting almost half of all children under 5—the world’s fourth highest rate—and 42 percent of Madagascar’s overall population. Finding a balance between protecting the island’s fragile ecosystem and encouraging economic development that can pull Madagascar’s human inhabitants out of poverty is at the heart of the C.R.S. mission here, Mr. Hazen said.
In his address to government officials, Pope Francis called on President Andry Rajoelina to provide Madagascar’s people with jobs and new sources of income that do not harm the environment, and in this way to protect its irreplaceable biodiversity.
“Your lovely island of Madagascar is rich in plant and animal biodiversity, yet this treasure is especially threatened by excessive deforestation, from which some profit,” the pope said. “The deterioration of that biodiversity compromises the future of the country and of the earth, our common home…. It is also true, however, that, for the peoples concerned, a number of activities harmful to the environment at present ensure their survival.”
To address that contradiction, the pope urged government officials to prioritize job creation and activities “that generate income, while protecting the environment and helping people to emerge from poverty.”
“There can be no true ecological approach or effective efforts to safeguard the environment,” the pope said, “without the attainment of a social justice capable of respecting the right to the ‘common destination’ of earth’s goods, not only of present generations, but also of those yet to come.” Those words could be a mission statement for C.R.S. programmatic goals on agriculture, nutrition and natural resource management in Madagascar.
Ecological restoration here, Mr. Hazen said, is locked in a race against deforestation as hard-pressed Malagasy turn to the forests to make charcoal, build homes or clear the forest for subsistence food production. “When you’ve got an economy that’s not doing well, and laws that are not being enforced, you’re facing a situation where people are just trying to survive,” he said. “Sometimes the one resource is just out the back door or in their backyard. People are going to use it.”
Farmers in Madagascar rely on forest-consuming, slash-and-burn techniques because “this is what they’ve known, it’s their whole way of life, their traditional way of farming,” Mr. Hazen said. “And it’s because they want to survive because they have no jobs and they want to feed their families, and…maybe they did not see another option.”
C.R.S.’s approach in efforts to convert Madagascar’s subsistence farmers to new techniques or new crops is “not to blame people or to point fingers” but to persuade them that “their production will be better, their income will be better, and at the same time they are protecting these resources.” C.R.S. agriculture programs unite reforestation with long-term income-producing opportunities for rural people, Mr. Hazen said. On lands scorched by slash-and-burn, C.R.S. teams are replanting with both endemic trees and fruit trees that can be used for food.
“We work a lot on spices,” Mr. Hazen said. “There are areas of the country where you can grow vanilla or pepper, and all of these things either are trees or need trees. Vanilla needs to wrap around a tree to grow, it’s an orchid; pepper needs to wrap around a tree; cinnamon is a tree; cloves are trees,” he said. “So you are actually making trees worth something to people. They’re what’s going to help build their income.”
Like the multitudes who joined Pope Francis at Mass in Antananarivo, Mr. Hazen finds hope in the pope’s message that conservation and social justice can be united in Madagascar and in the president’s enthusiastic response to that message. On infrastructure improvements, anti-corruption efforts, job creation and environmental protection, the president made a lot of promises to the pope, Mr. Hazen said. He will be among many watching in the coming months in the hope that Mr. Rajoelina will keep those promises.