Excerpt

Is Palm Sunday a Rainforest Killer?

For years, Latin Americans were stripping the landscape bare to sell palm leaves to US florists and churches, until an eco-friendly Guatemala program turned things around.

03.20.16 4:00 AM ET

I sat in the passenger seat of Juan Trujillo’s pickup truck, careening through a dense forest in northern Guatemala. The road we were driving on—and I use the word road here with some hesitation—was simply a deeply grooved dirt trail that had been coarsely etched through the jungle so that trucks like this one could travel between the town of Flores, a lovely little place overrun by tourists on an island in the middle of a scenic lake, and the many tiny villages and Mayan ruins that dot the northern jungles. Rains had turned parts of the road into muddy mush, and the trip was about as smooth as the swirling teacup ride at Disneyland. I was being jarred in all directions, my head occasionally thumping up against the roof of the truck, as I tried to do some basic fourth-grade mathematical calculations using the numbers that I had written down in my little notebook at the village we’d just departed.

In that village—it’s called Carmelita—as in several other villages in the northern Guatemalan region of Petén, farmers make a modest living by selling products harvested from the forest itself. These include both wood products and nonwood products like pepper, a tree gum called chicle that is used to make chewing gum, and ramón, a seed that apparently the Mayans munched on while constructing their intricate temples and that the Guatemalan chamber of commerce would like to market as the next international superfood of the 21st century. The farmers also tend to various types of palm trees. Not the tall, swaying, tropical, coconut-bearing palm trees of Southern California or Miami Beach, but squat little plants and bushes that sit in the shade of the forest and whose leaves are harvested and sent overseas to be used in floral arrangements and carried aloft by celebrants during the spring holiday of Palm Sunday.

Palm Sunday is a Christian holiday that falls on the Sunday before Easter and commemorates the day that Jesus Christ entered the holy city of Jerusalem while crowds of admirers laid down palm leaves on the ground before him.

Like most people, before I started working on this book, I had never considered for a second where the palm leaves used every year for this holiday actually come from. It turns out they come from a handful of Latin American countries, including Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico, and it also turns out that for the most part they are harvested in a haphazard fashion without any regard to the long-term sustainability of the forests. There are, however, some exceptions.

In a few select villages in northern Guatemala and the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, local farmers—with the help of savvy non-governmental environmental organizations, forward-looking governmental agencies, and a conglomeration of religious organizations in the United States that have come together under the leadership of an unassuming University of Minnesota professor to form the so-called “Eco Palm” project— have revolutionized the way that palm leaves are harvested in the region.

In February 2012, I spent a week in Guatemala and Mexico to learn about these harvesting techniques so I could understand what role religious groups have played in both creating and solving the problem of palm deforestation. But why was I furiously doing long division in the front seat of a pickup truck tromping through the Guatemalan jungle? We’ll get to that.

***

I first learned about the potentially deleterious effects of Palm Sunday on Latin American forests when a colleague pointed me to a fascinating article about a Colombian bird published in Audubon magazine. In the piece, a terrific freelance writer named Susan McGrath tells the story of the yellow-eared parrot, a glorious creature, mostly bright green with yellow patches on the side of its head, that lives in a small area in the Andes Mountains of Colombia. The yellow-eared parrot is highly sensitive and can only nest in a single type of wax palm tree. Unfortunately for these feathered fellows, however, the local church in the region where the birds live had been using this tree’s leaves for its annual Palm Sunday celebration, thus decimating the tree population and driving the parrot to the brink of extinction. When the bird’s defenders first tried to convince the town’s priest to use a different type of palm, they were not well received. Specifically, according to McGrath, the priest “blew a gasket” and “admonished parishioners to stand fast and keep using the palms.” It was only when the priest was transferred and replaced by a more flexible religious leader that the bird lovers started to make progress. In the end, the church replaced the wax palm leaves with an abundant native species called iraca (which some still oppose because it is too “puny”), and as a result the birds have made a re- markable recovery.

The Eco Palm project that I mentioned earlier is another super-awesome effort to protect the unique environment where Palm Sunday palms grow. It can circuitously be traced back to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the 1994 accord between the United States, Canada, and Mexico that eliminated tariffs and other impediments to free trade among the three countries. One argument that free trade opponents often raise is that lifting barriers to trade can sometimes harm the environment. An importing country that cares a lot about the environment, for example, cannot always insist that an exporting country do things in an environmentally friendly way as a condition on importing the exporter’s goods.

