WASHINGTON (November 8, 2002) -- Catholic Bishops from the United States visited southern Africa October 21-31, 2002 to assess the plight of more than 14 million people threatened with starvation, and to bring this complex humanitarian crisis to the attention of the American people. The impending disaster is further complicated by a high incidence of HIV and AIDS, political turmoil, increasing unemployment, and a heated debate over the impact of genetically modified grains on human consumption, the environment, and agricultural export markets.
Bishop John Ricard (Pensacola/Tallahassee), Chairman-elect of the USCCB Committee on International Policy, Bishop Robert Lynch (St. Petersburg), President of Catholic Relief Services, and staff visited Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and South Africa and spoke with government officials, Church leaders, international and national NGOs, and other groups in civil society. The Bishops visited areas hardest hit by the drought and heard people speak of foraging for roots and tubers to staunch the hunger of their loved ones. They also visited communities, clinics, and orphanages providing services to those affected by the AIDS pandemic.
"Statistics on the impending famine, poverty, and the infectious diseases in southern Africa fail to convey the pain of a mother's anguish over the suffering and slow death of her child whose body is racked by AIDS-related infections, or the humiliation of a family forced to forage for roots in order to staunch the pain of hunger," stated Bishop Ricard. "What is needed is immediate action to provide adequate and acceptable food assistance to those facing the threat of starvation, and an increased political commitment on the part of African governments, the international community, and the United States in particular, to fight infectious diseases in sub-Saharan Africa, to provide greater debt relief, and to dramatically increase development aid." Bishop Lynch added that "the needs in Africa right now are vast and growing….we must not allow our current concern related to insecurity and terrorism lessen our compassion for those who are suffering from drought and famine in Africa."
Poverty, unemployment, and infectious diseases exacerbate the impact of the drought in a country such as Zambia where the demand for food has put it out of the reach of the poorest and most vulnerable. Members of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Episcopal Conference of Zambia told the American Bishops that poverty is a major contributing factor in the current crisis. The price of mealie meal, a corn-based staple, has risen 25% or more in recent weeks in Lusaka due to the food crisis.
Bishop Lynch visited food distribution centers in Zimbabwe and Malawi operated by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and local Church partners. CRS is currently helping to distribute part of the 185,000 metric tons of food scheduled for the region through September 2003. CRS also is operating agricultural recovery activities, including the distribution of locally available seeds and tools for the next planting season, organizing seed fairs, and providing technical training and support to small-scale farmers.
American private voluntary agencies, U.N. agencies, and others are scrambling to respond to the emergency, but their efforts have been complicated by the decision of the Zambian government to block delivery of GMO-tainted grains because of its concerns about the possible impact on health and environment. Additional threats to the survival of hundreds of thousands of people in Zimbabwe are the result of the political use of food aid and the blocking of its distribution to areas where government opposition parties strongest according to Archbishop Ncube of Bulawayo.