During this year’s Holy Week, Father Alirio Lopez will bring his tried-and-true environmental message to more than 5,000 parishioners of La Veracruz, a colonial church in downtown Bogotá, Colombia. Asking them to change their traditions to save a plant and a parrot has become much easier over time.
"At the beginning people were very resistant to stop using the threatened wax palm. For many years it has been used to reenact the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, and the blessing of the fronds is a key part of the celebration," recalls Alirio, a Catholic priest for more than 30 years.
In 2002, Alirio began using his sermons to teach the public about the science behind the religious Palm Sunday ceremony. Following tradition, hundreds of wax palms – Colombia’s national tree – are cut down every year for their fronds.
Decades of cutting has produced an unfortunate domino effect. Scientists now consider this symbolic tree to be highly threatened, impacting the yellow-eared parrot – a unique bird that depends on wax palms for food and nesting. The crisis reached a climax when the parrot was categorized as Critically Endangered by IUCN, the highest possible category of threat for a species before it becomes extinct forever. Time was running out.
Alirio's campaign slogan, "Because Life is Sacred, Reconcile with Nature," is touching hearts. The campaign has reached more than 20 million people, and Catholics in many regions of the country have stopped using threatened palms in their ceremonies.
In Colombia, Palm Sunday has become a religious day with an environmental twist.
Success from the Ground Up
Seven years ago, a diverse group of leaders – scientists, conservationists, priests, and government officials – understood the critical link between wax palm conservation and religion. Together, they launched a national campaign to protect long-held beliefs without further endangering wildlife.
In 2008, with the continuous leadership of ProAves, a nongovernmental organization that protects birds, and Conservation International, the campaign attracted additional partners and now has support from the Episcopal Conference of Colombia, the Botanical Garden Jose Celestino Mutis and government authorities.
The campaign has been all-inclusive from the start, with a focus on on-the-ground conservation. In 1998, Dr. Paul Salaman, International Program Director with American Bird Conservancy began working with communities living near precious parrot habitat, relying on their knowledge and involvement to protect the bird. The program’s initial success eventually spawned the creation of Fundación ProAves.
"Today, local people play a major role in saving the species by providing crucial data about its location, migration, and habitat protection," says Jose Castaño, ProAves conservation tools coordinator.
Other campaign initiatives include creating artificial nesting boxes for parrots in places where habitat degradation is increasing, training farmers and cattle ranchers in restoration techniques, establishing wax palm tree nurseries, and donating trees that are key to the yellow-eared parrot's survival.
With support from many partners, environmental educators travel around the country by bus bringing stories about the parrot to remote areas. The Loro-Bus, or Parrot-Bus, took its first tour in 2005. Since then, it has reached 1,620 rural schools, classrooms, and universities in 105 municipalities. More than 40,000 children and 5,000 adults have boarded the Loro-Bus to receive information about protection of the species and learn more about conservation in general.
These collective efforts show that community-based conservation and research can work. Today, about 850 parrots survive in the wild in the Colombian Andes. In 2002, there were only 82.
"It's important that all the citizens of Colombia support this campaign," says Fabio Arjona, executive director of CI-Colombia. "Protecting and conserving biodiversity is everyone’s responsibility because of the important role it plays in the balance of diverse ecosystems, but also for its role in our own survival as humans."
As another Palm Sunday passes, thousands of Colombians are striving to live in peace and harmony with nature.
In 2008 the campaign gathered more partners than ever and now this initiative is supported by Conservation International (CI)-Colombia, ProAves, the Episcopal Conference of Colombia, the District Environmental Secretary, the Botanical Garden José Celestino Mutis, the National Parks Authority, the Colombian Network of Botanical Gardens, the Education Secretary, the Corporación Autónoma Regional de Cundinamarca (CAR), Jardineros Ltda., Omacha Foundation, and Fondo para la Acción Ambiental y la Niñez (FPPA).
The Loro-Bus (Parrot-Bus) is supported by ABC, the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund, Fundacion Loro Parque, Fondo para Accion Ambiental, and Conservation International-Colombia.
Watch a commercial that ran to support the campaign.