Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

distributed 2/20/09 - ©2009

Ecological devastation happens in many places, and for many reasons. Often, those of us who live in the affluent world are directly tied to the wasting of resources and the destruction of habitat -- but, because we are far removed from the damage, we're not even aware of what goes on. Our innocent and routine choices may have dramatic impacts.

A few years ago, I was very surprised to learn that a Christian liturgical practices causes one kind of environmental disaster. Every year, a multitude of congregations order palm branches for their Palm Sunday rituals. Those of us living in chilly climates get an annual keepsake from the tropics, a palm frond to wave while singing the processional hymn.

In a typical year, over 300 million palm branches that are shipped into the United States from Mexico and Guatemala, specifically for use on Palm Sunday. For the sake of a few brief moments of mimetic drama in our churches, hundreds of thousands of palm trees in Central America are denuded. The vibrant diversity of healthy forests has been replaced by either stripped and damaged trees, or by the sterile monoculture of palm plantations.

Not too long ago, this ecological travesty became known to some creative and caring people connected to the University of Minnesota, and they set out to develop better alternatives. The result is "eco-palms" -- palm branches that are sustainably harvested by members of cooperatives who earn fair pay for their work.

The conventional system has several flaws. It is controlled by -- and most of the profits go to -- huge floral wholesalers, instead of local communities. It pays workers based on the volume of branches, so there is an incentive for them to over-cut, and to cut un-usable greenery. Up to 50% of those fronds are discarded as waste.

In the eco-palm system, workers are trained in how to trim branches so trees stay healthy. Payments are based on quality, not quantity, and waste is down to around 6%. After the harvest, the palm branches are sorted and shipped by members of the cooperative, providing more and longer-term jobs. Profits from the palms are rolled back into the local community for schools and other needed projects. (Lutheran World Relief has good background information, including an informative slideshow.)

Think carefully. If your church is ordering palms this year, do you want to get eco-palms that care for God's creation -- the trees, the diversity of life that depend on the trees, and the human communities? Or do you want to get the (perhaps very slightly cheaper) palms that destroy forests and communities? Hopefully, it is not a difficult choice for you or your parish to act on your eco-justice principles.

If you do go the route of fair-trade greens, I encourage you to educate your congregation [Bulletin insert - PDF file] about the realities of global trade and the ecological impacts of our choices. Allow them to celebrate the good that is being done through more informed and just purchases.

Note: the 2009 deadline for ordering Eco-Palms is March 9, so don't delay!

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I know of one church that has dealt with the palm problem in a different way. They used to get large bundles of the unsustainably-cut palms from a local florist. Now, they buy just a very few eco-palm fronds, and most members of the congregation are offered green ribbons tacked to a small stick.

When the factors of denuded trees are explained, and prayerful consideration is given to the reality of tropical greenery shipped thousands of miles for a few moments of liturgy, most people find that the ribbons work quite well as a way to re-enact the crowds celebrating Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem. The visual sense and the distinctive bodily engagement of waving greenery happen successfully with the ribbons. The annual liturgical celebration is enhanced by the knowledge that no trees were scalped. (On a far less spiritual plane, the reusable ribbons save lots of money.)

Obviously, the church that uses ribbons instead of palms is not one that lives by high and formal liturgy. A slightly funky or offbeat celebration strikes them as more fun than one that is terribly proper and historical. Their practice might not work as well for the churches which burn the prior year's palms to make the ashes for Ash Wednesday. (It doesn't take a lot of branches to make a reasonable pile of ashes, though.)

The substitution of ribbons for palms leads us to a far more expansive question about our consumption. How much do we really "need" for what purposes? Eco-palms have a far lighter environmental footprint than branches from the traditional sources, and also provide jobs and community benefits for those folk in Mexico and Guatemala. But even so, do our congregations really need to order an imported branch for every person who will attend worship that day? Are real palms really necessary?

There's a parallel that deals with daily life instead of annual liturgy -- and which hits really close to home for me. Fair trade coffee, sustainably and organically raised at prices that are economically just -- is far preferable to the mass-market stuff grown on unsustainable plantations. My family is committed to using fair trade java. But do I really "need" all of that coffee? On many occasions, a mug of warm water will do just as well.

Many of the messages that we get about being environmentally responsible tell us to get the "green alternative" -- the product that is fair trade, or most energy efficient, or organically raised. As we face the reality of a highly stressed ecosphere, a planet burdened by too many people with excessive demands, we also need to consider more dramatic substitutions. Ribbons for palms, water for coffee, an open window instead of air conditioning.

I was astounded when I realized that the joyous use of Palm Sunday greenery led to tropical deforestation -- because I'd never stopped to think about where those palms came from. The fair-trade option of eco-palms is a wonderful alternative that brings health and healing to Central America, and opens our eyes to some of the hidden impacts of our consumption. The use of ribbons instead of palms extends that awareness to a new level.

As your church plans for Palm Sunday -- and the Fellowship Hour -- make choices based on your best ethical principles. Choose fair trade when you must buy, and look for ways to avoid that consumption entirely.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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