Ritual takes a progressive turn with `eco-palms'

April 02, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

To answer the question "What Would Jesus Do?" on Palm Sunday, an increasing number of churches have a new answer: fair-trade fronds.

The re-enactment of Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem is traditionally marked annually by the feverish fluttering of palm fronds at services worldwide to usher in Holy Week, which ends with Easter Sunday.

In Catonsville for the first time yesterday, more than 100 worshipers at Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church waved "eco-palms" shaped liked giant hands as a congregant dressed as Jesus entered the sanctuary up the center aisle. The celebration was part of a growing nationwide effort to support religious products that benefit the environment as well as the indigenous communities in developing nations.

"Isn't it wonderful?" said Betty Ruff, who has attended services at Salem for more than 50 years. "I just thought they were lovely. And if that's what we need to do, I'm all for it."

The movement started with a pilot program at the University of Minnesota two years ago with 20 churches in the Midwest that purchased 5,000 palms. This year, with substantial support from Baltimore-based Lutheran World Relief, organizers said 364,000 palms were bought by churches in every state save Hawaii - and even a congregation at a U.S. Air Force base in Japan.

The palms bought for services yesterday are environmentally friendly because the fronds are harvested with far less waste than traditional methods. The number of eco-friendly palms still pales in comparison to the estimated 300 million fronds produced each year in Guatemala and Mexico for sale to the United States, but fair-trade supporters see substantial growth, setting a target of 1 million fronds.

Putting their dollars behind their beliefs, fair-trade advocates believe that farmers in Third World countries should receive a fair price for their goods, work under progressive labor conditions and sell their goods without an excessive number of middlemen who can strip the profits for those workers in the field.

Fair-trade enthusiasts are usually willing to pay more for goods so that agricultural laborers will practice environmentally sustainable harvesting techniques and, in some cases, receive a "social premium" on top of the normal price to improve their communities.

The approach is not without its critics. According to some conservatives, it's a potentially destructive subsidy that can prevent growth based on real market conditions.

"Americans' freedom and prosperity are being sacrificed on the altar of fair trade. Each year protectionists discover new moral pretexts for further restricting how American citizens may spend their paychecks," James Bovard, author of The Myth of Fair Trade, wrote for the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington.

Some on the left have also blasted fair trade for not going far enough to rein in the free-market trading system.

Supporters reject that thinking, saying eco-fronds protect the environment and enrich the communities where they are cultivated.

Typically, palm harvesting is done by community members hired by large floral export firms.

"Payment is based on volume, so the harvesters are motivated to gather a large number of palms, without regard for the quality," said Brenda Meier, the parish projects coordinator for Lutheran World Relief.

Last year, Meier visited palm-harvesting communities in Guatemala and Mexico before her organization fully endorsed the program.

She learned that half of the harvested palm fronds would have to be discarded because of inferior quality.

But according to Kattie Somerfeld, who also works on the issue for Lutheran World Relief, "with fair trade, the amount of waste has been reduced to 5 percent."

Non-oil palm plants are used for religious ceremonies, party decorations, and food and household products.

The University of Minnesota reports that at least half of the farmers in the Central Peten of Guatemala earn an additional income from harvesting fronds, and more than a quarter of household heads support themselves exclusively by collecting fronds.

Some churches have reportedly spent double the cost on buying eco-fronds, which also include a 5 cent per frond social premium for community development. This year a small case of 200 stems costs $47.50.

But the Rev. G. Edward Whetstone said Salem actually spent half the amount of money it doled out last year to buy this year's bundles of eco-fronds.

Congregants after the 11 a.m. service yesterday praised the eco-friendly palms, which are more full than skinny, conventional fronds, which are shaped more like a yardstick.

"Lutherans are supposed to believe in good stewardship," said Michael Fitch, a member of Salem for the past five years. "These palms reflect that."

Added Marcia Schuett, who will officially become a member of Salem next month: "It's also about grace. We have an obligation to help one another as Jesus would have done."

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

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