Saving Ethiopia's 'Church Forests': Embattled Islands of Biodiversity in a Denuded Landscape


A 'church forest' in Ethiopia. Image: Google Earth.

In many crowded, concrete-filled Turkish cities, the most reliable places to find a little patch of green are the cemeteries near large mosques, where believers are laid to rest in peaceful surroundings. The association between holy places and natural ones is even stronger among the Orthodox Christians of Ethiopia, whose belief in creating a living symbol of the garden of Eden around their places of worship has led to the existence of some 35,000 "church forests" -- many of them islands of green growth in an almost entirely deforested landscape.

Followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Churches have been tending groves of trees -- from a handful of acres to 300 hectares -- for hundreds of years, in the process preserving some of the few remnants of the country's historical Afromontane forests, according to a fascinating piece -- well worth reading in full -- on the Public Library of Science (PLoS) Blogs Network (hat tip to Boing Boing.

Most church forests are found in the northern part of the country, where the old forests have been razed to establish agriculture and build villages. Writes PLoS: "It is said that if a traveler to the area spies a forest, it surely has a church in the middle."

Only 5 Percent Of Historical Forests Left
With only 5 percent of Ethiopia's historical forests remaining, the church forests (also known as "coptic forests") are key to protecting biodiversity, though their importance has been very poorly studied.

That's something tropical ecologist Margaret Lowman (a.k.a. "Canopy Meg") is trying to fix, working with a local researcher and talking with Ethiopians -- especially children -- about the ecological value of these sacred places, which provide the only natural seed source for native trees and plants, shelter birds and insects that play a key role in crop pollination, and often contain freshwater springs.

"Their disappearance would be a disaster for rural Ethiopia's fragile natural balance," Lowman writes in a piece for France 24.

Encouraging 'Sustainable Stewardship'
"Unaware of the harm they are causing locals use the wood from the trees for firewood, or to repair the church and make sacred utensils. Plants in the forest are eaten or used to make dyes," Lowman writes, explaining how she has launched a partnership with the country's Christian Orthodox clergy to get local communities involved in the "sustainable stewardship" of the church forests.

"What [matters to them] religiously is the number of trees, not the ecological health of the forests," forest sciences researcher Tehri Evinen told PLoS. "The trees are said to be the jewelry of the church and the more trees a church has the more appreciated it is since the tree canopy prevents the prayers from being lost to the sky."

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Tags: Africa | Conservation | Deforestation | Developing Nations | Ethiopia | Religion

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