These “church forests” protect Ethiopia’s fragile landscapes

Priests, scientists, and local communities are partnering to save the less than five percent of forests that remain in northern Ethiopia.Monday, 8 April 2019

By Alejandra Borunda
Photographs By Kieran Dodds

When Alemayehu Wassie Eshete was a boy, he went to church each Sunday. He would make his way along the dry, dusty roads between the wheat fields in his home province in northern Ethiopia. At the end of the trip was the prize: a literal step into another world.

The churches of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church—the dominant religious group in Ethiopia, with nearly 50 million members—were almost always nestled in patches of vibrant, shady forest. Forests, the church’s religious belief goes, were like the clothes surrounding the church at the center—as much a part of the religious space as the church building itself. Wassie would step out of the hot sun and into a beautiful, cool world filled with chattering birds and fragrant plants, a small hotspot of both biodiversity and spirituality.

“From an ecological perspective, it’s like going from hell to heaven,” he says. “You go from dry, hot fields into the beautiful forest. Anyone would see that as beautiful, but for me, the forest is more than that. It’s also a spiritual place where nature is perfect, and you pray to God.”

But when Wassie grew up and started studying biology and science, he realized that the forests he loved were few and far between. In school, he was learning about how important forests were for the ecological health of different parts of the world, and he asked himself: Where are our forests, here in northern Ethiopia? Why are there so few patches left?

Over the past century, nearly all of the native forests in the South Gonder province have disappeared, cleared to make way for wheat fields and grazing land—agricultural endeavors that support the region’s rapidly growing population. Many of the church forests, though, remain, protected by their religious stewards and the communities around them. They are tiny fragments of a lost past, and the center of hope for conservation and future restoration.

The heart of the community

The churches and their enveloping forests have served as crucial centers of local communities, integral parts of both religious and secular life, since the fourth century A.D. The forests provide a kind of “respectful covering” for the churches at their centers and the riches they hold. Some of them are estimated to be 1,500 years old—tiny, ancient islands of historic habitat in a changed landscape.

In the early 1900s, it’s estimated that trees covered roughly 40 percent of Ethiopia. But over the past century, as populations grew, the demand for food skyrocketed. Acres of forests were replaced by agricultural fields. Slowly, over the decades, the total amount of tree-covered land shrank—it now hovers at just around four percent of the country. In South Gonder, the fragments of forest are spread over nearly 1,500 tiny patches.

Those remaining patches of forest—key sites for biodiversity—are under threat. Invasive trees like eucalyptus, which are highly valuable because they grow fast and are good for firewood, are creeping into some of them. Cattle wandering into the cool, shady forests trample tender young plants and damage the older trees.

The forest’s champion

At first, Wassie focused his research efforts on understanding what was living in the forests and how they might serve as key sites for preserving what was left of the vanishing northern Ethiopian forest habitat. As part of his doctoral studies, he counted different flora and fauna. He quantified what seeds were present in the soils, which would tell him whether forests could recover and sprout new trees in the future. He measured whether any new trees were sprouting in the first place. And he tracked exactly how wandering livestock were damaging the delicate understory.

Then at some point, Wassie decided that he wanted to focus his energies on protecting the forests—not just on studying them and watching them diminish. He wanted to help the communities that loved and respected the forests to safeguard, restore, and maybe even enlarge them. He had built deep reserves of trust with the priests and communities who cared for the forests he’d studied, and he realized that they could work together to conserve the wild spaces.

At an academic conference in Mexico, Wassie met Meg Lowman, an American biologist whose interest was piqued by a presentation Wassie made about the church forests. Lowman invited Wassie to visit her lab to talk more about the project. When he arrived, he went down a Google Earth rabbit hole, printing out stacks of images of the church forests from above. They could work together to study and conserve the forests, they thought; Lowman had the connections to the U.S. science community to support research, and Wassie had deep knowledge of the forests and relationships with the priests who cared for them.

Wassie brought Lowman to Ethiopia, where they organised a workshop for more than 150 priests, many of whom walked for days in order to attend. The scientists fired up a laptop with a generator and projected Google Earth photos onto a bedsheet, showing the priests how the forests had shrunk over time.

“They were so passionate from the start,” Lowman says, “because they saw themselves as stewards of all God’s creatures. I, as conservation scientist, believe we have a responsibility to save biodiversity. That’s the same goal.”

Building a solution

The most efficient, straightforward thing they could do to preserve the forests, the scientists decided with the priests, was to build low, simple walls that would carefully demarcate the forests and keep wandering animals from lumbering in.

By the next year, Wassie and Lowman had raised enough money to start building. This simple fix, they found, was remarkably effective. Soon, more and more priests asked for help building their own low walls.

Now, a few years later, the pair has helped more than 20 communities erect walls around their forests, and they have a list many times as long of places they’d like to build more. Where walls have been built, the forests are thriving—so much so that some priests have decided to extend their reach, bumping the walls outward so that they can expand their forests even farther. In intact church forests, water quality is better than in the surrounding fields; tree seedlings survive more often; and pollinators, important for both the species in the forests and the agriculture around them, buzz.

“We were told that most of the forest had been destroyed, and it seemed that there was no hope,” Wassie says. But there are thousands of church forests dotting the landscape, and each one, for him, represents a pinprick of hope for future restoration.

Wassie next wants to figure out how to connect some of the flecks of forest, rebuilding a vast ecological web across the province, however long it takes.

“All the pieces are there,” he says. “Hope, I got from working with the priests. Though churches are under pressure, they are working to protect what we have. We can bring back even more.”

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