Eco-palms do wonders for the wild

By Rebecca Rosen Lum
Contra Costa Times

Apr. 1–Each year on Palm Sunday, Christians jubilantly re-enact Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, waving a combined 300 million palm fronds in the United States. That makes for a green market in more ways than one.

But environmentalists say the traditional method of harvesting palms wastes more than it nets and damages valuable rain forest. And although sales may shoot through the roof, middlemen consume most of the profits.

Enter Eco-Palms, an ecologically and socially sensitive frond brand.

The niche-market palm comes from a method of harvesting and marketing developed at the University of Minnesota. It preserves more of the species, which in turn protects birds and wildlife that flourish in shaded forests.

Proponents say Eco-Palms will do for the Chamaedorea palm species what Fair Trade has done for coffee and chocolate — create a sustainably produced crop while generating a good living for communities that harvest it.

The university works with communities in Mexico and Guatemala to produce the fronds, and with Christian denominations to get them into the hands of praying congregants.

Interest is booming: “Oh, my goodness, yes,” said Kattie Somerfeld, Fair Trade coordinator for Lutheran World Relief.

Churches in 49 states and, Washington, D.C., Canada, and a U.S. Air Force base in Japan will buy a combined 360,000 Eco-Palm fronds, up from 80,000 last year and 5,000 the year before, Somerfeld said.

“We grew 450 percent from last year to this year,” said program coordinator RaeLynn Jones Loss. “Last year, we got the Presbyterians, Catholics and Episcopalians on board. Next year, we’ll keep growing.”

Eco-Palms don’t come cheap. Congregations pay 22 cents per stem — more than double the cost of traditional palms. But they pay and happily.

“For these indigenous folks who are struggling to make a living, we can support them directly,” said Martin Morly, director of worship, music and the arts at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Lafayette. “Also, the palms are harvested in an ecologically sound, sustainable manner.”

Eco-Palm harvesters earn their pay based on the quality of the fronds they deliver, not the weight of the crop.

“Now they know how to cut the palms so they keep growing,” Jones Loss said. The trees with serviceable fronds continue to regenerate, and the imperfect palm is left alone, preserving its shade value. With a traditional harvest, 50 percent is lost in the sorting process, she said.

The harvesters capture a higher price because they do all the sorting and packaging themselves. For each frond, they receive a 5-cent premium that comes back to their community. Groups have used that money for scholarships, teacher salaries and expanded packaging centers to accommodate the rising demand.

Congregations in Berkeley, Clayton, Castro Valley, Lafayette, Richmond and Walnut Creek will use Eco-Palms for the first time in today’s Palm Sunday services.

“We ordered one for each person,” said Dianne Werner, secretary at Clayton Valley Presbyterian Church. “We don’t even know what they look like.”

Churches integrate palms into services in different ways. Parishioners at Grace Lutheran Church in Richmond listen to the story of Palm Sunday outside, then carry the fronds into the sanctuary, singing, said music director Martin Schaefer.

At Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Castro Valley, congregants take home the palms, which are folded into the shape of the cross. They tuck them into a dresser or bathroom mirror and bring them back next year to burn on Ash Wednesday.

Holy Cross parishioners already drink Fair Trade coffee, and they scrapped foam cups in favor of recyclable ones. Youths raised $5,000 to buy livestock for impoverished villages.

“We’re doing things like that,” said the Rev. Mark Spaulding. “It’s stewardship of, as we say, ‘this fragile Earth, our island home.’ As far as ecology goes, man! We’re that little blue marble out in space.”

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