Laudato Si’ Movement member Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand is helping transform lives throughout the world through integrated human development programmes that meet the challenge of climate change for the poor, as this article explores through experiences in Fiji, Timor Leste and Cambodia. 

In the leadup to the next United Nations climate conference (COP28) in December, Pope Francis released his letter Laudate Deum focusing more specifically on the climate crisis. Building on themes from his 2015 Laudato Si’ letter on ecology, Pope Francis refers to a ‘healthy ecology’ that recognises the interaction of natural systems with social systems.

Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand sees such integration of natural and social systems – mixed with appropriate new technology – in the daily work of its partners around the world. In particular, He Oranga Taurikura – A Thriving Life, which is promoting integral human development across seven countries in Pacific and southeast Asia. It is a five-year funding partnership between Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand and the New Zealand Aid Programme of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade. 

Below, we see how He Oranga Taurikura is transforming lives in Fiji, Timor Leste and Cambodia through a ‘healthy ecology’ recognising the close and complex relationship between human beings and their environment. Informed and led by in-country partners working closely with local communities, together we are working for the development of the whole person within their community and environment.


Tutu Rural Training Centre in Fiji

The Tutu Rural Training Centre on Fiji’s third largest island, Taveuni, connects young, rural Fijians with their vanua (land), community and culture. Guided by an underlying Catholic Marist spirituality, Tutu does more than teach people how to grow things – it ‘grows people’. It provides long-term training courses for men and women farmers, imparting the skills and technology needed for students to grow and sell a wide range of organic crops, build their own houses, make furniture and create innovative arts and crafts using locally available resources – such as coconut shells. Through its human development courses, students understand themselves, their relationships and their world better, so they become more effective leaders in their families and communities. 

Spirituality and culture are well-reflected in Tutu’s graduation ceremonies that Tutu holds for all its graduates. Sera Sovaki from Qeleni village on Taveuni Island said after she and her husband, Sitiveni, graduated from Tutu’s married couples course in August 2023: “We come to learn that we humans are connected to living things and they also live and they also one of the creatures of God. So we were thinking to go back home and tell our parents … of what we’ve learnt here, about the chemicals, the disadvantage of chemicals and … how we connect with living things.”


Watch Sitiveni and Sera Sovaki from Qeleni village on Taveuni Island talk more about the impact Tutu Rural Training Center has had on them 


HAFOTI in Timor Leste 

Timor Leste is one of the world’s poorest countries. Logging, steep slope cultivation, slash and burn techniques and forest fires impact its environment, and over 55 percent of all sucos (villages) in Timor-Leste are prone to the threat of climate change. These environmental challenges are made worse by widespread poverty, uncertain land tenure and ineffective law enforcement. 

Economically, it is heavily dependent on gas and oil extraction, so given the global shift away from fossil fuels, Timor Leste is keen to attract foreign investment from other sources. While international economic development models emphasise foreign investment and international trade to bring in capital and technology and create jobs, this kind of investment-led development stands in contrast to community-led development by organisations such as Caritas partner Hamahon Feto Timor (HAFOTI). This women’s organisation works with small women’s groups in some of the most remote and least urbanised parts of the country. HAFOTI supports and trains its 600 members in agricultural and other livelihood endeavours – such as the processing and selling of highly valued coconut oil. 

HAFOTI’s knowledge of their culture and context enable them to respond pro-actively to challenges. For example, when the COVID pandemic severely hit product sales, several HAFOTI producer groups began or re-established gardens to provide healthy, nutritious food. They had to negotiate quickly with local authorities and the Ministry of Agriculture to provide water, seeds, and technology. Some of the women’s groups have contracts to provide nutritious lunches to government schools, using vegetables grown in their gardens. This provides income for the group but also addresses the severe malnourishment of children. 

It’s a good illustration of Pope Francis’ words from Fratelli Tutti: “We need to pay attention to the global so as to avoid narrowness and banality. Yet we also need to look to the local, which keeps our feet on the ground. …. the local has to be eagerly embraced, for it possesses something that the global does not: it is capable of being a leaven, of bringing enrichment, of sparking mechanisms of subsidiarity. Universal fraternity and social friendship are thus two inseparable and equally vital poles in every society.”


See how Mana Gertrudes in Timor Leste is passing on skills in processing locally grown products to other women in HAFOTI producer groups


Development and Partnership in Action in Cambodia 

The southeast Asian country of Cambodia has achieved much in the 40 years since the violence and destruction of the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s. Substantial foreign investment has advanced tourism, infrastructure, construction, and various industries. However, much of this economic growth has been directed towards urban development, leaving many of the (80 percent) rural population in poverty or vulnerable to external shocks. The Khmer Loeu (Cambodian ethnic minorities), numbering about 400,000 people, are among the most marginalised.

In this context, Development and Partnership in Action (DPA) is building climate resilient households in remote Khmer Loeu communities through organic agriculture, better nutrition, and water and sanitation measures, particularly for women and youth. 

DPA works through an extensive network of provincially-based staff in close contact with the communities they serve. Earlier this year, about 500 Indigenous farmers participated in workshops on sustainable water use and organic crop management to prepare sowing for climate-resilient rice before the monsoon rains. DPA also provided community level trainings in disaster risk reduction, agriculture group leadership and financial literacy. 

DPA works within the local culture, supporting activities that keep people in touch with traditions that respect and honour the land and living things that sustain the people. This approach recognises a cultural ecology, which Pope Francis refers to in Laudato Si’

“…. it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners…. For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best.” (para 146)


See how the Phea family, a Khmer Loeu indigenous family in Mondulkiri, Cambodia have lifted their living standards since joining a rice growing co-operative through Caritas’ partner Development and Partnership in Action


Transforming land and people

In these very different locations and culture, our diverse community-based partners are transforming land and peoples where they are, maintaining continuity with ecological and cultural practices that connect them with their natural environment.

They are combining tradition and innovation to empower the poor to use their own resources of land, labour, and ideas to provide healthy food for their communities, secure sustainable incomes, and enhance their social, cultural and spiritual wellbeing.

Caritas partners were instrumental in helping their communities navigate the COVID pandemic. They are continuing to adapt to the challenges of climate change and a world economy geared up more for the powerful and wealthy. Grounded in their local culture and contexts, they are serving the material, social, environmental and spiritual needs of people neglected by a globalisation that does not listen closely to the voice of the Earth and the voice of the poor.