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Three Ways “The Poor” and Communities of Faith Are Leading the Way on Climate Change

(A version of this post previously appeared on the Huffington Post Impact blog –

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New reports suggest climate change could push more than 100 million people into poverty in just the next 15 years.  “Climate change hits the poorest the hardest,” says World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, “and our challenge now is to protect tens of millions of people from falling into extreme poverty because of a changing climate.”

The impact is a “two-way street.” Climate change makes it harder for farmers to grow crops, on the one hand, and some farming practices, on the other hand, damage soil, pollute water supplies, and create harmful emissions. But change is happening in small farming communities around the world, especially in communities of faith.  Here are three ways poor communities around the globe are adapting to climate change with the support of ELCA World Hunger.

Cleaner Cooking

Ramoni Rani and her husband, Nor Uttam Hawlader, live in the village of Rajakhali in Bangladesh with their two sons. Like many Bangladeshi farmers, Ramoni and Nor use wood-burning stoves to cook food in their homes. The cost for fuel is steep, and the continued need for it threatens the country’s already-depleted forests. Ramoni, Nor and their children suffered from respiratory illnesses and eye problems because of the carbon emissions and smoke in their homes. In fact, a 2009 profile of Bangladesh from the World Health Organization found that indoor air pollution contributes to nearly 50,000 deaths every year.

“Bondhu chula,” a more efficient cookstove, was developed to combat some of these problems.  But many Bangladeshis have been reluctant to use them, mostly because they don’t know how.  Lutheran Health Care Bangladesh has stepped in by working with over 250 women to help them get familiar with the cookstoves and the positive impact they can have.  For Bangladeshis like Ramoni and Nor, efficient cooking in the home means better health and more money for themselves and a path away from deforestation for their rural community.

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In this picture, a man holds biomass pellets similar to those that will be used in the project in Padhar.

Cleaner cooking also makes good economic sense for families in Padhar, India.  To address some of the problems older cookstoves create, Padhar Hospital is helping households get access to smokeless stoves that use biomass pellets. The program will not only train the people to use the stoves but will also help them turn their biomass into profit by providing it to a processing plant.  Since no such plant currently exists in Padhar, one will be built.  Thus the program will provide cleaner stoves, help residents earn income, and create jobs for people in Padhar, all while protecting the environment.

“Green-er” Coffee

Farmers in the Rachuonyo District of Homa Bay County in western Kenya know the daily realities of climate change.  They see it in the shortened periods of rainfall, prolonged dry seasons, and increased flooding that washes away valuable crops and seeds.

Most of the farmers in this region focus their attention and limited investment on subsistence farming, trying to grow enough food to feed their families but often not producing crops that they can use for income.  This leaves them with little savings to weather the kind of volatility that comes with climate change.  One bad season can mean a year of hunger for a smallholder farmer.

One group is working to change that.  Members of the smallholder famers’ collective group, APOKO, partnered with Lutheran World Relief (LWR) in 2014 to launch the Kinda Coffee project.  Farmers in the project learn how to maintain the nutrient levels in soil, prevent erosion and increase water retention at model demonstration plots.  This will not only help them increase their resilience to the droughts and flooding but will also help them protect the environment while earning a sustainable income.  Support for this project from ELCA World Hunger will continue into 2016 and will improve the quality of life for hundreds of households.

Smarter Farming

Thanks to the collective efforts of the last decade, over 90 percent of the world now has access to clean water.  Unfortunately, climate change threatens to undermine much of that progress. Longer, more intense droughts for farmers affect everything from what kinds of crops or animals they can raise to the yield they get from their fields.  When families are already teetering on the edge of poverty, these are serious risks.

But communities in Nicaragua and Bangladesh aren’t just waiting around for something to change.  They are adapting to the changes already sweeping their regions and doing what they can to steward their resources sustainably.

In Bangladesh, air pollution and deforestation aren’t the only problems.  The country faces huge disparities in access to safe water, and more work is needed to provide irrigation to the agriculture industry that employs nearly half of the labor force.  RDRS, a locally-run associate program of the Lutheran World Federation, is helping train farmers in Alternate Wetting and Drying (AWD), a technique that can reduce by up to 30% the amount of water needed to grow rice.  As a result, they are able to preserve groundwater and reduce risk of contaminating their crops with unsafe water.  And some studies indicate that AWD can actually increase the yields from rice fields, so the process is a win-win.

With an abundance of water on the ground and under the ground, Nicaragua seems like a place where there is enough to go around.  But a 2014 drought – the worst in the country in 40 years – reduced crop yields by more than 70%.  In the area of Somotillo, most of the wells ran dry, and the people worry about another drought down the road.  “In this place,” Pastor Gerzan Alvarez of the Lutheran Church of Faith and Hope (ILFE) in Nicaragua says, “we’re only able to survive.”