An example of this problem occurred in the mid-’90s, when the United States insisted that it would only import shrimp caught in nets with a turtle-excluding device that would prevent shrimpers from inadvertently ensnaring and killing endangered sea turtles. This requirement was fine for big, rich Western shrimpers, but for poor independent shrimpers in places like Malaysia and Pakistan, installing these turtle excluding devices was completely unfeasible (the shrimpers’ yearly income in some cases was about the same amount as the cost of one device). These small shrimpers brought a high-profile case against the United States in front of the World Trade Organization, which ultimately held for the United States, but not without placing some limits on our ability to insist on environmentally friendly processes as a precondition to importing foreign goods.

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Some environmentalists were really angry about this. If you remember back to 1999, when a loose and weird coalition of unions and environmental groups and anarchists (an- archists!) protested the WTO’s Seattle conference and caused all sorts of property damage—some called these events the Battle of Seattle—you might recall that a bunch of the protestors were dressed up as turtles. This is why.

Anyway, due to these concerns about free trade, the three NAFTA countries established an organization called the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) to study NAFTA’s environmental effects and to take steps to mitigate them. Sometime in the late ’90s, the head of the Trade and Environment Program at CEC, a woman named Chantal Line-Carpentier, became aware that palm forests in southern Mexico were being harmed by unsustainable harvesting techniques. Line-Carpentier knew that consumers in the United States are often willing to pay a premium for products they know are helping (or at least not hurting) the environment. She had previously worked on projects to harness private market demand as a way of promoting sustainably grown coffee, and she wondered whether the same approach might help the palms.

In 2000, she contacted Dean Current, a forestry economist at the University of Minnesota who had a great deal of experience with Latin American forests, and asked him if he would conduct a study to figure out whether such a thing might be possible.

At first, Current was skeptical about doing the study. As he told me when we met in his office in the University of Minnesota’s Soil Science Building in St. Paul, he is trained as an economist, not a marketer. But he eventually agreed, and along with a graduate student, he not only visited and talked to all the wholesale florists in the Twin Cities but also did a nationwide study of the entire palm importing business in the United States. He learned that although most of the demand for palms from Latin America comes from florists who use the palms as part of floral displays, churches that buy palms for Palm Sunday also make up a significant portion of the market. Plus, many of these churches seemed to be quite willing to pay a little extra for palms that were sustainably harvested, if the churches were guaranteed that the additional money would go back to the communities to support sustainable practices and other important community needs, such as education. As Current put it when I asked him if any churches refused to participate in his program, “No one says that they don’t want to pay twenty more dollars for sustainability.” And thus, the EcoPalm project was born.

The project started small. In 2005, its pilot year, Current and a graduate student took orders themselves from religious congregations in Minnesota and North Dakota and delivered a total of about five thousand palm fronds to the churches from the back of a van. Over time, however, the project grew substantially. Current brought in religious organizations like Lutheran World Relief and the Episcopal Church to spread the word to their congregations, and he had a professional florist take care of the sales and deliveries. Media stories, like one published in the New York Times in 2007, brought the project added publicity. By 2012, the project filled orders for over nine hundred thousand fronds. This was still a relatively small percentage of the palms that are used in Palm Sunday services around the country, but it marked a great advance over the situation just a few years earlier, and it meant that a good deal of money was being sent to communities in need.

It was clear from what I had read about the EcoPalm project and talking to Professor Current that I had happened upon a very cool initiative that was providing real benefits to the environment. But I still had a lot of questions. What were these harvesting techniques that the villagers were using to protect the palm forests? What do palm forests even look like? Do the villagers know who was buying their palms, and why? Most importantly, how did these select villages in Guatemala and Mexico happen to develop sustainable harvesting techniques? Did the EcoPalm project, with its promise of paying extra for sustainably harvested palms, create the incen- tive to start harvesting the palms in a sustainable fashion, or were the palms already being harvested sustainably in some places? Reading the newspaper articles about the project, I believed that the EcoPalm project itself had created the incentives. The New York Times piece, for instance, suggested that the primary consumers of the sustainably harvested palms were indeed the churches. Was religion really that important of a factor here, either in creating or solving the palm forest crisis in Latin America? I wanted to learn more. And so I traveled south.

***

In 2013, I left for Guatemala in mid-February, which is a good time to leave for Guatemala if you live in Boston, where just the week before, we had received 23 inches of snow during a single storm. I had never been to Central America, so I was a little worried about the things that people who have never actually gone to Central America tend to be worried about when they go to Central America, like whether it was safe. The assistant dean who approved my funding for the trip didn’t exactly put me at ease when he told me there was “no money in the ransom budget, so be careful.” As it turned out, though, I had no use for such funds. The trip went as smooth as can be.

