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HOW CHURCHES ARE THE GATEKEEPERS OF ETHIOPIA'S FORESTS

by
Lori Robinson
24 April 2015

“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The next best time is now.”
Chinese proverb.

In the highlands of Ethiopia, American scientist Meg Lowman is working with local forest ecologist Alemayehu Wassie to protect ancient church forests.
As in many developing countries, much of Ethiopia’s original forests have been cleared for subsistence agriculture and for harvesting timber and firewood, diminishing northern Ethiopia’s forest cover from 45% of its territory in the early 20th century to less than 5 percent today.
A large portion of the remaining forests is concentrated in the northern part of the country, especially in the Lake Tana area. There, bright-green patches of trees surround 3,500 Orthodox Tewahido Churches – a consequence of the Church’s belief in maintaining a woodland home for all God’s creatures around the place of worship.

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Worshippers make their way through a church forest. ©Meg Lowman.
Worshippers wait under old growth trees at the church in Aunara, Bahir Dar region. ©Raïsa Mirza.
A white cheeked-turaco is just one of many extraordinary birds depending on the forests. ©Christian Boix.
Debresna church forest from above. Image by Google Earth.
The tree canopy is believed to prevent prayers from being lost to the sky

The forests are said to be necklaces around the church, and the tree canopy is believed to prevent prayers from being lost to the sky. According to the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, an estimated five to ten percent of wild lands across the globe are currently held by religious organisations.
Ranging in size from five acres to more than 1,000, some of Ethiopia’s church forests are more than 1,500 years old. All are remnants of the country’s Afromontane forests, are cooler and more humid than the surrounding lowlands, and many have fresh water springs. These church forests have become the centerpiece in the struggle to conserve what remains of northern Ethiopia’s biodiversity.
“They are native seed banks for the future of that landscape,” says Dr. Wassie.

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People gather at the church in Aunara underneath old growth trees to mourn the loss of the Archbishop of Bahir Dar region. ©Raïsa Mirza

Spiritually designated woods sequester
carbon, conserve water, reduce soil erosion
and provide shade and medicine

Besides being rich in biodiversity, these spiritually designated woods sequester carbon, conserve water, reduce soil erosion, and provide shade and natural medicine. They also harbour pollinator species, including native bees and other insects that add value to outlying crops.
But threats to Ethiopia’s church forests are many. Villagers harvest the timber, cattle trample and eat seedlings, and farmers cultivate the wooded edges. Pressure from a rapidly growing population, 80% of whom live in rural areas and rely on subsistence agriculture, as well as warming temperatures that have forced farmers to shift their plantations to higher elevations, have taken their toll.

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(Top and Bottom) Ethiopian land is rapidly turning to agriculture as populations rise. ©Justin Brice.
(Middle) In contrast to the surrounding lands, the churches are necklaced by trees. ©Raïsa Mirza.
Pressure from a rapidly growing population has taken its toll

Lacking alternatives, the priests sometimes use the wood to repair their church, to make charcoal for church activities, and to carve sacred utensils. Plants from the forest are eaten or used to make dyes. Deadfall is sold to congregants for cash.
“The biggest solutions to these forests comes from inside: the church members and clergy who believe they are the stewards of all of God’s creatures, a similar mission to us as conservation biologists. We all understand that the sad thing about vanishing forest islands is once they are gone, we will never know what used to live there or what might be missing or extinct.”

“Forest patches are like families of trees, and trees are the building blocks of life on Earth. One of the most successful ‘machines’ for storing carbon, trees transform sunlight into energy and food. Forests around the world provide homes for up to half of the species on our planet. They also provide spiritual sanctuary. Humans could not live if trees and forests were not part of our environment,” Lowman says.

A parent of two grown boys, Meg Lowman compares trees to mothers: “We have a great deal in common.”
Trees are the heart of productivity of many ecosystems. Just as mothers function as the biological center of birth and life, trees provide sustenance for their entire community. They quietly drive important functions that make all life possible in the surrounding ecosystem.
“If only I, as a mother, could have achieved as much as a tree,” Meg says with a smile.

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A grivet monkey makes its way across a branch in the church forest canopy. ©Raïsa Mirza.
Churches aren’t the only establishments to protect forests. Trees have long been part of the foundations of these baths in the town of Gondar. ©Christian Boix.
Cows graze in a field in front of Bete Maryam near Addis Ababa. Local legend has it that Jesus’ mother, Maryam, ascended to heaven from this hill. A church in her honor is located at the very top, overlooking the valley. ©Raïsa Mirza
Sacred places are being recognized for their value as conservation sites

“If we can better understand the complexities of biodiversity, then the chance of survival for all Earth’s life forms will certainly grow,” says Wassie. On the twenty-eight Church sites he identified as containing high biodiversity, the team is helping the local people build protective rock walls around the forests.
“The locals consider the forests as jewellery to the church, and the walls are the clothing. We have invoked a cultural shift for conservation because now all the churches want walls built around their ‘naked’ forests,” says Meg.

