YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – On Friday, Pope Francis was due to touch down in Madagascar, the second leg of his three-nation African trip.

Madagascar, an island country located in the Indian Ocean about 250 miles off the African coast, is one of the world’s poorest countries.

According to the IMF, nearly 90 percent of the people live below the poverty line. This is made worse by the ongoing climate emergency, which has led to more powerful cyclones, prolonged droughts, warmer temperatures, and soil erosion. The country also suffers from periodic outbreaks of bubonic and pneumonic plague, with “plague season” taking place between September and April.

Jim Hazen is the acting Madagascar country representative for the Catholic Relief Services, the international development agency of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

Ahead of the pope’s arrival, he told Crux that Francis is bringing hope to a people who otherwise would be teetering on the edge of hopelessness.

Crux: Pope Francis visits Madagascar starting September 6. This is one of the world’s poorest countries. How relevant do you think the pope’s visit could be?

Hazen: The Pope’s visit provides a sense of hope for Malagasy, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. This is a global leader coming all the way to this island, so it’s very meaningful for people here. His presence alone is an inspiration and we believe that his message will be able to further bring that sense of hope to the entire population.

The country has been hit hard by climate change. How can you describe how this reality affects Madagascar?

Madagascar has suffered from several cyclones and floods, as well as prolonged droughts that stem from erratic or below normal rainfall, which can devastate a population. The south, in particular, has suffered from years of drought leading to, in some cases, people being forced to live off cactus fruit for months at a time. With poor infrastructure, increasingly unreliable rainfall, weak health and education systems and a limited access to productive land, the effects of climate change have hit the poorest of the poor even harder. And they oftentimes have an incredibly limited capacity to bounce back after such shocks.

How has a changing climate been affecting the poor in the country?

The poor in the country are less able to produce crops because of the lack of several different resources, like rainfall, food stores, seeds and tools. Having fewer crops to sell means they have a reduced ability to pay for things like health and education costs for their children. This lack can lead to increased malnutrition, migration or cause them to turn to unsustainable practices to make money, like cutting down trees to sell firewood.

What do you think the pope’s visit means for the 90 percent of the country living below the poverty line?

The pope’s visit can instill a sense of hope, that someone is thinking of them and putting them and their country on the global map. As a religious leader, Pope Francis can confront some of the issues through his messages and actions with the governments and other institutions that focus on protecting and supporting the most vulnerable.

Some astronauts have remarked that it looks as if Madagascar is bleeding to death after watching its rivers running blood red and staining the surrounding Indian Ocean. This is caused by the soil erosion in the country. Is this an appropriate description of the situation? Can you elaborate?

Deforestation, whether that’s for slash-burn agriculture or for firewood and mining, is a major threat to Madagascar’s soil and overall biodiversity. Less trees leads to breakdown in watersheds. Damaged watersheds mean that water will no longer be soaked up by the soil and trees but rather become run-off that takes away all the nutrients the crops need.

Also, many people in the region use traditional farming techniques that don’t always replenish the soil and eventually it becomes unworkable, so they cut down an area of the forest to get to viable soil. This cycle happens every few years and is only continuing to harm the soil and lead to more deforestation.

The local church has been involved in some “greening efforts.” Can you explain?

Some local dioceses have declared themselves to be a “Green Diocese,” which means they are encouraging their clergy members and their communities to take initiative and do things like plant trees, keep their spaces clean from trash and plastic, as well as teach one another different, improved agriculture techniques and about the importance of biodiversity.

What do you make of Pope Francis’s leadership on environmental causes, especially with his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’?

Laudato Si’ has inspired a movement within the Church, within Catholic Relief Services and here in Madagascar to better care for the environment. That means actively working to protect, preserve, and care for it, as well as to bring the world’s attention to the urgent need to mitigate the effects of climate change here in Madagascar.

The fact that Pope Francis is coming to Madagascar, a country of rich biodiversity and uniqueness, to send a message on the importance of Laudato Si’ is significant and further exemplifies the pope’s – and Church leaders’ – commitment to the cause.

What has CRS been doing to help those impacted by climate change?

CRS has been working in Madagascar to prevent, mitigate and respond to issues around climate change. A few key actions that CRS has done/is doing include:

– Promotion of agroforestry systems near rainforests focusing on spices, these systems rebuild forests, protect biodiversity, bring income to farmers and can reduce the effects of climate change;

– Stabilizing dunes in the Deep South, an area prone to drought, to reduce the effects of strong winds that blow sand into crops/houses;

– New trees in the dunes that are used to stabilize them can produce food or other products that can be used to generate revenue;

– Working with farmers to practice more climate smart agricultural techniques that can help rebuild soil fertility and take away the need to continue slash and burn agriculture;

– Working with youth groups to build improved cookstoves that reduce the amount of wood and charcoal needed;

– Helping youth groups teach others in their communities how to build the improved cookstoves or develop small businesses to sell the cookstoves they build;

– Provide emergency support for families that have been hit hardest by droughts or cyclones.

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