One thing that made my research in Guatemala and Mexico more difficult than it needed to be was my poor language skills. My Spanish is muy crappy. I should have taken Spanish in high school, but instead I took Latin, I guess because I thought it  was more important to be able to talk with the pope than with the 350 million or so people who speak Spanish all over the world.

Anyway, a couple of years before I took this trip, for reasons I won’t get into, I decided to start studying Spanish. My university has a great perk that allows faculty members to take courses in other parts of the school for free. So one summer, I enrolled in Introduction to Spanish, along with 15 19 year olds. Let me tell you, when you’re an old guy and you take a class with a bunch of kids who were born after you graduated from college and who are constantly playing with their phones while the teacher is talking and who drink 24-ounce Red Bulls at nine in the morning, it’s really weird. I kept expecting them to ask me to buy them beer (they never did). Well, long story short, I ended up taking three semesters of Spanish this way, and although I certainly did learn something (witness the magnificent and heart-warming semester-ending play in which two of my teenaged classmates and I reimagined the ending to the hit biopic Selena), my Spanish still leaves a whole lot to be desired.

After about 12 hours of flying and sitting around at the Guatemala City airport, my turboprop airplane touched down at the tiny Flores airport, where I was met by Juan Trujillo, a squat, barrel- chested guy who works for a great NGO called Rainforest Alliance, where his official title is non-timber forest products coordinator. Juan is originally from the village of Carmelita (the place we were coming back from when I was trying to do my math), and his career has taken him back and forth from running the nontimber products cooperative in the village to working in the city for the NGO. While I was in Guatemala, Juan worked 12-hour days and drove his truck for what seemed like thousands of miles to help me understand what was going on in his country. Because Juan’s English is about as good as my Spanish, however, he brought along Celeste, a young woman with excellent English whose prior translating job was with a United Nations soldier force in Haiti. There was some trouble getting me to my hotel, as a religious procession for some saint had closed down some of the roads on the island, but before long, I was checked into a decent if a bit grungy place called Hotel Casazul, where I practiced my terrible Spanish with the lady in charge to try to figure out how to access the Wi-Fi system (I failed).

***

The schedule for my three days in Petén was jam-packed with travel to isolated villages and meetings with NGO people, government representatives, and others involved in the palm trade. Over the course of these busy days, I tried to figure out what was really going on with the palms in Guatemala the best I could, but it was not always easy.

Part of the problem was the language—even though my translator was great, speaking (and listening) through her was not the same as speaking directly to the people who were explain- ing things, and much meaning inevitably got lost. I also came with various preconceptions from my reading and just my general background, and some of these preconceptions were difficult to shake.

I gained some key understanding early on, fortunately, over breakfast by the lake with Juan Trujillo and José Román Carrera, a bigwig at the Rainforest Alliance for Central America and the Caribbean. I had simply assumed that the villages I was about to visit were all on privately owned land. In fact, as Carrera explained to me, the villages are all located on land that is owned by the government.

Specifically, the villages are all within the Mayan Biosphere Reserve, a 21,000-square-kilometer government-owned area that was set aside in 1990 to protect the extremely valuable forest resources of northern Guatemala. A government agency known as CONAP manages the area, which is split up into three types of land designations—core zones, the primary ecological sites where nobody is supposed to do anything that would harm the forests; buffer zones, where some farming is allowed; and multiple-use zones, where the government may enter into concession agreements with communities to do certain types of more invasive activities, including harvesting of timber and nontimber products like the palms.

Beginning in the mid-2000s, CONAP entered into concession agreements with at least a dozen community organizations within the multiple-use zones to allow the communities, under very specific terms and with extensive monitoring, to harvest and sell various wood and nonwood products. The arrangement has been incredibly successful. According to Carrera, the rate of deforestation in the community areas is twenty times less than in the rest of the reserve, even than in the core zones, which are supposed to be pristine. This last part took me a while to understand, I have to admit. In the United States, a protected zone like a wilderness area or a national monument is almost guaranteed to be in pretty good shape, ecologically. But in northern Guatemala, the supposedly unspoiled lands are often destroyed by narco-traffickers, who clear huge swaths of land out of the forest and who the government is either unable or unwilling to stop. In the communities, however, where the villagers know that the health of the forest is critical to their own future (and where the government and the NGOs provide them with a lot of help), the forests remain more or less protected.

