Around 20,000 homeless, 40 missing in Congo volcano aftermath, says U.N.

By Djaffar Al Katanty

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) – More than 20,000 people are homeless and 40 still missing in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption in eastern Congo that killed dozens and continues to cause strong earthquakes in the nearby city of Goma, the United Nations said on Wednesday.

Saturday’s eruption sent rivers of lava streaming down the hillside from Mount Nyiragongo, destroying hundreds of homes and forcing thousands to flee, but stopped 300 meters short of Goma airport, the main hub for aid operations in the east of Congo.

The ash cloud caused by the eruption has closed down airports in Goma and Bukavu, and is likely to cause respiratory diseases, the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a statement.

People who fled their homes have lost valuable possessions including motorcycles that were either consumed by the lava flow or looted, OCHA said.

More than 200 small and medium earthquakes have since caused cracks in buildings and streets in Goma, just 15 km (9 miles) from Nyiragongo. No deaths have so far been reported, but the cracks have caused panic among residents unsure if the danger has passed.

“Yesterday it was very small, here it is just opposite my house, but today it has widened,” said Susanne Bigakura, 65. “It’s scary. We fear it can collapse and our children can fall in.”

“It scares me because those who saw the 2002 eruption told us that where a crack passes, it will be catastrophic. Now, when we see a fissure after a recent eruption, I’m worried that we are in danger,” said Valentin Kikuni, a welder.

A 1.7 km (1 mile) river of lava that blocked the main road north from Goma is still too hot to be removed, OCHA said, preventing trade and aid deliveries to one of the most food insecure places in Africa.

However, some work has begun on restoring the road, according to images on the government’s Twitter feed.

(Reporting by Djaffar Al Katanty and Hereward Holland; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Earthquakes in Congo raze buildings, stoke fear of second volcanic eruption

By Djaffar Al Katanty

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) -An earthquake on the border of Congo and Rwanda razed buildings in the city of Goma on Tuesday and stoked fears a nearby volcano would erupt again three days after dozens of people were killed and 17 villages were destroyed by lava.

The quake, measured at 5.3 magnitude by the Rwandan Seismic Monitor, was the largest of over 100 tremors that have followed the eruption on Saturday of Congo’s Mount Nyiragongo volcano, one of the world’s most active and dangerous.

“We know that children were injured when a building collapsed on Tuesday just a few steps from the UNICEF office in Goma,” the U.N. children’s agency said.

The quake appeared to have destroyed several buildings in the city of two million, and a witness said at least three people were pulled from the rubble and taken to hospital.

It struck at 11:03 a.m., originating in Rugerero sector in western Rwanda, according to the Rwanda Seismic Monitor.

The city experienced 119 tremors on Monday, but the intensity has started to decrease, said Kasereka Mahinda, scientific director at the Goma Volcano Observatory.

The earthquakes were caused by the tectonic plates seeking to recover their equilibrium after the eruption, a phenomenon seen after the eruptions in 2002 and 1977.

“As soon as the rift recovers its balance, the tremors will stop,” he told Reuters.

Multiple cracks in the earth have emerged in Goma in the last day, although businesses have re-opened across the city and life appeared to be largely returning to normal for those who did not lose their homes.

About 1,000 houses were destroyed and more than 5,000 people displaced by the eruption, the United Nations has said.

“According to the authorities, 32 people have died in incidents related to the eruption, including seven people killed by lava flow and five others asphyxiated by gases,” the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said.

The lava flow stopped a few hundred meters short of the city limits, but wrecked 17 villages on the way, cut the principal electricity supply and blocked a major road, disrupting aid deliveries to one of the most food-insecure places in Africa.

The lava lake in the volcano’s crater appears to have refilled, raising fears of new fissures or another eruption, UNHCR said. Goma-based volcanologist Dario Tedesco said on Monday he feared the tremors could open another fracture.

