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Presbyterian Hunger Program receives news on the Eco-Palms project in Guatemala

Organizations working with communities look to expand the program

By Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service

Jose Carrera, Jose Porras and Dr. Dean Current recently visited the Presbyterian Hunger Program offices to discuss the future of the Eco-Palm program with staff. (Photo by Rick Jones)

LOUISVILLE – Churches across the U.S. have proven to be a major source of income for a handful of communities in Guatemala through the celebration of Palm Sunday. The annual purchase of palm branches through the Eco-Palms program is helping residents living in the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

Now, several organizations working to improve the lives of residents in and around the rain forest, are working to expand the opportunities. Recently, representatives from The Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management (CINRAM), Continental Floral Greens and Latin America Partnership and Development met with the Presbyterian Hunger Program to discuss the status of Eco-Palms and ideas for new projects and markets.

The reserve is Central America’s largest area of protected tropical forest and is also home to more than 180,000 people.

“We want to increase the number of churches participating in the Eco-Palm program because it is a tremendous benefit to the communities and we also want to start a community development fund for the Maya Biosphere Reserve,” said Dr. Dean Current, with CINRAM. “This involves 5 million acres of rain forest that are being protected by the communities themselves.”

Men typically go into the forest and cut carefully selected leaves, while women manage quality control of the palms, sorting, cleaning, and packaging. Reina Valenzuela Barias has been able to send all of her four children through college with the money she earned from Eco-Palms. (Photo provided)

Last year, more than a million palm fronds were sold to churches providing $50,000 for five communities in Guatemala. The money goes to improve the standard of living for residents as well as provide educational opportunities for children.

“We are thinking about ways to generate funding and diversify the work that’s being done in these communities,” said Current. “They’ve done well with the palms, but we would also like to see new projects as well.”

Over the years, the over-harvest of palms has damaged the forests and depleted resources for residents. Through Eco-Palms, the harvesting is done in a way that protects the forest and provides harvesters a fair price.

“We’ve been able to work with a group of partners, to look at the palm market and help churches get involved with both the social justice and environmental issues of the region,” said Current. “This is a great example of what you can do in both conserving the forest and development and improving livelihoods.”

The three organizations have been meeting with various Christian denominations in hopes of helping the communities expand their offerings.

“These people protect the rain forests, but they don’t have access to health, education and many of the things they should have,” said Jose Porras, chief financial officer with Continental Floral Greens. “They’re doing their part, but they need our help to meet their needs as humans. We wanted to do something bigger. Eco-Palms is a great program and we hope to see it expand, but even doubling the money would not be close to what the people need in order to make a decent living.”

The group told PHP that communities are also working to produce other items including Christmas wreaths and baskets for floral arrangements.

“The good thing about these communities is they are not asking to be given these new tools for free; they’re asking for a chance to work and provide new opportunities in those communities,” said Porras. “They’re willing to work, but there is currently not enough to keep everyone busy. If they leave to find new work, the rain forest takes a hit because they wouldn’t be there to protect it.”

Not only do the organizations hope to increase funds to the participating communities but expand the number of communities involved.

“We want to increase the market shares so more communities can get involved in the work. With more churches, we will be able to include more communities,” said Jose Carrera, director of Latin America Partnership and Development. “This could be the most important solution for communities to protect forests, provide livelihoods, generate new employment and improve education.”

Carrera says most of the communities don’t have high schools and the only way for young people to get an education is through the scholarships provided by the Eco-Palms project.

“We need to be able to provide an opportunity for someone to get that education, graduate high school and go to college,” said Porras. “If one person is able to do it, then others will see that it is possible.”

But young people aren’t the only ones to benefit. Current says approximately 20 percent of the women in the five communities are involved in the palm selection and packing process.

“There was a group of women who were being supervised by men and they decided they could do a better job and basically kicked the men out,” said Current. “It has been empowering because this is one of the only sources of cash income and these jobs were not there for women before and they didn’t have a lot of opportunities.”

The Eco-Palms project in Guatemala is currently in its 12th year. The groups are hoping to expand opportunities to 19 additional communities in the coming years.

“We are thankful for this partnership with the University of Minnesota, Continental Floral Greens and the Rainforest Alliance,” said Jessica Maudlin, associate for Sustainable Living and Earth Care Concerns with PHP. “The Eco-Palms project is just one more way that allows the Presbyterian Hunger Program to offer Presbyterian churches an opportunity to combine their purchasing power with faithful witness and put into action God’s vision of a livable community for all.”

The Presbyterian Hunger Program is made possible by donations to the One Great Hour of Sharing.

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