DALLAS – All palms are green, but some are greener than others.

So say churches, including a handful around Dallas, that are paying a little extra for “eco-palms” to use in Palm Sunday services today.

These palm stems come with the promise that they were cut selectively to help preserve tropical forests in Guatemala and Mexico. Eco-palms also mean more money for the Indians who harvest and process them.

“It seemed like a no-brainer to me,” said Betty Picard, art and environment coordinator at Our Lady of Angels Catholic Church in Allen, Texas, which bought more than 1,000 eco-palms for Palm Sunday services. “How can you be a church and not try to do something both for people and the environment?”

Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, recalls Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The gospels describe the crowds as waving tree branches and placing branches and cloaks to soften his way. The Gospel of John specifies palm branches.

By some estimates, 300 million palm stems are imported annually into the United States, with about 10 percent used by churches for Palm Sunday processionals and decorations.

But according to Dean Current, a natural resource economist at the University of Minnesota who has worked extensively in Latin America, there have long been environmental and economic downsides to palm-stem production.

Workers have been paid by volume, leading to overharvesting and waste, he said. And the middlemen who contract with U.S. importers have made a lot more money than the villagers who do the cutting.

Current, through a program at his university, has worked for the last few years to put the eco-palm idea into practice in a few communities of Guatemala and the state of Chiapas in Mexico.

In 2000, Current was hired by the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation to study whether palm-stem production could be certified as environmentally sustainable, like the certification of organic or “shade-grown” coffee.

From that came the notion of eco-palms. Current said the name was suggested by colleagues at the commission, and hasn’t been copyrighted.

Current, through a program at his university, has worked for the last few years to put the eco-palm idea into practice in a few communities of Guatemala and the state of Chiapas in Mexico.

One way has been to pay harvesters by quality rather than quantity. The selection occurs before cutting, reducing waste and protecting the forests.

Another technique has been to have importers work directly with the indigenous people of the forest communities, instead of through contractors from more urban areas of Guatemala and Mexico.

Through the no-middleman approach, Current said, local men do the cutting and local women become a part of the workforce by bundling and grading the foliage.

Getting the women involved can make a big difference.

“That way, income is guaranteed to go to the females and the men don’t squander it all,” said Rene Ochoa, an agricultural economist for the Mexican government and before that at Texas A&M University.

Crucial to the eco-palm project was locating a U.S. importer willing to work directly with the communities and pay them extra. Current found such a partner in Jim Everett, vice president of production at Continental Floral Greens in San Antonio. “He was key,” Current said.

Everett said Continental, started by his grandfather, has been active in Latin America for more than 50 years. He’s not romantic about working directly with communities rather than professional contractors – “It’s a logistical nightmare” – but he’s committed to it.

“We’re trying to find some way where we can get more of the money we pay back into the villagers’ hands,” he said.

The marketing of eco-palms began in 2005 with a small pilot program in Minnesota, which placed a few thousand stems with churches there. Last year, Current and his staff – assisted by a local distributor – went national. Thanks to news coverage and to endorsements from some denominations, sales grew to about 80,000 eco-palms in 34 states.

This year, more denominations have given support. At the final tally last week, sales for this Palm Sunday had reached 360,000 stems for nearly 1,500 churches.

The cost for 200 stems – including shipping – is $57.50. That’s about a nickel more per stem than the going rate nationally from florists or wholesalers, Current said.

Paying a little extra wasn’t an issue for Grace Presbyterian Church in Plano, Texas, which pioneered the local use of eco-palms last year, and reordered this year.

Stephanie Scott, associate director of music ministry, read about eco-palms in a Presbyterian publication and got the church to give them a try. She said Grace has a tradition of concern for environmental protection and workers’ rights in poor countries, to the point of serving more expensive “fair-trade” coffee at fellowship time.

To go with eco-palms seemed, she said, both logical and faithful.

“It fits in with our principles, like recycling. It’s about being stewards in all aspects of our lives.”

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