The government said a 1.7 km (1.1 mile) stretch of road connecting Goma to the north of the province was covered with lava, blocking the movement of people and goods to an area where some 280,000 people have been displaced by conflict and fighting since January.

The United Nations said it would take days to re-open the road and that it was seeking permission from the government to start re-using Goma airport. The hub for aid relief for the east of the country was closed after lava came within 300 meters (yards).

More than half a million people have lost access to safe water, as lava destroyed one of the most important water supply sources, the International Federation of the Red Cross said.

“Although the flow of lava has stopped, authorities have warned that the danger is not yet over and that seismic activity in the area could cause further lava flows. Infrastructure damage is not ruled out,” the IFRC said.

(Reporting by Djaffar Al Katanty and Fiston Mahamba; Additional reporting and writing by Hereward Holland; editing by Philippa Fletcher and Alistair Bell)

Diesel shortages paralyze Venezuelan farms, prompting sanctions debate

By Luc Cohen and Keren Torres

TUREN, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuelan farmer Agustin Zenere should have been planting corn by the second week of May – a crucial task in the economically devastated South American country where 7 million people are food insecure.

Instead, his 30-hectare (74-acre) plot of land in the breadbasket town of Turen was still covered with the brown, shriveled leaves of a sesame crop he could not harvest in time because the government had not given him enough diesel to run his tractors.

Diesel shortages have grown acute in the once-prosperous OPEC nation since late last year, when the United States ended an exemption to its crippling sanctions on state oil company PDVSA – aimed at ousting President Nicolas Maduro – that had allowed it to swap crude oil in exchange for imported diesel.

With farmers warning they may not have the fuel needed to plant staple corn and truckers sounding the alarm about difficulty transporting food, aid groups and some U.S. Democratic lawmakers have pressed President Joe Biden to end the ban on swaps.

Venezuela is mired in a humanitarian crisis after years of hyperinflation and recession, prompting millions to flee. Just 60% of the 36 kilograms (79.4 lbs) of food the Venezuelan diet requires on average per month was available in the country as of February, according to Edison Arciniega, executive director of non-governmental organization Citizenry in Action.

An opposition-conducted survey late last year found that 82.3% of Caracas residents said their income was insufficient to buy food for their family, and more than 5.4 million Venezuelans are now living abroad, according to the United Nations.

Critics, and many farmers, say sanctions are not the root cause of the shortages. PDVSA’s 1.3 million barrel-per-day (bpd) refining network is operating at a fraction of its capacity, leaving Venezuela – home to the world’s largest crude reserves by some measures – dependent on imported fuel.

Shortly after Venezuela received its last diesel cargo in November, the agriculture ministry began to ration the fuel – which is given away for free – to farmers. Soldiers now stand guard at service stations with lists of which farmers are able to fill up to 400 liters (106 gallons)- enough to run a tractor for a few days – into canisters on a given day.

“We cannot do anything if they give us one drop at a time,” said Zenere, 49, who invested $10,000 in the lost sesame crop.

Fields across Turen – in the center-west plains state of Portuguesa – are overrun with weeds that farmers need diesel-powered tractors to remove.

In the lush mountains of Cubiro in the western state of Lara, many producers have stopped planting tomatoes, peppers and onions because fuel shortages make it hard to transport crops to market, said Luis Colmenares, one of the few remaining truck drivers operating in the area. Some farmers gave away uncollected broccoli and lettuce crops to neighbors.

And at Marcos Mendoza’s Invernadero Tintorero greenhouses in Lara, pepper roots rot because customers do not have fuel to travel and pick them up.

Two farmers in the Turen area with relatively large plots told Reuters that they were able to obtain sufficient fuel by sending several family members to wait at different service stations.

So far, U.S. officials have said they are in no rush to lift sanctions and want to see Maduro take concrete steps toward holding free and fair elections.

Juan Gonzalez, senior director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council at the White House, has suggested Venezuela is holding back diesel on purpose to manipulate public opinion against the sanctions.

