From: Andrew Selsky, Associated Press
Published March 20, 2005 12:00 AM

On Palm Sunday, Churches, Environmentalists Join To Save Rain Forest Palms and Parrots

BOGATA, Colombia — With a sprinkling of holy water, a priest blessed thousands of palm seedlings in a ceremony in Bogota's main park, sealing an unusual Palm Sunday pact between the Roman Catholic Church and environmentalists to save a critically endangered parrot.

Thousands of kilometers (miles) away, 22 churches in the United States are for the first time using environmentally sustainable palm from Guatemala and Mexico for their Palm Sunday services this year.

This convergence of religion and ecology is taking root across scattered areas of the globe amid heightened environmental awareness among some church leaders. More than 300 million palm fronds are harvested each year for U.S. consumption alone -- most of them for Palm Sunday.

"Most Christians wake up on a Palm Sunday, look at the beautiful greenery but don't think about where it's being grown and whether forests and people are being affected," said Glenn Berg-Moberg, pastor of an 800-member Lutheran church in St. Paul, Minnesota. "The largest single demand of palm fronds is for Palm Sunday, so we feel we need to be responsible in how we are treating the forest."

The effort in America, promoted by the Montreal-based Commission for Environmental Cooperation and the Rainforest Alliance in New York, is aimed at protecting the rainforests in Guatemala and Mexico whose canopy provides the shade for the shrublike chamaedorea palms to grow.


The plan is to buy certified palms from communities using sustainable forestry practices and improve the communities' profit margins, giving them more incentive to protect the rainforest instead of clear-cutting it.

"Someone quipped that this is a palm pilot, but we're really excited about it," Berg-Moberg said.

The Colombian initiative has a special urgency, because the survival of a species is at stake.

There are only 540 or so yellow-eared parrots left on the planet. They exist only in Colombia. Their sole habitat is the wax palm, which grows on the misty flanks of the Andes Mountains to heights of 225 feet (70 meters), making it the world's tallest palm tree.

But for centuries, Colombians have used the fronds of the wax palm for Palm Sunday, which commemorates Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, where residents greeted him by waving palm fronds.

When Colombian peasants cut off the fronds from the young wax palms -- Colombia's national tree -- to sell to worshippers, the trees die or their growth is stunted. The practice has led to a dramatic thinning of the towering palms.

A top Colombian cleric said it's important for the church to join with environmental groups and government agencies to promote use of other palms and save the bright green-and-yellow parrots.

"We have a slogan: God pardons always, man pardons sometimes, but nature never does. Every abuse of nature you pay for, sooner or later," said Monsignor Fabian Marulanda, secretary-general of the church's policy-making Episcopal Conference.

On a sunny, crisp morning in Bogota's sprawling Simon Bolivar Park, the Rev. Alirio Lopez stood before hundreds of people holding 15-centimeter (6-inch) seedlings of the Alexandra palm -- an alternative to the wax palm -- in paper cups. Schoolchildren, joggers, cyclists and others streamed into a rotunda in the park to participate.

"Dear Lord, who created the Earth, the waters, the plants and the animals, bless these Alexandra palms," said the white-robed Lopez before he flicked holy water onto some of the seedlings in Friday's ceremony.

Thousands of the seedlings are being handed out, to be planted for future Palm Sunday observances. Bigger fronds of the alternative palms will be available for Palm Sunday services this year.

Marulanda said the church refrained from joining the campaign earlier because some groups were proposing that worshippers display handkerchiefs, corn stalks and an assortment of other items instead of palm fronds.

"There would have been a burlesque aspect to it all," Marulanda said. But the church came on board after the use of fronds from other palms was suggested.

"Maintain the Tradition. Respect Nature," proclaim posters that have been sent to churches nationwide to promote the program.

One of the campaign organizers, Luz Mery Cortes of Conservation International, said she does not think all Colombians will immediately abandon use of wax palm fronds, even though they are legally protected.

"We cannot expect that such a strongly held tradition will change overnight," Cortes said. "But if we don't do something, the wax palm and the yellow-eared parrot will disappear from the planet."

Source: Associated Press

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