With support from LWF and ELCA World Hunger, ILFE is taking steps to manage the crisis.  Since the drought, the community has improved wells in the area, led trainings in proper water usage and management, set up irrigation systems, and planted yard gardens.  Pastor Emperatriz Velasques of ILFE says now, “Each day we’re learning about nature’s behavior, and we need to keep on working and teaching so we can grow our crops with the little water we have and keep home gardens with water from our wells.  This way, we can provide food for the households.”

Policy changes that reduce emissions and change the way we relate to the environment are necessary, long-range solutions to a changing climate, and the recent agreements about climate change and hunger give some hope.  But there is also a lot we can learn from those on the margins, in local communities throughout the world.  In Bangladesh, India, Kenya, and Nicaragua, families are doing what they can to protect their environment and make themselves less vulnerable to the changes that are still to come.

Ryan P. Cumming, Ph.D., is program director of Hunger Education with ELCA World Hunger.  He can be reached at

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On My Way Home

I am in the airport waiting for my flight back to the United States. My experience down here in Nicaragua has energized me for my work and given me new perspective on the challenges we face. I am sure that more stories and pictures and reflections from the trip will continue to find expression on this blog.

For now, I’d like to leave you with a Bible verse that our hosts gave us for reflection to open and close our trip. Genesis 8:22 reads, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” There is a rhythm to life and that rhythm is being interrupted. We are called to care for the earth. The issue is pressing–creation groans waiting for redemption and those who are poorest and hungriest already feel the impact. May we find the courage to accompany those who are marginalized, to do God’s work with our hands.

“You always have the poor with you…”

img_2325-722259Mark 14:7 has always been one of those really problematic verses for me. In this short verse, it appears as though Jesus is rather pessimistically predicting that there will always be poor people (and he may very well be). I fear that such a hopeless sentiment might breed apathy on the part of the Church–we don’t have to worry about those who are hungry, they’re always going to be around. For this reason, I’ve often thought (and a few times said out loud) that this would be one of those verses that I would like to surreptitiously remove from our Christian Bible.

Yesterday we had the privilege of speaking with Phil Anderson, the director of Lutheran World Federation in Central America. In his work with the people of Central America, he offered a different reading of the text, one born out of his struggle for justice alongside the poor and oppressed people of El Salvador. Phil suggested that when Jesus says that we will always have the poor with us, he was not offering some dark forecast of poverty ad infinitum. Rather, he was giving a command, telling his followers to be sure that they always have those who are poor and oppressed beside them and, likewise, to always be on their side.
As I’ve been in Nicaragua, I must confess that at moments the problem of global poverty feels so big, so insoluble, that I find myself wondering why I even care. Phil’s interpretation of Jesus’ words remind me of why I have committed myself to this struggle. As much as I want global hunger to end, that’s not what motivates me. Indeed it cannot: I suspect hunger will be around for quite some time yet. Rather, I do what I do because Jesus calls me to be with those who are poor. To hear their stories. To walk alongside them in their struggles. To advocate on their behalf. May we have the courage and strength to always be with those who are poor.

-David Creech

In the picture above: Women and girls fetching water for the day in the community of Mata de Cañas in NW Nicaragua. The line for the well begins to form around 4am and usually lasts until about 9:30am. It takes about 90 cranks on the wheel (which amounts to about four continuous minutes of pretty physical labor) to fill a 5 gallon bucket. The temperature when I visited was in the low 90s. Some of the women who use the well travel as far as 2 km on foot.

“Thanks for the tarps.”

img_2342-782913I just returned from the Atlantic coast, where we visited two communities impacted by Hurricane Felix in September of 2007. The experience was, to say the least, heart wrenching. On the NW coast, in spite of the poverty we saw, I had the sense that there was possibility for adaptation. The dry spells could be countered by digging wells, creating irrigation systems, and so forth. With good planning and an infusion of resources, the insecurities brought about by the changing weather patterns could be mitigated.

However, in the communities on the Atlantic coast devastated by Felix, the situation is far more complex. It is much more difficult to adapt to the buzz saw of a category five hurricane. A very similar situation is New Orleans post-Katrina (which by the time the hurricane made landfall it was actually a category three). Even though the U.S. has a very advanced infrastructure, building codes, and abundant resources, parts of New Orleans (such as the Ninth Ward) are still (three and a half years later) in ruins. Even with all our tools and resources, we in the U.S. still cannot fully adapt to a severe storm. In a poor place with limited resources such as Nicaragua, the picture is even bleaker.

One year and four months after Felix, whole communities are still in tatters, lacking basic necessities such as food and shelter. They have also become breeding grounds for diseases like Malaria and Dengue Fever. The situation is dire.

Obviously, relief is a key component to any response (and more of it is still needed on the North Atlantic coast). People need food, drink, and medical care. They need help rebuilding their homes and planting their fields.

But relief aid alone will not be sufficient. Energy and thought and resources must also be directed towards development. In the weeks and months following Hurricane Felix, the community of Santa Marta was sent tarps from USAID to provide temporary shelter. You can see from the picture above how well those have held up. They did not receive much else. Probably the most difficult moment in the whole visit was when the local leader of the community said without a hint of irony or sarcasm, “Gracias por las tarpas (Thank you for the tarps).”