By this time, I was incredibly eager to actually visit one of these villages, so as soon as the first of about 15 meals of eggs and tortillas and beans I would consume on the trip was finished, we set off for the village of Uaxactun (pronounced kind of like “Washington”). A community of about a thousand people approximately 90 kilometers north of Flores, Uaxactun is located near a set of impressive Mayan ruins (for what it’s worth, the sequel to the original Activision videogame hit Pitfall, known as Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure, was apparently based here). Our group included Juan, Celeste, Jorge Sosa (one of the greatest guys ever), and me. A 30-year forestry veteran who works for the association of forest communities called ACOFOP (Asociación de Comunidades Fore- stales de Petén), Sosa knows the name of every tree, seed, and leaf in the forest and wears a white sombrero at all times. Everyone loves Jorge Sosa, even though they all give him grief about the hat. With his dark features and slight frame and that hat, he looks like somebody out of an old movie, so I surreptitiously tried to take as many pictures of him as I could. I even drew a little sketch of him in my notebook and still entertain plans of painting a portrait of him someday, if I ever start painting again.

The drive to Uaxactun took about three hours, during which time I kept my eyes peeled for jaguars and monkeys and other exotic Guatemalan fauna frolicking in the forest. Sadly, I did not see so much as an interesting spider during my entire trip. We arrived in the village around midday. It was a charming place. The main living area consisted of a series of little houses surrounding a cleared-out rectangular area maybe three football fields long, which had been used as an airstrip at one time. Pigs and horses and dogs ran freely around; kids were playing in the field and looking at me with my pen and little notebook as if I were a weirdo.

Indian Christian devotees collect palm fronds for a Palm Sunday service at Wesley Church in Secunderabad, the twin city of Hyderabad, on March 29, 2015.  Palm Sunday marks the sixth and last Sunday of the Christian Holy month of Lent and the beginning of Holy Week.   AFP PHOTO / Noah SEELAM        (Photo credit should read NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)

Noah Seelam/Getty

I was escorted into a small wooden house, painted green with a tin roof and concrete floor. There I met with four community leaders who explained how palm harvesting had changed in the village over the past ten years. There were three men and a woman. One of the men looked remarkably like a darker version of Burt Reynolds in Cannonball Run, and this distracted me several times during our conversation because I kept expecting Dom DeLuise to show up. The four villagers explained to me how before they entered into a concession agreement with CONAP in the mid-2000s, the xateros (in Guatemala, the palms are called xate and the palm-cutters are called xateros) would cut as many palms as they could as fast as they could, because the buyers paid for the palms solely by quantity. The buyers would pay the xateros very little and then send the palms on to Guatemala City, where an exporter would sell them to overseas distributors. As a result, the xateros were destroying the forests.

Beginning in 2005, however, the village, along with government and NGO forest engineers, developed a management plan that totally changed how the palms were harvested. Now, the community’s forest is divided into four zones. Harvesters are allowed to cut palms in only one of the four zones at a time and only for 30 days, after which they must move to a different zone. Consequently, the palms in each zone get 90 days to recuperate before harvesters return to cut some more. Also, the xateros were trained to cut the palm leaves in a way that benefits the palms. Instead of cutting all of the plant’s leaves, regardless of their quality, the xateros now only cut the leaves that are good enough to be sold overseas. Leaves that have holes, or that are yellowed, or that are otherwise  flawed are left alone; they may not be perfect enough to be put into a floral display or carried on Palm Sunday, but they are still very important for the health of the plant and thus the forest and the entire ecosystem.

The community sells the palms directly to an importer in the United States (how this came about is an important part of the story, one that I did not learn about until later on in the week, so stay tuned), and to ensure that the xateros are only cutting the good leaves from the plants, the harvesters must bring the bags of leaves to the bodega de xate, a special building where village women sort through the leaves, note how many of the leaves received from each xatero are good ones, and decide how much each xatero will get paid for his harvest. The part about the women being the ones who run the sorting part of the operation is universal in these sustainably harvesting communities, and it is one of the great benefits of the new approach to palm harvesting. Before these developments, women in the village were often unemployed, but now they participate in the work of the community while also bringing home extra money to help their families.

