August 08, 2012

Pilgrim helping victims of West African drought

As published in The Erin Advocate

Looking at the brown lawns and stunted crops here in Erin, one gets only a hint of the drought crisis having a more serious impact in other parts of the world.

Some crops here will be covered by insurance, and Ontario has appealed to the federal government for financial help for livestock producers, whose forage crops are often not insured.

Nearly half of US counties have been declared agricultural disaster areas, and there are fears that that food shortages and rising food prices will trigger another recession.

Imagine then what it is like in the Sahel region of West Africa, where low rainfall has devastated crops and raised the spectre of famine for people living near the edge. The stability of some communities was already undermined by migrations of refugees and armed conflict.

Some 18 million people are facing serious food shortages in countries that are totally unfamiliar to most Canadians: Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Nigeria and Cameroon. The United Nations and international aid agencies are stepping up emergency relief, but as always seems to be the case, available funding does not come close to meeting the needs.

For a crisis that could require $1 billion in aid, is it worthwhile for an individual Canadian to chip in $25 or $50? The answer, of course, is yes – not only for the real help that an accumulation of small donations will create, but because governments are often spurred into action when individuals care about an issue.

Erin's Heidi Matthews is on a pilgrimage this week, joining a group that each summer since 2002 has walked from the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph, to the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland – a place that honours early French Jesuit missionaries who introduced Christianity to the Huron Wendat Nation. Their headquarters was the nearby Sainte-Marie among the Hurons fort, the first European community in Ontario, established in 1639.

That mission was led by the martyr for whom the Catholic church in Erin is named, Jean de Br├ębeuf. The Jesuits, who also initially staffed the Erin parish in the early 1960s, have a tradition of advocating for social justice.

Matthews has her own tradition in that field, working for almost 20 years with the national Catholic aid group Development and Peace (D&P). She's also part of the Climate Change Action Group of Erin (CCAGE), which has been warning of the dire consequences of a rapidly warming planet.

Walking on pilgrimage to a holy place is an ancient tradition, with a difficult physical journey intended to enhance a person's spiritual journey. The group is hiking 15-30 km per day this week, camping at conservation areas, church back yards and farms, and uniting with other Ontario groups for a mass arrival of up to 1,000 people at the shrine this Saturday.

The walk is intended as a spiritual exercise, with various meditation themes and time set aside for reading, singing and prayer. But when she heard about the emerging crisis in West Africa, Matthews decided to ask people to sponsor her, with all donations going to D&P. She was surprised to raise $2,300 for the cause, including $500 from the Rotary Club of Erin.

"I was flabbergasted – I didn't expect to see that," said Matthews, who has been training with daily walks alternating between 25 and 10 km, mainly on the Elora-Cataract Trailway. She notes that there is a "wimp wagon" on the trek, a vehicle for those who need relief from blisters or body pains.

While a drought may be considered partly a natural disaster, she said the suffering that ensues from disruption of the food system is a failure of government and business.

"Who suffers the most? It's the poor people," she said.

In May, D&P targeted $5 million to specific regions, working with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, a partnership of 15 churches and church agencies striving to end global hunger. They later expanded their response, with an appeal for donations supported by Canada's bishops. D&P distributes both food and seeds, and supports programs to improve agricultural production and nutrition.

“Our local partners are able to go where the needs are greatest and where communities are most vulnerable,” said Guy Des Aulniers, Emergency Relief Programs Officer at D&P. “Their local knowledge and expertise allow us to monitor the situation closely and support effective programs."

At this point, Matthews requests that people donate through the Development and Peace website, – or through other agencies that focus on long-term self-sufficiency for developing nations in the global south.