For a Greener Palm Sunday Celebration

Workers in Uaxactun, Guatemala, prepare
Workers in Uaxactun, Guatemala, prepare "eco-palms" for shipment to the United States. The fronds are harvested in a way intended to benefit the environment and the harvesters. (University Of Minnesota Via Religion News Service)
By Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service
Saturday, April 8, 2006

Combining ecology and theology, hundreds of churches are choosing "eco-palms" for their Palm Sunday services this year.

The idea is resonating with congregations that had not given much thought to where palms come from. But many of them have taken an interest in similar causes, such as fair trade coffee, which benefits Third World coffee growers.

"To have in our hand on Palm Sunday a palm that we know has been harvested in an ecologically friendly way, in a way that's going to benefit the communities and the people who harvested them, adds that much more depth to our celebration of Palm Sunday," said Brenda Meier, parish projects coordinator for Lutheran World Relief.

The Baltimore-based relief agency has taken the lead in promoting palm fronds that are produced in a way intended to preserve the environment and protect the livelihood of the Mexican and Guatemalan harvesters.

A pilot program last year involved 20 mostly Midwestern churches and the purchase of 5,000 palm fronds. This year, 230 churches in at least 26 states have ordered more than 65,000 fronds.

That's a fraction of the more than 300 million palm fronds that experts say are harvested each year for U.S. consumption, but advocates hope interest in eco-palms will grow as more people learn about the movement.

Activists say Palm Sunday, when Christians recall Jesus's entry into Jerusalem, is the perfect time to draw attention to the issue. Always a week before Easter, Palm Sunday will be celebrated tomorrow by most Christian denominations; Eastern Orthodox churches will celebrate the day a week later.

The movement involves agricultural experts at the University of Minnesota, who work with an exporter that has taught harvesters how to operate with less waste and fewer middlemen. Proponents of eco-palms say typical harvesting practices emphasize quantity rather than quality, provide harvesters with scant earnings and threaten birds and other wildlife that thrive in the shaded forests where the palms grow.

The 22-cents-a-frond price for eco-palms is more than double what some other fronds cost, but it includes 5 cents to help Latin American communities with development projects such as building a school kitchen or providing health care or insurance.

The project is sponsored by the University of Minnesota's Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management, which is working with nongovernmental organizations in Guatemala and Mexico. Officials and participants say it is making people think about how the green stems they have taken for granted get into their hands once a year.

"People are really surprised," said RaeLynn Jones Loss, program coordinator for the project at the university. "Most people don't know where peaches come from. They don't have any idea where palms come from."

But it can be a challenge to get churches to consider changing their buying practices, she said.

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