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Churches begin to go green for Palm Sunday

2 April 2007:

It is a multi-million dollar business, it is threatening the world’s forests and rare bird populations, it stems from a procession of peace… it is Palm Sunday, and churches around the world are beginning to do something about it.

Nearly a hundred million palm stems were purchased for - and gathered by - churches around the world yesterday to celebrate the day nearly 2000 years ago that Jesus was said to have come into Jerusalem, welcomed by a crowd who were waving palm branches in his honour.

US churches alone were estimated to have used between 25 and 35 million palms yesterday, according to a New York Times report. According to the University of Minnesota, a congregation of 1100 to 1500 members will order approximately 700 palm fronds for Palm Sunday services. Their data suggests that palm purchases for Palm Sunday may be worth up to 4.5 million dollars/year.

The trouble is that this niche demand has led to some environmental crises throughout South and Central America, where local people have tended to pick the palms wild, without giving them time to regenerate. At least half of farmers in the Central Peten of Guatemala earn an additional income from harvesting fronds, and more than a quarter of household heads support themselves exclusively by collecting fronds. In Colombia the (world) population of wild green-eared parrots sank to around 80 five years ago, thanks to the depletion of the rare Qindio palm, 70 metres tall and delightfully wavy, which is the sole habitation of the species.

"The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way to 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"." (John 12: 12-13)
In Mexico similarly the demand for the xate palm has depleted the species in the forests of South Chiapas where they were once plentiful, causing problems for the fauna that live around them.

ARC has been working with Pro-Natura Chiapas and the Catholic Church in Mexico, and Conservation International has been working with the Colombian Catholics and local NGOs to try and change this – to make it so that a simple act of worship is not a thoughtless act.

It is already having a positive effect: the population of green-eared parrots today is over 600 and rising, and in Mexico's Chiapas forests wild palm fronds are now being protected. The eco palms project is employing farmers to cut good fronds, while allowing the plants to survive.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that 1,436 churches in North America distributed 364,000 eco-palm stems and although this represented, only one percent of the total, the word was spreading.

The BBC World Service featured the palm story on its Reporting Religion programme for Palm Sunday, including an interview with ARC's Paola Triolo.
“Slightly more expensive than the average palm, eco-palms are the rage in churches across the United States of America because of the social and environmental benefits they represent. They are collected in a way that helps preserve the forest, and more of the sale price ends up in the pockets of the people who cut them.”

One of the problems is that the “eco palms” have shorter leaves than the rare palms, meaning that they are harder to fold into crosses. It is an adjustment that churches are just beginning to make.

The BBC World Service also featured the story on its Palm Sunday weekend edition of Reporting Religion.


Link here for the Eco-Palms Stewardship and Justice website, run by the University of Minnesota.

Link here for the Lutheran World Relief website, with a special feature on palms.

Link here for the Pro-Natura-ARC Sacred Orchids project, protecting sacred species by setting up sustainable growing programmes.

Link here for the CI project with parrots in Colombia.

Link here for the Conservation International website.

Link here for the New York Times report on eco-palms for Palm Sunday.

Link here for the ProAves website (in English).

Link here for the ProAves website (in Spanish).

Link here for another story about how Conservation International has worked with religions to preserve endangered species - this time with Hindu leaders to save the rare seaturtles of Bali.

Link here for an article about the yellow-eared parrot from the Parrot Society website.

Link here to learn more about the yellow-eared parrot from Birdlife International.

Link here for a photograph of the astonishingly tall Ceroxylon Quindiuenxe wax palm.

Link here for more information about the endangered wax palm.

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