“They try to paint it as a humanitarian situation, but they keep the diesel for the military and give it to Cuba, and leave the people to suffer to help their international argument,” Gonzalez told television channel EVTV Miami in March.

The U.S. State Department did not respond to a request for comment. The Treasury Department, which enforces sanctions, declined to comment.

Venezuela’s information, agriculture and oil ministries did not respond to requests for comment.


The fuel shortages are the latest headache for Venezuelan farmers, who for more than a decade have struggled to import fertilizers and obtain credit due to hyperinflation and the fallout of widespread expropriations by Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chavez.

Maduro recognized the shortages and last month called on his government to improve fuel supply to farmers within 60 days. Farmers say they have not noticed any improvement, and that the existing rationing system is plagued by a lack of transparency leaving them unsure when or where they are supposed to fill up.

“You have to guess, you have to make a pilgrimage from service station to service station asking,” said Roberto Latini, 58, who last month lost 50 hectares of beans that he planted later than he wanted to because of a lack of diesel.

The shortages have raised concern among Venezuela’s opposition, whose leader Juan Guaido was recognized in 2019 by Washington and dozens of other countries as Venezuela’s rightful leader on the grounds that Maduro rigged his 2018 re-election.

The opposition has largely defended U.S. sanctions as necessary to prevent Maduro’s government from robbing state resources and to pressure him to the negotiating table.

Guaido’s representatives have proposed that the United States design a mechanism to allow diesel imports while ensuring Maduro does not use the fuel for corrupt ends, two people familiar with the matter said.

Any solution may come too late for Estanislao Wawrzyniak, 73, who received diesel last week for the first time in two months for his 60-hectare plot in Turen full of knee-high weeds.

“Two months waiting, without being able to do anything,” Wawrzyniak said, as two of his grandchildren used a tube to load diesel into a rusting tank held up on stilts, from a canister in the bed of a red pickup truck blaring electronic music.

Wawrzyniak plans to use the fuel to kill the weeds, and then he must wait several days before planting corn. Asked whether he would have time to plant before the rains picked up, he replied, “Only God knows.”

(Reporting by Luc Cohen and Keren Torres; Additional reporting by Efrain Otero and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

Biden to cancel Trump’s pandemic food aid after high costs, delivery problems

By Christopher Walljasper

CHICAGO (Reuters) -Yogurt was everywhere as volunteers opened boxes of fruit, frozen meat and dairy products that had shifted and spilled in transit to a food bank in Walworth County, Wisconsin.

They rushed to clean and transfer the packages of frozen meatballs, apples, milk and yogurt into cars for needy families to take home before they spoiled.

The food came from The Farmers to Families Food Box program that the Trump administration launched to feed out-of-work Americans with food rescued from farmers who would otherwise throw it away as the coronavirus pandemic upended food supply chains.

The government hired hundreds of private companies last spring to buy food no longer needed by restaurants, schools and cruise ships and haul it to overwhelmed food banks. But the program faced spilled and spoiled food, high costs and uneven distribution nationwide, according to interviews with food banks and distributors, and an analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) invoice data obtained through Freedom of Information requests.

Some of the companies charged the government more than double the program average while delivery to food banks was sometimes late. When the government contracted new vendors, some food banks relying on the program stopped receiving food at all. At the same time, the contractors delivered to churches or daycare centers that lacked adequate refrigeration.

“Food was abandoned to spoil,” said Susan Hughes, managing director of the Walworth County Food and Diaper Pantry.

The USDA spent $4 billion on the food box program in 2020 – six times its normal emergency food budget. After reviewing the program, President Joe Biden’s administration has decided not to continue it after May, USDA Communications Director Matt Herrick told Reuters.

Under newly appointed Secretary Tom Vilsack, the USDA is focused on different hunger initiatives, including expanding food stamp benefits and increasing food purchases through existing government food distribution programs, Herrick said.

“We’re not going to replace the program,” he said.

While food bank operators are thankful for the large volumes of fresh food from the food box program – and they stress that aid is still needed – many say far more families could have been fed by sticking to existing programs with proven quality and oversight.

Greg Ibach, USDA’s former undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs under the Trump administration, helped design the food box program in about a month. He said it worked as well as other USDA programs that took years to develop.

“We were in a hurry. People were hungry; there wasn’t food in grocery stores – if there was, they couldn’t afford it,” Ibach said. “We got a lot of food out the door and in peoples’ hands.”


When the food box program was rolled out in May 2020, the Trump administration touted it as a way of getting food to hungry Americans quickly. But by late June, the program fell short of delivery targets, Reuters reported. The government provided little guidance to food pantries and sometimes inexperienced distributors, who were often left to connect with one another on their own.

After some states, including Montana and Nevada, received very little food early on, the Trump administration in June contracted with Gold Star Foods, a California-based school food distributor, to reach underserved areas, Gold Star’s CEO Sean Leer said in an interview.

Gold Star billed the government between $87 and $102 in October and November for food boxes containing fruit, meat and dairy products. That’s more than double the average of similar boxes from other companies at the time, according to USDA invoice data. Leer said the cost reflected the increase in food and freight prices during the pandemic supply chain disruption.

Leer said the company has at times delivered the food boxes at a loss. He noted that during the February cold snap in Texas, Gold Star sent food to the state from California because the weather caused supply problems in Texas.

Food delivered by Gold Star accounted for less than 2% of federal money spent on the food box program in 2020, though that will increase to just under 9% through April 2021, according to Reuters’ review of USDA invoice data.

Companies delivered food in varying quantities at first, making cost comparisons between different vendors difficult. But in September USDA standardized the food boxes at no more than 24 pounds after feedback from food banks.

From October through December, invoice data shows seven out of 105 companies, including Gold Star Foods, charged the government double the program’s median price per pound of food. Three of those companies were awarded contracts by the Trump administration for nearly $32 million in January 2021.

The Biden administration says some companies may have overcharged the USDA.

“There was an unequal cost associated with the distribution and filling of these boxes. Some people made a significant percentage from filling the boxes,” Vilsack said on a March 3 call with reporters.

The USDA specified food boxes delivered in 2021 to the continental U.S. cost between $27 and $48 per box. But cheaper boxes presented new challenges and put additional burdens on food banks, said Emily Broad Leib, director of Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic. The lower-cost boxes contained lower quality food, and food companies at times refused to deliver them to smaller pantries, leaving local organizations scrambling to find extra money for delivery, she said.


Though some regional food banks have taken on the labor of delivering to multiple counties, most smaller food banks serve only one county. Deliveries to additional counties are at the expense of food banks, said Brian Greene, CEO of the Houston Food Bank.

Reuters’ analysis of USDA data showed the program struggled in particular to reach rural counties. While cities and well-populated counties received millions of boxes of food, 896 counties – or nearly a third – received none, according to USDA data.

USDA’s Herrick said the Biden administration’s assessment of the program exposed problems in how the food aid was delivered.

“A lot of rural communities went unserved entirely,” he said.

Counties that did receive food worked with as many as a dozen food companies over seven months in 2020. Every six to twelve weeks, the USDA introduced a new phase of the program, changing food suppliers and forcing food banks to scramble to connect with new vendors or lose food supplies.

“USDA didn’t give (distributors) any guidance as to who to serve or keep serving,” said Harvard’s Broad Leib. “You can’t rely on something if one day it’s there, then the next day it’s not.”

Despite the program’s flaws, food banks say the nearly 133 million boxes of food delivered in 2020 averted an even greater crisis.

There are hungry Americans in nearly every city and county nationwide, said Kate Leone, senior VP of government relations at Feeding America, a national network of food banks. The organization estimates that about half of the children in some counties are food-insecure – worried about where their next meal might come from.

(Reporting by Christopher Walljasper; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Brian Thevenot)