Yesterday was Palm Sunday, and I am happy to report that our “palms” are eco friendly: we had one of our workers climb up the wall to one of our smaller palm trees and cut a couple branches.

These workers then showed our granddaughter Ruby how to weave them into several designs, including one that is a “grasshopper”, where the central spin was left intact but the two sides of the branch were woven into a bug like design.

She waved the grasshopper on it’s branch at church, and the kids in the choir loft threw down Bougainvillea flowers at those in the procession.

The big procession was after we left (Lolo can’t walk that far). The float with a statue of Jesus sitting on a donkey is followed by a band playing dirges and the congregation all waving their various palm branches.

For those who are not spry enough to climb to get a palm branch, you could buy a woven fan of branches from the vendors for 17 pesos (about 34 cents).

After Mass, we take the branches home and place them behind the crucifix or statues in our houses: palms are symbolically a reminder of Christ’s passion and death.

But palm trees don’t grow in much of the US, so this year’s big story is (tah dah!) Ecofriendly palms.

Google news carries over 200 stories about churches that have decided to buy only eco friendly palm branches, because “…a few years ago, after reading on the Internet about harvesters who pillage forests and take advantage of workers, Thomas suggested that the church use Eco-Palms…”

Let’s translate this into a reality check.

How does one “pillage forests” for palm branches?

Clear cutting forests to get valuable hard wood trees is common in the tropics (such illegal logging in the Philippines is alas common). Usually the illegal loggers bribe the local authorities, then hire some poor locals to cut down everything in sight, making dirt roads through the mess and move on before the higher authorities find out what is going on. The locals pocket the pay and go back to farming– until a typhoon comes along and causes a mudslide that devastates their village.

But why would one “pillage forests” for palm branches, risking snakebite, injury, and having to make roads for branches that are sold fairly cheaply and after all must be fresh on arrival?  Sorry, it just doesn’t seem to be profitable, at least on a large scale, even if you sell the cocolumbar (which is too soft for most uses).

Palm trees grow all over the place.We cut them down all the time, because if we don’t, they grow huge. Last year we had to cut down our beautiful 30 foot tall palm trees in our front garden this year because of the danger of coconuts falling down on passing traffic, not to mention the danger to our workers who climb up the trees to harvest coconuts for our own use.

Which bring up another part of the “eco-friendly” agenda: not killing the trees to get the branches. I agree.

But are the ecoists worried about not killing men to get the palm branches? Do the ecoists supply ladders or “cherry pickers” type lifts to harvest the fronds?

Enquiring minds want to know…

As for “exploiting the workers”, what are these workers being paid? And how does this compare to local wages?

These “eco friendly” initiatives resemble the “livelihood” projects that we have here in the Philippines, where grants from the government or NGO’s subcontract organic food or handicraft projects to the small rural villages: these projects allow farmers and their families to make a bit of extra cash without having to send a relative to Manila or Saudi to work so that they have enough money for school fees and uniforms. Good for them.

But it is not a long term answer for either the farmers or the countries involved.

Why? Because of a dirty word: Profit.

That dirty word is not in the newspaper articles about those “ecofriendly” palms.

I couldn’t find stories about the US palm farmers, such as those in this 1988 article, who are probably now out of business, thanks to the NAFTA. Nor are there stories of who in Mexico has been supplying the non green palm fronds, and if their businesse are going belly up thanks to these NGO’s

Nor are there stories about the huge overhead: shipping over dirt roads from these isolated communities to the city.

From an economic standpoint, it is probably a lot more efficient to invest in a medium sized farm or a farm coop near the road, and help them to plant a “palm plantation” to supply fronds for Palm Sunday, and biodiesel for the rest of the year.

I am less familiar with Mexico than here, but the main problem in the Philippines is poverty and corruption: and the two go hand in hand. Get jobs to make the middle class larger, and this new middle class tends to learn the value system of the Protestant work ethic (even if they are Catholic, Muslim or Buddhist), and the end result is that the corruption level goes down and the prosperity level goes up. Globalism is changing the power structure from a feudal economy run by a  few rich families to a working class business economy, that eventually spreads wealth around.

So I am happy that churches are buying only eco friendly fair trade practice palms, but I am also cynical: for that this type of business is not the answer to poverty in the long run.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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