So what does this all mean? First, it is clear to me (and to the people I have visited down here in Nicaragua) that climate change is already impacting people in the Global South. We are not simply talking about the future world that we will pass on to our children. Right now, today, we need to work to curb greenhouse gases, at both a personal and corporate level. Second, we need to rethink how we do aid (Bread for the World has made aid reform a key theme in 2009, see Let’s get to work!
Be sure to check out the other blogs chronicling our time down here: and
-David Creech

Back from NW Nicaragua

img_2318-732627I just returned tonight from NW Nicaragua where we saw firsthand some of the impacts of climate change on poverty and a couple of the projects that ELCA World Hunger has supported. We also had the chance to talk to the municipal authorities in Villa Nueva and the Assistant Director of the Millenium Development Corporation in Nicaragua. I saw and heard much more than I have time to share. Tonight, allow me to share briefly about one project we visited that encapsulates my experience thus far.

One of the ways in which climate change is being felt down here is through the unpredictability of precipitation. Before Mitch (1998, the marker for most of the farmers for when the weather patterns began to change), farmers in NW Nicaragua would have two planting seasons, one during the dry season and one during the wet season. The dry season has become so unpredictable that farmers are now hesitant to plant. The dry season may be so incredibly dry that nothing can grow. This first planting season has become a real gamble–seeds from the previous harvest may planted and lost without any return.
img_2317-733748 In the community of Las Jolotas, LWF has dug a well (pictured above) for a family who is now experimenting with irrigation, so that they can plant in the dry season and use gravity to irrigate their crops. This is the first dry season with the well, and, as you can see from the picture here, things are looking very good.
The effects of climate change are already being felt down here, and those who are poorest are being pushed closer to the brink. I am encouraged, though. People are banding together to help each other and good work is being done.
Tomorrow morning I leave for the Atlantic Coast, where we’ll be looking at some of the relief and development work that has taken place since 2007 when Hurricane Mitch wreaked havoc. I may be without internet again, but I will post as soon as I get back.
-David Creech
P.S. For more stories and different voices, be sure to check out the other blogs chronicling our trip: and

Nicaragua Update

My time in Nicaragua is off to a phenomenal (and frenetic) start. Today, we oriented ourselves to Nicaragua and the ways in which climate change is already impacting the people of this small (and vulnerable!) country. Our first meeting of the day was with Daniel Ortega’s liaison to churches in Nicaragua. I must confess that his presentation felt a bit like political propaganda, and later on when I spoke with our hosts, they offered a more realistic perspective.

Our second meeting was with the leading climate change expert in Nicaragua, Dr. Incer Barquero. In addition to reviewing the usual facts and figures of climate change (yes, the earth is getting warmer, we are already seeing the impacts in fiercer and more frequent storms, increased droughts and floods, and so on), Dr. Incer Barquero also gave us a picture of what this looks like on the ground here in Nicaragua. Two phenomena stuck out—first, Nicaragua lies to south of the typical hurricane routes. Yet in the last ten or so years, two very strong hurricanes have pummeled Nicaragua, Mitch and Felix, both of which caused unprecedented damage. Global warming is likely key to these new hurricane paths. A second way in which Nicaragua is feeling the impact of climate change is in the unpredictability of weather. It is growing increasingly difficult to predict when and where rain will fall. Some places are uncharacteristically dry, others are unseasonably drenched. This all leads to an upsetting of agricultural practices and disruption in food production.

What was perhaps most encouraging to me about Dr. Incer Barquero’s presentation was his suggestions for moving forward. He thinks that the most effective aid will be distributed on the ground within communities (such as churches) rather than top down (e.g., from the government). He also suggests that the people, especially the indigenous Miskitos on the North Atlantic coast, return to their traditions and heritage in food production (what we call accompaniment at the ELCA). Finally, he recommends that aid be long term and sustainable, “teaching the people how to fish rather than simply giving them a fish.” Each of these strategies matches well with the approach taken by ELCA World Hunger.

Our last session of the day was with the founder of our host organization, CIEETS (an acronym in Spanish for The Inter-church Center for Theological and Social Studies). I was very much encouraged by his vision and hope. I will have more to say about his presentation in a future post.

I will conclude today’s note with a word about Obama’s inauguration. The people we’ve spoken with down here are very excited about our new president. Each person who spoke with us commented on how thrilled they were for us and for the possibilities of renewed relationships between the US and those in the region. Today is, in their estimation, a momentous day filled with hope for a brighter future. As we watched the inauguration over lunch, I must confess that I was proud of my nation.

-David Creech

Nicaragua and Climate Change

I just touched down in Nicaragua, where I will be for the next 10 days looking at the impact of climate change on hunger. We will be, among other things, speaking with certain officials in governmental posts, meeting with various NGOs, and visiting sites on the north Atlantic coast impacted by hurricanes. I will be blogging some of my adventures here, so be sure to check in periodically. Also, some of my cohorts will be sharing their thoughts on blogs of their own: check out and

-David Creech