What does conservation look like?

Men and women processing eco-palms in Guatemala. 

What does forest conservation look like? Images of primeval forests with trees covered thick with mosses may come to mind. To Forest Resources’ sustainable development researcher Dean Current, forest conservation looks like palm branches waving in a church on Palm Sunday. Current is the Director of the Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management (CINRAM) in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. CINRAM is a partner-based organization that links the expertise of the U of M with the experience and insights of people who have an understanding of the opportunities and issues across the landscapes they inhabit. For the past twelve years, CINRAM has been working with communities in southern Mexico and northern Guatemala to establish markets for sustainably-produced palm branches, known as eco-palms. Current wanted to know how CINRAM could support people in conserving forests surrounding their homes and if their participation in conservation would end up supporting their local economies and livelihoods. Answering that question would lead to collaborations with partners from across the globe, partners like the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, Lutheran World Relief, Forest Stewardship Council and international nonprofits. Most importantly, buy-in from local communities and spokespeople for those communities was needed. That is where project partner José Romàn Carrera came in.

Carrera is a conservation activist and the Director of Partnership and Development for the Latin American branch of Rainforest Alliance, an international, nonprofit environmental and sustainable development organization. He has committed his life to empowering and incentivizing communities in Central America to conserve rainforests. Carrera was a key player in the formation of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve, which is the heart of eco-palm production. It spans over 5 million acres, roughly the size of the island of Wales. Unlike many protected areas with very restricted use, the reserve contains a network of management units known as forest concessions within the multiple-use area of the reserve. This means that the government owns the land but grants communities rights to harvest timber and non-timber forest products (palms) under sustainable management plans which combine silvicultural and conservation goals. Forest concessions are founded on the idea that the people who live in the forest have the greatest understanding of and incentive to conserve it. These community-managed forests provide a structure for marketing non-timber forest products like eco-palms. Current, Carrera and other partners devised strategies to expand eco-palm markets and break down barriers for these communities while respecting the needs and goals of local residents. When questions about how to access markets and distribute palms arose, Current took personal responsibility. 

In 2005, the first year of U.S. palm delivery, Current personally shuttled 5,000 palm branches to churches across Minnesota and North Dakota, a feat he quickly learned was not scalable. A year later, delivery was ramped up to 75,000 with the assistance of Hermes Floral, a local wholesaler and distributor of floral goods, and FedEx. Since 2013, close to one million eco-palms are distributed annually to nearly 5,000 churches, resulting in over $50,000 revenue annually for the producer communities in Mexico and Guatemala. The communities reinvest the money in education, health services and infrastructure. 

Dean Current and Jose Roman Carrera visit staff from a church that purchases eco-palms every year.

Historically, palm harvesters were paid per quantity of fronds, leading to over-harvesting and more than 50% of cut palms being discarded because of poor quality. In the new sustainable harvest model, producers are paid based on quality of fronds, resulting in less than 10% of palms wasted. Additionally, efforts have focused on expanding leadership for women in eco-palm production, wage increases and eliminating intermediaries. In the new model, production, harvesting, processing and exporting remain within the forest community, in contrast to several “middlemen” who were involved in the past. Certification from the Forest Stewardship Council makes the eco-palms more valuable because of the accountability of producers and traceability of the products. 

Current and Carrera hope that another non-timber forest product, ramòn nut will see the same success as eco-palms. Ramòn nuts come from the tree Brosimum alicastrum, an abundant moist forest species with a range extending throughout Central and South America and the Carribbean. Ramòn nuts are known as a “super food” for their high fiber, potassium, calcium, iron, zinc, protein and vitamin content. In recent years awareness of the nutritional value and market potential of ramòn nuts has increased after Rainforest Alliance started holding trainings in local communities on how to roast and mill the nuts into flour. The trainings were attended largely by women, and today all-female cooperatives manage the collection, processing and sale of ramòn nuts. A Saint Paul-based brewery, Urban Growler, partnered with CINRAM, Rainforest Alliance and the U’s Masters in Development Practice program to brew several beers with ramòn flour, which has a coffee-chocolate flavor. Such a partnership is an example of the markets that Current and Carrera are looking to explore. In March, Carrera visited the Department of Forest Resources and delivered a presentation on ramòn nuts, ending his talk with an invitation to collaborate in research and promotion of eco-palms, ramòn nuts and other non-timber forest products.
If you are interested in partnering with CINRAM on researching and promoting non-timber forest products, contact Dean Current at curre002@umn.edu

Ramon nuts