Friday, January 25, 2013
When I first started researching this new book I'm working on about religious practices that harm the environment, and what to do about them (if anything), I asked around to see if anyone knew of good examples from around the world. John Nagle from Notre Dame pointed me to this fascinating article from Audubon Magazine about how the use of palm branches from the wax palm tree for Palm Sunday celebrations in a certain area in Columbia had resulted in the near extinction of the yellow eared parrot. The story has a happy ending, as the church decided to use different kinds of palm trees instead, and the parrot has since recovered at least a little way from the edge of extinction.
I did some more research into palm trees and Palm Sunday and came across another interesting story. Many of the palm forests in Guatemala and southern Mexico and Belize have been suffering from unsustainable harvesting practices, as harvesters cut down as many trees and branches as possible to supply the North American market for palms. Part of the market is for churches which use the palms for Palm Sunday. At some point, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, a body that was set up by NAFTA to promote pro-environmental trade policies, recognized the problem and contacted Dean Current, a professor at the University of Minnesota (and a terrific guy, as I found out when I visited with him last fall), to conduct a study on the palm market in the US. Current learned that lots of religious organizations in the US would be willing to pay a premium price for sustainably harvested palms. Starting in 2005, Current, working together with a number of religious organizations in the US and NGOs in Guatemala and Mexico, began the so-called "Eco-Palm" project. This project allows religious congregations to order sustainably harvested palms for a somewhat higher price than they would pay for other palms, and then this extra money is sent to communities in northern Guatemala and southern Mexico who harvest the trees in a slower, more careful fashion that protects the forests. The communities use the extra money for things they need, such as improving their schools, building community kitchens, and the like. The New York Times reported on the project in 2007 here, and here is another piece about it from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
To me, this project seemed like a fascinatingly creative approach to a difficult problem--an example of using the market as opposed to regulation to protecting the environment from a dangerous practice--and I decided to make it one of the core case-studies in the book. In February, I'll be heading to northern Guatemala (Flores) and Chiapas, Mexico for about 8 days to meet with the NGOs (which have been terrific in helping me plan the trip) and to travel to the communities and forests where the harvesting is taking place to try and understand more fully what's going on there. It should be pretty exciting, and I'm looking forward to getting lots of good material for the book. Wish me luck, won't you?
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