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Do Palm Sunday Crosses Burden the Environment?

Photo by Adrian Gonsalves Palm Sunday crosses may be contributing to the destruction of rainforest ecosystems throughout Central America, in particular in Belize,” Fauna & Flora International (FFI) said in a statement last night. Xaté is a type of palm that is commonly used in flower arrangements across the U.S. and other countries, said Rebecca...


Photo by Adrian Gonsalves

Palm Sunday crosses may be contributing to the destruction of rainforest ecosystems throughout Central America, in particular in Belize,” Fauna & Flora International (FFI) said in a statement last night.

Xaté is a type of palm that is commonly used in flower arrangements across the U.S. and other countries, said Rebecca Foges, communications officer for the UK-based conservation charity, in an email to the media. “Church flower arrangements on Palm Sunday make up as much as 15 percent of global demand for this leaf.”

Xaté (pronounced sha-tay) is a term that covers several types of small palm species in the Chamaedorea genus which live across Central and South America, according to an FFI fact sheet. Xaté palm leaves are used as a “green background” or filler in floral arrangements.


Chamaedorea ernesti-augustii or “fishtail” (so-named because of its split leaves) is one of the species of palm which is most harvested by Xatéros (xaté harvesters) in Belize.

Photo courtesy Ya’axché Conservation Trust

Wild xaté is currently overharvested across its range (Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize and other Central American countries), which is directly threatening the stability and security of its rainforest ecosystem, Foges said.

Fauna & Flora International and its Belizean partner NGO, the Ya’axché Conservation Trust, have been working to reduce the pressure illegal Xateros (xaté harvesters) are having on Belize’s natural parks to ensure a future in the wild for the slow-growing palm, Foges added.

“In fact, Ya’axché was involved in a serious incident only last week in which 16 Xateros were arrested in Belize’s most important nature reserve.”

Ya’axché reports on its blog that a joint effort with Belizean authorities last month apprehended 16 Guatemalan Xatéros allegedly harvesting xaté illegally within Belize’s Bladen Nature Reserve (BNR) and Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. Freshly cut xaté was confiscated.


More than 18,000 stems of xaté were confiscated and destroyed by rangers in Belize last month.

Photo courtesy Ya’axché Conservation Trust

Ya’axché rangers were tipped off to the Xatéros’ presence when they approached the BNR Ranger Base and presented a license to harvest from the Belize Forest Department, the blog reports. “After being informed that no xaté extraction of any kind is allowed in BNR, the Xatéros left, but a routine ranger patrol [found] signs of significant xaté removal. Several square miles within BNR had been stripped of xaté, as well as several visible hills in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.”

Patrols were dispatched and Xateros were found with a cache of 26 bales of xaté, the blog says. Each bale held 70 bundles and each bundle held 40 leaves, representing over 18,000 plants harvested.

None of the people detained carried a passport nor any kind of Belizean work permit or visa, the blog added. “The plants that were cut were not cut in a sustainable manner either. For a xaté plant to live, no more than one of its mature leaves may be removed. Inspecting rangers spotted nearly every harvested plant to have been stripped of all of their leaves, many of them completely removed from their rooted stem.”

A typical excuse, and the one offered by the detained group, the blog adds, is that the Xatéros mean to harvest legally but do not know the boundaries between where they are allowed to harvest and where they are not. “The same happens in the illegal logging industry. We would like to see greater support from the Forest Department, and the government of Belize, in enforcing these boundaries,” the blog says. “Additionally, monitoring the validity of harvest permits and the adherence to the rules set within them must be strengthened.”

Overview of the Xaté Industry

Courtesy Fauna & Flora International

Mexico and Guatemala are the biggest global exporters of xaté palm. However, wild sources of Mexican and

Guatemalan xaté are becoming depleted, which has led to the targeting of wild xaté in Belizean protected


The main demand comes from the flower industry and churches. Demand is especially high during Christmas and Easter when use of flower arrangements by churches increases. Palm Sunday alone accounts for 10-15 percent of global annual demand.

In 2007 about 400 million stems of xaté were sent to USA and Europe in total. It is difficult to track in Europe as it’s often bundled together with other palm species but the four main markets (in order of size) appear to be: USA, Holland, Germany and Switzerland. Ninety-five percent of the European market is taken up by Holland and Germany.

Why is its harvesting a problem?

Xaté is extremely slow growing, producing just two leaves a year. This makes it extremely susceptible to over-harvesting, putting the plant in danger of extinction. Harvesting rates are unsustainable and almost completely unregulated.

Most of Belize’s xaté is illegally harvested. Guatemalan Xatéros have depleted their country’s xaté and so cross the border into Belize to cut xaté in the Columbia River Forest Reserve and Bladen Nature Reserve. The Xatéros can often be armed and dangerous, and often illegally poach wildlife for food while they are harvesting, thereby putting further pressure on the fragile ecosystem.

Colombia River Forest Reserve borders Bladen Nature Reserve, which is Belize’s largest nature reserve and part of Central America’s most biodiverse forest stretch. It is home to jaguars, scarlet macaws and many other endangered species. Now, it too has been penetrated by illegal Xatéros.

Nature reserves have the highest level of protection in Belize. They are equivalent to IUCN category I and any harvesting or extracting of the nature reserves’ resources is strictly illegal.

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn