Eco-Palms bring sustainability to Christian holy day


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Today as members of St. Andrew Lutheran Church wave palm fronds to commemorate how Jesus was welcomed to Jerusalem, they will do so believing that Jesus would approve of how their palms were harvested.

The Shadyside church uses Eco-Palms, which are harvested by workers who earn fair wages and practice preservation of tropical forests.

"They're more expensive than other palms, just as the coffee we serve here is more expensive because it is fair trade. But it's a statement of social justice that we're glad to make," said the Rev. Janet Grill, pastor of St. Andrew, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

"It makes sense that when we celebrate the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, it's done in a way that honors Jesus in those who work for very little money."

Eco-Palms are full fronds attached to stems, not the long, narrow strips of torn leaf that many churches use.

"The kids love it because you can really wave them. I love them because you can't use them as spears," she said.

Palm Sunday, one week before Easter, is based on John 12:13. It says that when Jesus' admirers heard he was entering Jerusalem "they took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting 'Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!' "

According to the University of Minnesota's Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management, which initiated the Eco-Palm project, each year churches in the United States use about 300 million palm fronds. Many are from chamaedorea palms, which grow in tropical forests. Florists like them because they're slow to wilt and are structured well for floral arrangements.

They grow in tropical forests in some of the poorest regions of southern Mexico and northern Guatemala. In traditional business, workers are paid a tiny amount for each frond, so they chop off as many as possible without regard for quality or damage. A middleman then sells the fronds to a floral company at a steep profit.

Up to half such palms are discarded for poor quality. The forests, the winter home of songbirds such as the Baltimore oriole, are badly damaged.

The Eco-Palm Project began in 2005 with a call from the American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, which was created by the North American Free Trade Agreement to prevent the ravage of Mexico's environment. The commission hired Dean Current, director of the Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management, to find a way to stop the overharvesting of palms, and to see if there was a way for more profit to stay in the villages.

"We found out that a lot of the palms are sold to churches for Palm Sunday. Based on that, we suggested that churches might be a good place to start because of their interest in social and environmental justice," Mr. Current said.

Lutheran World Relief was the first church agency on board. In a pilot project in Minnesota, 5,000 Eco-Palms were sold. The next year they sold 70,000 nationwide. Since then, the Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodist Committee on Relief and Catholic Relief Services have joined.

Nearly 780,000 Eco-Palms were sold this year, and Pennsylvania is the second largest state. Prices start at $6 for 18-20 plus $10 shipping, and progress to $138 for 540-600 plus $22 shipping.

Kattie Somerfeld, fair trade project coordinator at Lutheran World Relief, said that the only complaints she hears are from those who prefer palm strips.

"Most of the feedback is that they are beautiful, and that it's nice to celebrate another dimension of justice when we celebrate Palm Sunday," she said.

Eco-Palm harvesters are paid by the quality, not the quantity, so they harvest fewer and cut carefully. Waste has been reduced from as high as 50 percent to little more than 5 percent.

Workers are paid at least five times what the middlemen paid them, and middlemen have been eliminated. Eco-Palm cooperatives have their own warehouses, and sell directly to the United States. Online sales and delivery is handled by a Minnesota florist, who sends a 5-cent rebate from each frond back to the harvesting communities.

Melanie Hardison, a program associate in the Presbyterian Hunger Program at Presbyterian Church (USA) headquarters in Louisville, Ky., has visited Eco-Palm cooperatives.

"The people were very proud to show us the improvements in their communities. They've been able to improve their schools and, in one community, they've made improvements to the church. They are able to do a lot of things around education and health because of the extra income they receive from Eco-Palms," she said.

Each community decides how to use its share of the rebate. One Guatemalan community created scholarships for girls, who were formerly denied schooling because their parents couldn't afford to pay. Another built a community kitchen. In Mexico, a cooperative put the money back into the business, making major improvements to the warehouse.

The project is contributing to the protection of forests, which villagers no longer want to remove in order to plant food crops. They take fire prevention very seriously, Mr. Current said.

The Rainforest Alliance in Guatemala has certified the Eco-Palm cooperatives there for sustainable management, he said. The cooperatives in Mexico are similarly managed but have not yet been able to afford sustainability audits.

"It's costly to do certification. We don't want to remove all of the profits," Mr. Current said.

"Palm Sunday is something we celebrate with big fanfare. Congregations often have a procession outdoors, and march in waving palm branches, Ms. Hardison said. "To know that we can make a difference by choosing a product that helps people and helps the environment is so meaningful. It's a way for our congregations to put their faith into action."

For more information see www.pcusa.org/palms.


Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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