An interesting article from the NYTimes today on palms in Palm Sunday services in the USA which also interview a U of MN prof. of natural resources management.
U.S. Churches Go ‘Green’ for Palm Sunday
By MARC LACEY
Published: April 1, 2007
SIERRA MORENA, Mexico, March 29 — Clutching a tiny knife in his big calloused hands, Laizon Corzo wound his way through the thick foliage in one of southern Mexico’s forested areas in search of living treasures.
Yaneth Perez inspected Mexican palms bound for florists last week. The “eco-palms” sought by many United States churches are harvested and bought in a way to benefit farmers economically and environmentally.
The New York Times
American church leaders have visited Sierra Morena’s farmers.
When he found them — big, leafy palm fronds — he did not cut right away. Instead, he inspected the leaves, back and front, for stains and other imperfections. “This one, no,” he said, pushing aside one and grabbing another. “This one — see how perfect it is?”
Mr. Corzo is one of the indigenous farmers who puts palms in the hands of North American churchgoers on Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter. He is also on the cutting edge of a new movement to harvest what are being called “eco-palms.”
Slightly more expensive than the average palm, eco-palms are the rage in churches across the United States 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.
“We want to be a green congregation,” said the Rev. David C. Parsons, pastor of St. John-St. Matthew-Emanuel Lutheran Church in Brooklyn, which purchased eco-palms for the second straight year. “We are conscious of our footprint on the earth. There is a biblical mandate to do that.”
Now operating in a handful of palm-producing areas in southern Mexico and northern Guatemala, the eco-palm project is similar to programs for certified coffee, chocolate or diamonds. But the consumers in this case are churches, and many say that the religious significance of the plant compels them to buy the most wholesome palm possible.
“Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem was accented by the jubilant waving of palm branches,” Lutheran World Relief, one of the groups endorsing the project, says on its Web site. “Unfortunately, for the communities where these palms are harvested, palm fronds do not always represent the same jubilation they do for us.”
Mr. Corzo, 37, a father of three who has been harvesting palm leaves since he was 5 or 6, used to be paid by how many he delivered, no matter the quality. He would hack away at any old palm and allow the middle man to worry about quality.
No more. Under the eco-palm program, Mr. Corzo is paid only for the quality fronds that he delivers — but at a much higher return, so his trifling pay has nearly doubled. The palms are now bundled in his village by women who had no jobs before.
The percentage of palms that must be discarded has plummeted from roughly half to a tenth. And the forest that Mr. Corzo uses to make a living is slowly becoming greener, environmentalists say.
The program began in 2005 with 20 American churches that bought about 5,000 palms. It grew last year, with 281 congregations placing orders for 80,000 palms. On this Palm Sunday, 1,436 churches will distribute 364,000 eco-palm stems.
That still represents just about 1 percent of the palms that are purchased for Palm Sunday, the day when the most palms are used; American churches use 25 million to 35 million palms, say officials involved in the project.
Lutheran churches are the biggest buyers, followed by Presbyterians. Smaller numbers of Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Church of Christ and Mennonite congregations also ordered eco-palms this year.
The palms harvested in southern Mexico have shorter leaves than the ones many churches have used, resulting in some consternation in the pews. “Parishioners can’t fold these leaves into crosses, and that’s been a tradition,” Pastor Parsons said. “It’s something parents have passed on to their children, and it’s an adjustment to have these new palms.”
The project grew out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has come under far more criticism than praise for its effect on the environment. One of the pact’s side agreements set up the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation to promote environmentally friendly trade policies. As it sifted through the products that are sent from Mexico to the north, the commission discovered palms.
Dean A. Current, a professor of natural resources management at the University of Minnesota, was called in to study the economics of the palm industry. He discovered that about 10 percent of the palms sent to the United States were bought by churches. The rest go to florists, who often use them in arrangements for weddings and funerals.
In surveying churches, Mr. Current found that most were willing to pay up to double the going price to be sure their palms were responsibly harvested. A big church might spend as much as $1,500 on palms for Palm Sunday.
Sometimes, they are burned for the next year’s Ash Wednesday, although that practice is being cast aside by some congregations because of concerns that it pollutes the air.
“Churches want to help,” Mr. Current said. “Before this, they really didn’t know where their palms came from.”
Now many of them do. Mr. Current has brought small groups of church leaders here to Sierra Morena, a village of about 50 families in the southern highlands of Chiapas State, to see for themselves.
Environmental groups in Mexico and Guatemala have trained palm cutters to cut good fronds while allowing the palm plants to survive. That keeps the income flowing and maintains the habitats of birds and other species.
Those who harvest the palms are also coffee and corn farmers. Palms help make ends meet.
But exactly what they are used for up north is not always clear.
“I know it’s used for decoration,” said Moses Macal Maroukin, 69, a veteran palm chopper, who seemed somewhat mystified. He said he had no palm fronds in his home.
But then he revealed what the people here had long believed to be the real use of the exported palms. The juices in the stems and leaves are extracted, he explained in a conspiratorial whisper, and then turned into a special mixture that is used to stain greenbacks green.
“This is how you color your dollars,” he said, waving a palm.