Once I got the gist of what was going on, I asked about the contribution of the U.S. churches to the village. After all, although I was learning a lot of fascinating stuff about internal Guatemalan conservation efforts, my original goal in studying these changes was to understand whether and how religious groups in the United States have contributed both to the problems and to the solutions here in Latin America. The villagers were extremely positive about their relationship with the EcoPalm project. According to the four people I was meeting with, the churches had given the community a great deal of extra money above and beyond the normal price of the palms. (I had not yet gotten into exact amounts—this was what would end up getting me all flummoxed and doing long division on the way home from Carmelita.) The community has used the money for all sorts of things—not only to keep up its forest man- agement practices and to get those practices certified by Rainforest Alliance (which the government requires), but also for infrastructure and education. In the past, for instance, the villagers used the money to hire teachers for older students and to put a concrete floor into a school so the children wouldn’t have to study on dirt.

Our next stop was the bodega de xate, a long, open warehouse constructed from wooden slats painted turquoise and  topped with a tin roof. On the side of the bodega, a group of students had painted a mural depicting the steps of the palm harvesting and selling process—from a xatero cutting the palms in the forest, to a woman selecting the usable palms in the warehouse, to a truck transporting the palms to a refrigerated room in Guatemala City, where they are stored before being sent overseas. Inside the bodega, a dozen wooden tables were covered with palms, some in rough piles, unsorted, just in from the forest, and others in neat stacks of uniform bundles of 20 palms each. Burt Reynolds and some of his friends showed me how they wrap 30 bundles together in brown paper to make a package of 600 fronds—the basic unit in which the palms are exported. An older woman wearing a short blue skirt and a black top explained how she sorts through the just-harvested palms and throws the ones that are too small or misshapen or otherwise flawed on the ground. The woman’s name was Raina Isabel Valenzuela, and she showed me a notebook in which she keeps careful notes about how many bad palms each xatero brings in. She claimed that before the harvesters instituted the new sorting system, nearly 85 percent of the harvested palms were unusable; now, she said, very few are discarded. If the records show that a xatero has been bringing in too many unusable leaves, then the villagers will have a talk with him, because every unusable leaf that is cut from a tree harms the forest without getting anything for the village in return.

Although it would take until the Mexico part of my trip for me to really hike into a forest to see these palms in their natural habitat, we did take a walk to the edge of the forest in Uaxactun, where Jorge Sosa and the guys showed me the different kinds of palms that are grown there. Only the so-called xate jade—a frond of about 18 to 24 inches with maybe 12 or 14 leaves on each frond—are really exported in serious numbers. There are a couple of other types as well, including one called fish tail (cola de piscado), which looks like the tail of a fish, and a narrower palm called the xate hembra. The narrower palm used to sell but now, much to the chagrin of the villagers, has become nearly impossible to export. (At one point, the villagers pulled me over and implored me to convince more of my fellow Americans to import this type of palm—which is what I’m doing here, now, in this sentence.) The villagers also gave me a little primer on how they cut the palms to keep the forest healthy (don’t cut the principal stem, only cut leaves of a certain size) before we had to say our farewells and hit the so-called road back to Flores.

***

Although my days were filled with activities planned by Juan and the other good folks at Rainforest Alliance, I did get a little time at night to relax by myself. My hotel room had a nice balcony overlooking the lake, so I sat out there as the sun went down, reviewing my notes and drinking a can of Gallo, the national beer whose label sports a squawking rooster. Being a tourist town, Flores has a lot of really good restaurants, so that night, I went to an Italian place with a leafy terrace. I sat down on the far right of a tiny bar with only three stools. While I was drinking another Gallo and waiting for my dinner, a gray cat jumped up onto the far left stool and sat down. I said hello to the cat. The cat ignored me. Then the waiter put a shot glass with a piece of ice in front of the cat, and the cat licked it. I sipped my beer. The cat licked the ice. Together we drank in silence.

