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North Carolina conservationist helps promote Eco-Palms

Social justice product embraced by many Presbyterian churches

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dennis Testerman, center, is a longtime promoter of Eco-Palms. He is seen here in Guatemala, where some of the plants are grown. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — With roots in a historic family farm in rural Appalachia with an old-growth forest, the Rev. Dennis Testerman is deeply connected to the natural environment and the need to care for it.

So it’s no wonder that the North Carolina conservationist has an affinity for the Eco-Palms initiative, which provides churches with palm fronds from Central American communities (and previously Mexico) that practice sustainable harvesting.

“The (family) farm in general is the place where God first became real to me, and the forest has been an inspiration and a refuge all of my life — from childhood into adulthood,” said Testerman, Stewardship of Creation Enabler for the Presbytery of Charlotte. The woods and East Tennessee farm also “inspired my undergraduate studies in forestry and in environmental conservation, and later on inspired my seminary work as well.”

For the past several years, Testerman has helped the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) promote Eco-Palms for use on Palm Sunday, which commemorates the day when a joyous crowd, waving palm branches, greeted Jesus as he made his entrance into Jerusalem (John 12:12-13).

Thousands of congregations nationwide, including Testerman’s local church, Caldwell Presbyterian in Charlotte, use the palms.

Eco-Palms are a project of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management (CINRAM), which works with the Rainforest Alliance TREES program and SmartWood to certify palms for sale to Christian congregations in the United States.

Others that have been involved include wholesaler Continental Floral Greens and distributors Greenwing and Hermes Floral.

“The first year we sold palms was 2005, which was a pilot sale primarily in Minnesota and North Dakota,” said CINRAM’s program director, Dean Current. “That year we sold about 5,000 fronds, and now, we are selling close to a million fronds annually. PC(USA)– and Lutheran World Relief-affiliated church congregations are the largest purchasers of Eco-Palms and have been for many years.”

Because the sustainable forest products are eco-friendly and provide an economic boost for the participating Central American communities, buying Eco-Palms is “the next best thing to buying local,” Testerman said.

In 2019, more than 1,000 PC(USA) congregations joined nearly 5,000 other congregations in ordering Eco-Palms. The deadline to order for Palm Sunday 2020 is March 13.

“Especially in churches that are already interested in fair trade and sustainability, it’s just a great thing to come alongside what they’re already doing,” said Jessica Maudlin, Associate for Sustainable Living and Earth Care Concerns for the Presbyterian Hunger Program (PHP).

The Hunger Program helps promote Eco-Palms because the project aligns with PHP’s desire to address the root causes of hunger and systemic poverty, in keeping with the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Matthew 25 invitation. PHP also believes that people should have opportunities to earn a living in dignity, honoring ways that don’t harm their communities.

Testerman first heard about Eco-Palms a number of years ago at an eco-justice conference and learned of plans to market them to churches. He began working with a then-graduate student from the University of Minnesota and Current on local distribution. He also was instrumental in bringing visitors from palm-producing communities to North Carolina to talk about the benefits of the Eco-Palms initiative.

Testerman was part of an ecumenical delegation that traveled to South America and Mexico to visit some of the palm-producing communities.

“One of the things that’s really impressive is that job opportunities and the leadership opportunities have been opened up for women,” he said. “The women are in the key processing and production roles in a number of the communities that we visited.”

There also was “better health care because the communities could afford access to health care,” he said. In addition, they were able to improve their diets and “raise the bar in terms of their own production capacity in those communities.”

So, buying Eco-Palms is about more than just waving fronds on Palm Sunday.

The women are being empowered, and “when you have people who are empowered, it doesn’t just stay in the warehouse,” Maudlin said. “That spills out into the community and into families.”

To order Eco-Palms or get more information, go here or here.


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