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Systemic poverty in Cameroon, Peru illustrates the complex barrier poor people face


Matthew 25 students learn from textbook examples shared by two men working to effect change

May 12, 2021

We are a Matthew 25 Church ImageThe 85 or so Presbyterians studying the underpinnings of systemic poverty zoomed out to take in a more global perspective recently, thanks to presentations by Valéry Nodem and the Rev. Jed Koball.

Nodem, who’s from Cameroon, is the Presbyterian Hunger Program’s Associate for International Hunger Concerns. Serving in Lima, Peru, Koball is a mission co-worker serving with the Peru Joining Hands Network.

Nodem spoke about colonization and globalization. He said that although Cameroon gained its independence from Great Britain and France 60 years ago, it’s as if colonizers are still present. In part that’s because Cameroon’s natural resources — including oil, timber and coffee — are exported. Value is added in other countries, and the money made by selling those products remains outside Cameroon’s coffers.

He identified three drivers of colonization in Cameroon: gold, God and glory. The first two are fairly well-known: Colonizers had a financial interest in extracting natural resources and were also interested in converting people to Christianity. The “glory” part “was about showing your influence,” Nodem said. “What resources did you find there? It was about showing power.”

As a result of the 19th century “Scramble of Africa,” countries were sliced up arbitrarily, he said. “They weren’t thinking about the consequences” of the warfare those practices would help bring about.

“Colonization makes people feel powerless in their own country,” he said. “The system is still strongly governed by foreign powers who robbed countries of a lot of resources. It’s ripped up regions that used to live in peace.”

As a college student in Cameroon, Nodem “was always going to pretty much any demonstration,” he said. “My parents were always upset. They said, ‘Stay out of trouble and don’t do anything.’” Later they told him it’s because they feared for his life.

Koball spoke about “The Story of Empire in Peru,” which included this famous 1514 decree from Spain’s King Ferdinand to the Conquistadors: “Get gold — humanely, if possible, but at all costs get gold.”

Koball identified three driving forces for doing just that: extractivism or taking what generates wealth; the caste/class system, which he called “the seeds of white supremacy”; and spiritual suppression, which included the Spanish practice of placing religious structures directly on top of Inca places of worship.

Peru remains the world’s sixth-leading producer of gold and ranks high among other precious metal producers, including silver, copper and zinc.

“Peru has been the darling of development with consistent economic growth over the last two decades, due primarily to mining,” Koball said. “But at what cost?”

A few years ago, Indigenous people blocking a main highway to the jungle were fired on by police, killing dozens. The road was quickly reopened, as was free trade.

“We have seen how free trade agreements can undermine democracy and human rights,” Koball said, famously in the mining city of La Oroya, one of the most polluted cities in the world. The lead smelter there, which was owned by a U.S. company, declared bankruptcy in 2009, claiming, as Koball said, “its rights as a foreign investor had been violated.” The case is still pending in court, with no remediation so far to La Oroya’s soil and water.

During the last seven months of the global pandemic, Peru has suffered the highest per capita mortality rate of any nation on Earth. “Nothing has been invested in health or education,” Koball said. Instead, the government has rolled back environmental protections and fast-tracked approval of new mining projects, Koball said.

And what about the church? Are we to be complicit, or collaborators in a new creation?

Now in its 20th year, Joining Hands “has been going beyond quick fixes,” Nodem said. “We are listening, and we can be part of the change.”

Joining Hands is present in seven countries. In addition to Cameroon and Peru, they are the Democratic Republic of Congo, El Salvador, Haiti, India and Sri Lanka.

“We are hoping to get to the place of life in fulness that the Bible promises,” Nodem said. “In every place we have worked, communities have become equipped. They now understand their rights better and they are ready to defend them.”

Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus:  Systemic poverty in Cameroon & Peru

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Tamron Keith, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Stephen Keizer, Presbyterian Foundation

Let us pray:

Gracious Lord, please open our eyes to the opportunities that exist all around us. Help us to move when you call us, and enable us to engage our communities so that together we might accomplish the tasks you have put before us. Amen.

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