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ARC Home > Projects > Americas projects :
Sacred Orchids and Sunday Palms in Mexico

Sacred Orchids and Sunday Palms in Mexico

A rare bromeliad in Mexico

ARC is working with Mexican environmental charity Pronatura Chiapas, on a project to conserve rare and endangered plant-species, particularly those used in religious ceremonies.

The Sacred Orchids project works with villagers in remote parts of Chiapas State to create sustainable management programmes for species such as bromeliads, palms, cycads and of course orchids. It involves liaising with the traditional indigenous communities which harvest these wild plants, and with churches in Mexico and around the world which are where many of these plants tend to end up.

PALMS AND ORCHIDS

Orchids – the named species on this project – are widely used as altar offerings and decorations in churches around Mexico. Since 1994, Pronatura Chiapas has cultivated a special orchid garden and nursery in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, containing more than 500 indigenous orchid species – which acts not only as a repository for some rare species, but also as an education centre. It is also a centre for developing appropriate technologies for the proper management of different species.

And palms are used throughout the Catholic world – not only on Palm Sunday but also for weddings, funerals and other ritual occasions. A substantial number of these palms, or xate, come from the forests of Chiapas in Southern Mexico – harvested by villagers for whom they are an important source of income. The market for xate palm leaves is worth more than a million dollars every year – yet the current way of harvesting them is not sustainable, and involves considerable waste of young plants, which cannot be used, and simply get thrown away. Link here for the Eco-Palms Stewardship and Justice website, run by the University of Minnesota and here for the Lutheran World Relief website, with a special feature on palms.

WORKING WITH THE COMMUNITY

ARC aims to work with churches to create policies to buy sustainable plants on a fair trade model – alongside Pronatura which will be concentrating on working with Chiapas villagers on sustainable harvesting and forest protection.

Pronatura will create a second orchid garden in the small town of San Juan Chamula, in which villagers and collectors can see the different species, learn more about them and find out how long a plant takes to flower. Often the villagers don't know that it may take decades for a plant to have a flower - and that if the flower is cut without giving it the chance to reproduce itself the plant will die. Thanks to ARC’s assistance the local community has already expressed the desire to use the garden to amplify knowledge about plants to educate, inform and include the people who collect them.

“Conservation is not possible in rural sites if you are not working with the people themselves,” explained Pronatura-Chiapas’s director, Romeo Dominguez. He said seventy percent of people in the area live in small rural communities, with no water or electricity. “We might ask these people to do conservation, but they are earning only the equivalent of US $500 a year: for them conservation cannot be a priority, unless we help them.”

The project works on many levels – on the community level it helps educate campesinos and their families about the ecological importance of the plants they are harvesting and helps give a sustainable living to small, poor communities. On the faith level it works both locally, nationally and internationally. And on the scientific and government levels it helps preserve and gain more information about the precious and disappearing bio-diversity of the entire country.

THE PRONATURA TEAM

The Pronatura team of 50 full-time employees includes biologists, nurses, psychologists, ethnologists, agriculturalists and foresters.

“What really impressed me when I went to see the projects was that the villagers viewed the Pronatura staff almost like trusted friends,” said ARC’s project manager Paola Triolo. “In the beginning I couldn’t tell who was a villager and who was Pronatura. There was such a high degree of trust between all of them. This is a very different ethos from the one I have seen with many other NGOs around the world.”

ARC has been in touch with the World Council of Churches. And as a result its Secretary General has already endorsed the aims of the Sacred Orchids project in an open letter. The letter emphasised how buying eco-friendly and fair trade palm branches was a wonderful contribution to the ecology of Mexico and to awakening awareness of environmental within the Churches themselves. A similar scheme was piloted successfully last year in Guatemala, with the University of Minnesota offering a link between the campesinos and the Churches in Minnesota. In 2006 the request for sustainable palms has increased substantially, as a direct result.

“ARC has become involved in the Sacred Orchids project because we feel that it looks at a real issue, in an effective way,” said ARC’s secretary general, Martin Palmer. “We believe the project will make a difference to many communities, both in Mexico and abroad initially in the US – but that it also has potential for magnification and replication in many other locations.”

CHIAPAS STATE - ECOLOGY NOTES

Chiapas State is considered to be particularly rich in biological and cultural diversity. It hosts more than 8,000 species of vascular plants – ie plants specially adapted for holding water, including ferns, horse-tails, conifers – and 19 discrete types of vegetation environments, including deciduous forests, cloud forests, tropical rainforests and coastal mangrove swamps. More than 70 percent of the state has potential for sustainable, mixed forestry, but at present it suffers from one of the country’s highest deforestation levels, losing more than 50,000 hectares per year.

For more details, email orchids@pronatura-chiapas.org.

El Jardin de Orquideas Moxviquil, is on Calle Tonala, No27 Barrio del Cerrillo, in San Cristóbal de Las Casas in Chiapas. It is open from Wednesday to Sunday. Donations welcomed.


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