***

Juan and I got on the road to Carmelita the next day early enough that when we arrived, the first thing we did was eat breakfast. This is the village where Juan is from, so he knew just whose house to go to for a morning meal. We sat in someone’s outdoor thatched-roof kitchen, chickens wandering around clucking, the radio playing Spanish music (including, unbelievably, “Macarena”) in the background. A wood stove was heating up a metal plate on which was set a large pot of water that we dipped our cups into for instant coffee. The coffee situation was puzzling to me at first. Guatemala is one of the great coffee-producing countries in the world—indeed, when I left on my trip, I had a big bag of Peet’s Guatemalan coffee in my cabinet at home—but all of the coffee I had been served since arriving was instant or otherwise not too good. Somebody explained the obvious to me later on in the trip—the people who harvest the coffee are poor, so they need to sell the best coffee to big companies that can sell the coffee to people like me in the United States, who will buy it for three dollars a cup, which means that the coffee that’s left in Guatemala for the coffee harvesters to drink is fairly terrible. But the eggs and beans and tortillas that Juan’s friend cooked up for us on the outdoor wood stove were definitely delicious. While we ate, Jorge and Juan chatted about their many grandchildren and how hard it can be to get kids to stop looking at some kind of screen, which is something I think about all the time when I’m back at home. Carmelita is a bit smaller and farther out than Uaxactun, but it was otherwise quite similar. As in Uaxactun, we started by meeting the village leaders to discuss their new harvesting techniques (which are much the same as in the previous village) and what they purchased with the extra money donated by the churches (not just education, but health benefits, life insurance, fire protection, and even coffins). Then we hit the bodega de xate. It was here that I started confusing myself with numbers and math. I had realized by this second day in Guatemala that my original notion of the relationship between the EcoPalm project and the development  of sustainable harvesting practices was not correct. The EcoPalm project itself was not, as I had originally assumed, the cause of these sustainable practices. Instead, the villagers (with help from the government and NGOs) had developed the sustainable practices independently, and then the churches in the United States basically decided to invest in the villages by agreeing to buy palms from the Guatemalans for a premium. But how much of an investment were we talking? Have the churches been a major player in supporting these villages, or did religion just have a bit part?

I asked the woman who was showing me around the bodega how many more palms the villagers sell around Palm Sunday than they sell during the rest of the year. She told me they tend to sell about 200 extra packages during those weeks. At 600 palm fronds per package, that’s an additional 120,000 palms for the holiday. Each package costs, on average, about $12. So far, so good. But when I asked how much the churches paid as a premium, I thought she said that the churches pay an additional sustainability bonus of five cents for every dollar that they pay in total for the palms. Now, I have never been all that good in math, so I couldn’t really process the numbers in my head, but I started to think that maybe we weren’t talking about that much money. This concern was nagging at me while Celeste, Juan, Jorge, and I were eating lunch on the patio of one of the villagers’ homes. As I nibbled at a chicken leg served in a bowl of soup with rice and potatoes and worried about whether the red Kool-Aid that I was drinking from a small plastic glass with a smiling cow on it was made with purified water, I started to wonder whether I had come all this way to Central America to research a program that was donating but a piddling amount to the sustainability of this critical ecosystem.

And so that’s why I was trying to do some basic math in Juan’s truck as the four of us—Juan and I up front and Jorge and Celeste in the backseat—bounced our way out of Carmelita and back toward Flores. It was a strange ride for other reasons, too. As usual, dogs and turkeys and pigs were all over the road; several chickens crossed the road, seemingly, truly, just to get to the other side. At several points, Juan pulled over to pick up random people to give them a lift in the flatbed. I guess this is just the custom where we were, although I was a little worried about the six- or seven-year-old kid who must have been flying around the flatbed as the truck jumped over the road’s bumps and grooves. Apparently, Guatemala doesn’t have the same laws that we do in the United States—that is, laws that require kids to sit in car seats until they’re old enough to get a learner’s permit.

Anyway, according to my calculations, if the churches paid 12 bucks per package for 200 packages and paid an extra five cents per dollar, then the sum total contribution of the churches to the Carmelita community was about $120 per year (0.05 x 12 x 200). I did this calculation three times and then fell into despair. I knew the village was pretty poor, but seriously, how many pencils, pens, and coffins could $120 actually buy? Luckily, at this point I decided to check my understanding with Juan and Jorge. It took a while for me to explain myself, for everyone to be sure that the translation was accurate (translating mathematical relations and equations is no easy matter), and for Juan and Jorge   to understand that I was totally off base. But ultimately they assured me that the churches paid five cents extra per frond, not five cents extra per dollar otherwise spent. In other words, instead of paying about 12 bucks per package, the churches paid about $42 for every package, or about a total of $6,000 extra per year (0.05 x 600 x 200). I can’t tell you how relieved this made me; with four communities in Petén selling nearly equal amounts of palms to the U.S. churches, this means that the churches are contributing something like $25,000 extra per year to the Guatemalan forests, which, as the economists will tell you, is not chump change (and this amount doesn’t even include the money donated to Mexican villages).

Excerpted from When God Isn’t Green: A World-Wide Journey to Places Where Religious Practice and Environmentalism Collide by Jay Wexler (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with Permission from Beacon Press.