Bogota, Colombia With a sprinkling of holy water, a priest blessed thousands of palm seedlings in a ceremony Friday in Bogota's main park, sealing an unusual Palm Sunday pact between the Roman Catholic Church and environmentalists to save a critically endangered parrot.
Thousands of miles away, 22 churches in the United States are for the first time using environmentally sustainable palm from Guatemala and Mexico for their Palm Sunday services today.
This convergence of religion and ecology is taking root across scattered areas of the globe amid heightened environmental awareness among some church leaders. More than 300 million palm fronds are harvested each year for U.S. consumption alone -- most of them for Palm Sunday.
"Most Christians wake up on a Palm Sunday, look at the beautiful greenery but don't think about where it's being grown and whether forests and people are being affected," said Glenn Berg-Moberg, pastor of an 800-member Lutheran church in St. Paul, Minn. "The largest single demand of palm fronds is for Palm Sunday, so we feel we need to be responsible in how we are treating the forest."
The plan is to buy certified palms from communities using sustainable forestry practices and improve the communities' profit margins, giving them more incentive to protect the rainforest instead of clear-cutting it.
The Colombian initiative has a special urgency, because the survival of a species is at stake.
There are only 540 or so yellow-eared parrots left on the planet. They exist only in Colombia. Their sole habitat is the wax palm, which grows on the misty flanks of the Andes Mountains to heights of 225 feet, making it the world's tallest palm tree.
But for centuries, Colombians have used the fronds of the wax palm for Palm Sunday, which commemorates Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, where residents greeted him by waving palm fronds.
When Colombian peasants cut off the fronds from the young wax palms -- Colombia's national tree -- to sell to worshippers, the trees die or their growth is stunted. The practice has led to a dramatic thinning of the towering palms.
A top Colombian cleric said it's important for the church to join with environmental groups and government agencies to promote use of other palms and save the bright green-and-yellow parrots.
"We have a slogan: God pardons always, man pardons sometimes, but nature never does. Every abuse of nature you pay for, sooner or later," said Monsignor Fabian Marulanda, secretary-general of the church's policy-making Episcopal Conference.