As thousands of Christians re-enact Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, many will be celebrating with fair-trade palm fronds.
About 640,000 palm fronds, ordered through the University of Minnesota's eco-palms program, will be distributed this Sunday in some 2,500 congregations.
That's a jump from 360,000 eco-palms that were shipped to U.S. congregations last year and from just 5,000 palms in 2005.
"We believe that God created the Earth, and it's our job to preserve it the best we can," said Laura Hudson, the administrator at Columbus' Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, which ordered about 300 fronds, as reported by The Associated Press.
The eco-palms program was developed by the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (NACEC) and the University of Minnesota Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management (CINRAM).
The university's researcher, Dean Current, was hired in 2002 to study the palm trade between the United States and Mexico and Guatemala. Current found that many were overharvesting and villagers were being paid by the volume regardless of quality.
Communities in Mexico and Guatemala have now been trained to be more selective when cutting fronds and have adopted other harvesting practices that minimize impact on the natural forest.
Moreover, villagers are paid a fair price and rewarded for the quality of palms they harvest. Palm fronds are also sorted and bundled by women in the local communities rather than in a distant warehouse.
The added job opportunities and more livable income make it less likely for villagers to cut down the rainforest to establish farms.
"By ordering palms through this program for the upcoming Easter Celebration, you will show forest communities in Guatemala and Mexico that people are willing to pay for a better environment and a more just distribution of benefits from non-timber forest products," CINRAM states on its website.
The eco-palms project has grown into a $4.5 million business.
The cost of eco-palms is more than double the cost of other fronds, but some of the funds are directed toward helping the local harvesting communities with social or development projects such as building schools.
And more U.S. churches are willing to pay the steeper price.
"We're using creation responsibly, in addition to celebrating Palm Sunday," Scott Jewett, a seminary student in Bexley, Ohio, told AP. "And as far as I know, nobody really has a problem with it."
On the Web: eco-palms