The Parrot and the Palm Tree

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By: María Cristina Miranda

For many faithful Ecuadorian Catholics, the procession of Palm Sunday has been one of the most picturesque and representative visions of Holy Week in Quito (and in all of Ecuador). For decades, it offered the vision of enormous palm leaves waving in the air like a thousands saluting green hands as the religious icons of choice paraded down the streets. The tradition did not make everyone happy, however, and has become a fight to save two unique inhabitants of the Ecuadorian Andes.

Palm Sunday: processions, religion, redemption and folklore, all accompanied by palms sprinkled with holy water. But these palms don’t come from just any old palm tree. They grow far away from the churches and convents, on rare trees found in the mountains, surrounded by forest and mist.

The wax palm (a family of 12 palm tree species) manages to overcome the physical barriers of temperature and altitude, and grows on the high plains, at about 3,200 meters above sea level. The species is an Andean speciality.

– “Palm” saleswomen have found alternatives to the traditional wax palm –

It is hard to imagine a normal palm tree thriving at these elevations; palm trees are usually synonymous with heat, coconut water and sea waves. But for some reason, the tree has met a liturgical prerequisite for the faithful, who, every year on Palm Sunday, gather in their tens of thousands, and each exhibit in procession his or her palm leaves.

Ceroxylan – the scientific name of this family of trees – means wood wax; indeed the thick trunks are covered with a layer of wax traditionally harvested to make candles. The trees’ fruits are nutritious for a variety of birds (toucans, parrots, parakeets) and also for many mammals that find them when the fruits fall to the ground. The delicious heart of palm, located within the trunk, is a treat for Spectacled bears, while its wide trunk is home to many kinds of birds.

A bird species dependent of this palm is the Yellow-eared Parrot, which cannot exist without it.

– Yellow-eared Parrot (Ognorhynchus icterotis) –

The Yellow-eared Parrot is an endemic to the Andes that eats the fruit and uses the trunk of certain Ceroxylon to nest. The affinity is such that if the palm disappears, this “palm parrot” does too.

The palm takes a long time to sprout its first seeds and it is these parrots that disperse them. But mountain forests are scarce: they have been cut, burned and converted into pastures in many places.

The parrot and the palm tree… they share everything.

Today, Ceroxylon is only present in small patches of Andean forest, which means the Yellow-eared Parrot, too, has a limited home; it only exists in Colombia and Ecuador. And then there is Palm Sunday, which for decades has collected the palm leaf, unknowingly putting both at risk of extinction.

– A great variety of palm species thrive in Ecuador’s Northwestern cloud forests –

A light at the end of the tunnel

An unusually aggressive awareness campaign to protect both species was put in place. The problem had been identified for years and scientists knew that if Palm Sunday continued to be an excuse for the exploitation of the wax palm, not only in processions in Quito, but in processions throughout the country, little hope existed for both species.

Today, it is very evident, in places like the Historic Center of Quito, that the branch of wax palms during processions are almost nonexistent. Thanks to the enormous efforts of researchers, conservationists and communicators, Palm Sunday is celebrated with different leaves and herbs, including corn.

“Should your ramos be made of wax palm?” reads one of the Ministry of the Environment’s calls to action. “NO!” it answers vehemently: “Tradition and conservation go hand in hand”. Apart from the official procession organized in the Historic Center, there are still corners of the country that continue to use this palm, but, increasingly, police operatives monitor and control its use. But the road to recovery for the wax palms and their Yellow-eared Parrots that love them so is still long. Forest continues to be degraded, and many other species that we may not know about may just disappear from our world as if they never existed.

Environmental awareness in Ecuador, among its many (difficult) challenges, has managed to make Palm Sunday not only a ritual of spirituality, but also a plight for conservation. It is through awareness projects like these that we can begin to penetrate deeper into the process of conserving what really makes us, as a country, special… that incalculable and amazing nature we possess. If we can protect tradition while protecting our species, perhaps we can also celebrate and protect our forests, a true wonder of our world!

– Palms will only survive if our forests survive –

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