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Children waving palm fronds in church

Not all Palms are Created Equal

By Nikki Massie

The name Palm Sunday comes from the accounts in the Gospels that tell the story of Jesus, accompanied by his disciples, riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. As he passed by, the bible says, people began to throw palm fronds in his path. In those days, palm trees were an important tool in survival because of their varied uses, so laying them at Jesus’ feet was an expression of their love for him.

In churches across the U.S., Christians observe this day with actual palm fronds.

As you might guess, the hot commodity on Palm Sunday is, of course, palms. Like anything bought and sold, palms have a supply chain that traces back to real people whose real lives are affected by how those palms are grown, harvested and sold.

So where do they come from? Most palms used in religious ceremonies in the United States are grown in either Guatemala or Mexico where palm harvesters are called xaterros. Palm products are an important source of income for xaterros and their families, and are also an important part of the surrounding ecosystem.

Palm harvesters are called xaterros.
Palm harvesters are called xaterros. Most palms used in religious ceremonies in the United States are grown by xaterros in either Guatemala or Mexico.

Most xaterros are hired by large floral export firms and paid by volume. The more palms they collect, the more they are paid. To collect the most fronds possible, many xaterros harvest as much and as fast as possible without knowing the damage that their harvesting causes to the plant. This leads to over-harvesting and, as time goes on, the palm plants yield fewer palms. Not all the palms xaterros harvest even get used.

A healthy palm plant produces two to five harvestable leaves over a two to four month period, but that kind of regeneration is only possible when leaves are collected in an ecologically friendly way: cutting no more than two palms from each plant and making sure the cut is below the newest growth of the plant. Over-harvesting means palm plants will yield fewer palms as time goes on.

And for all their trouble, not all the palms that xaterros harvest even get used. The defect rate can be as high as 70 percent, meaning a good deal of those palms end up getting tossed out.

Most xaterros already live on the edge of poverty and depend on palms to support their families. The problem is that even though xaterros do most of the work to cultivate and harvest the palms, they see a disproportionately low amount of the profit, while middlemen, whose only job is to transport the palms from one place to the next, make more money than the xaterros.

Eco-Palm tucked into the pew of a church.
To encourage ecologically-friendly harvesting practices, Eco-Palms pays xaterros based on the quality of their palms. Xaterros are trained on how to select palms in a way that preserves the health of the tree and makes them acceptable for sale.

And there’s plenty of income to go around — palm sales in the U.S. alone can reach $4.5 million. That disparity, along with the need for sustainable palm harvesting, motivated University of Minnesota’s Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management to get involved in palm harvesting. Their Eco-Palms project promotes sustainable palm harvesting. From the picking of the fronds, to how they are packaged, to how they are sold, to how they even look, Eco-Palms are different.

It starts with the xaterros. To encourage ecologically-friendly harvesting practices, Eco-Palms pays them based on the quality of their palms, not the quantity. Xaterros are trained on how to select palms in a way that preserves the health of the tree and makes them acceptable for sale.

Eco-Palms program also engages palm harvesting communities in sorting and packaging their palms, keeping that income within their communities. In the community of Carmelita, in Guatemala, women often do the sorting. The women select palms based on size, color, absence of blemishes, holes or other deformities, and the distance between the leaves on the frond. The good palms are packaged in bundles of 20, trimmed, banded together and labeled. Some palms are still rejected, but instead of going to waste they get taken back to the forest for composting.

From the palm community, the palms are bought by Continental Floral Greens and sold through Hermes Floral, a Twin Cities-based floral wholesaler. Then Lutheran World Relief works with The University of Minnesota, by encouraging churches to use Eco-Palms during Holy Week.

Palm fronds stacked
Eco-palms are selected based on size, color, absence of blemishes, holes or other deformities, and the distance between the leaves on the frond. The good palms are packaged in bundles of 20, trimmed, banded together and labeled.

This year our goal is to get one million Eco-Palms in churches. One million palms connecting congregations like yours to xaterros and community members who were paid fairly to sustainably harvest, sort and package them while assuring the highest quality palm.

And there is one more benefit. A 5 cent social premium added to each Eco-Palms bundle goes directly to the palm harvesting community. Last year’s Eco-Palm sales were 10 percent higher than the previous year, which equaled an additional $48,200 to communities for things like healthcare, education and overall community improvement.

Help us reach our one million Eco-Palms goal. Order Eco-Palms for your congregation’s Palm Sunday celebration today!

Nikki Massie is LWR’s Staff Writer

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