When viewed from above, it’s apparent that unsustainable deforestation has rendered these church woodlands as green island sanctuaries scattered among bare land, fields, pastures and human settlements.
Thanks to researchers like Lowman and Wassie these sacred places are beginning to be recognised for their value as conservation sites worth studying and protecting. “The Church and scientists like Dr. Wassie and I have the same mission. They call it God’s creatures and we call it biodiversity, but we’re all trying to conserve it,” says Lowman.africa-geographic-logo

For more about this project visit the Tree Foundation.

Visit Ethiopia 

Travel in Africa is about knowing when and where to go, and with whom. A few weeks too early / late and a few kilometres off course and you could miss the greatest show on Earth. And wouldn’t that be a pity? Read more about Ethiopia here or contact an Africa Geographic safari consultant to plan your dream vacation.

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  • Roxy

    Thank goodness for the churches but I wonder how much longer they can stand against the tide…

  • Michelle

    Great article on a topic I knew nothing about. Love the photos too.

    • Raïsa Mirza

      Thanks Michelle! Glad you enjoyed the photos 🙂

  • Analee Marie Neumann

    Thoroughly enjoyed this article. Great insight in to how churches and conservationists can work together to preserve Ethiopia’s beautiful necklaces.

    • Lori Robinson

      Thanks Analee, really glad you liked it.

  • Esme’ Blair

    great article, a country on the “must see’ bucket list

  • Molly

    This is an exquisitely written article, your description of the confluence of spirituality and biodiversity is beautifully portrayed.

    • Lori Robinson

      Thanks Molly, so glad you enjoyed it.

  • Laurie

    Such an interesting piece – and the photos….WOW! So vivid and great color. I really liked the aerial one that looked like the moon but was the circle of trees around the church! Awesome! Such a nice read, too!

  • Michelle Robin La

    Fascinating. I love discovering something new when I read. The photos and text work well together to show the contrast between the necklaces of forest around the churches and the barren areas surrounding them. This makes a strong point for the need for conservation and working with local organizations already trying their best but struggling against the seemingly inevitable.

    • Lori Robinson

      Well said Michelle. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • Marius

    What a wonderful piece of research accompanied by incredible photos

    • Lori Robinson

      So glad you liked it Marius. Thanks for commenting.

  • Haile

    Of course our church is the home of a lot plants and animals especially in their compound. But most of the country land is not part of the church what do you suggest about it? Thank for all thing

    • Meg Lowman

      This is a big problem for many countries — how to conserve forest that is not part of a reserve. There is no easy answer, alas, especially in a country like Ethiopia where farmland is so greatly needed. Until either a government program or a big NGO like Gates Foundation starts to provide incentives for saving trees as part of human health, there is not too much hope for a large-scale program. But at least the priests and the church are very trusted brokers and those church forests are critical as genetic libraries.

  • Luciana

    A very refreshing article, thank you. fantastic to see some people actually protect forests; wish they did the same in Kenya!!!

    • Lori Robinson

      Glad you liked it. In Kenya Wangari Maathai devoted her too short life to saving the forests and planting trees starting a wonderful movement there. You can look up what her organization is still doing.

  • Cynthia Walker

    Wonderful piece and stunning photos. I’ve always felt the forest was my church, so it’s nice to see that some religions actually see the connection between spirituality and nature.

    • Lori Robinson

      I totally agree with your comments Cynthia. The woods are my church too. Thanks for your comments.

  • Luciana

    Yes Lori I know about Wangari Maathai. I also work for conservation (Colobus Conservation) here in Diani (Kenya). If you go onto FB see my page (Luciana Parazzi Basile) see the latest posting on a big blow we had yesterday on forest destruction. Cheers

  • Manik Barbhuiya

    Unique.

  • markjordahl

    Fascinating article. Your sentence “As in many developing countries, much of Ethiopia’s original forests have been cleared” could be extended to include the developed world, though. Only 2% of original forests in the US are still standing, and those are under threat. How much of the UK’s original forests still stand? Hardly any.

    • Lori Robinson

      Very good point about the forests in developed countries. I am glad you commented and that you found the article fascination. Thanks so much.

  • John

    When I was last in Eritrea i was told more than once that the extensive forests there and in Ethiopia were almost wiped out early in Italy’s occupation. Seven portable sawmills reportedly worked their way southwards to ship lumber out to Italy. The estimate was that 7% of the original forests remain.

    • Lori Robinson

      Interesting John. Thanks for sharing that information. Best, Lori

    • Jan Nyssen

      Nyssen, J., Mitiku Haile, Naudts, J., Munro, R.N., Poesen, J.,
      Moeyersons, J., Frankl, A., Deckers, J., Pankhurst, R., 2009. Desertification? Northern Ethiopia re-photographed after 140 years. Science
      of the Total Environment, 407: 2749 – 2755.

    • Jan Nyssen

      the story is a bit overdone; the main deforestation was done before the Italians came. historical photographs of 1868 show that the land was already as barren as it is nowadays. See the reference below.

  • janet

    Great article. I agree too. I always feel like nature and trees are like a church. I love the pictures of the roots. They are so magical.