Saving Ethiopia’s “Church Forests”


On Lake Tana by A. Davey,

by T. DeLene Beeland

In America, some fundamental Christians believe that man has a God-given right to use the earth and all its resources to meet their needs. After all, Genesis says so. But across the Atlantic, a different attitude prevails among followers in Ethiopia, which has the longest continuous tradition of Christianity of any African country. Followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Churches believe they should maintain a home for all of God’s creatures around their places of worship. The result? Forests ringing churches.

There are some 35,000 church forests in Ethiopia, ranging in size from a few acres to 300 hectares. Some churches and their forests may date back to the fourth century, and all are remnants of Ethiopia’s historic Afromontane forests. To their followers, they are a sacred symbol of the garden of Eden — to be loved and cared for, but not worshipped.

Ethiopia, Lake Tana by * hiro008,

Most church forests are concentrated in the northern reaches of the country, especially in the Lake Tana area. Here, most of the Afromontane forests have been cut down to make clearings for agriculture, pastures for livestock and settlements. It is said that if a traveler to the area spies a forest, it surely has a church in the middle. Many also have freshwater springs.

These spiritually-protected woods, also known as coptic forests, comprise a decent chunk of the 5 percent of Ethiopia’s historical forests that are still standing. Massive deforestation has rendered these church forests as true islands — green oases peppering a land laid bare.

“Connecting them to other forests is a luxury we can’t even consider,” says international tropical ecologist and researcher Margaret Lowman, because the lands between them are predominantly crop fields today. Fondly known as Canopy Meg to her colleagues, Lowman is a canopy researcher who has studied forests on five continents.

What remains is fragile. Isolated by habitat fragmentation, conservationists are grasping these church forests as centerpieces of the country’s fight to retain its biodiversity. These beacon-like green swaths have become refuges for all kinds of species — but no one really knows what is at stake because they are extremely poorly studied.

Awakening awareness

Alemayehu Wassie Eshete is an Ethiopian forest researcher who did his PhD work on his country’s coptic forests. His dissertation, and a few related papers, may form the entirety of the published scientific literature on Ethiopia’s forest churches, according to Lowman.

She met Wassie at a scientific meeting a few years ago. When she asked him what he was going to do next on coptic forests, he wept from frustration. With very limited economic means, and few international connections, Wassie felt he needed help with visibility and expertise to study — and conserve — his country’s forests. Lowman began helping him, and in 2009 he invited her to visit the forests in person. She went.

With Wassie’s help, Lowman  gave a PowerPoint presentation to about 100 men, most priests. Some had traveled for days to attend the meeting. She showed them images of their church forests.

Though some had never seen a computer, they recognized their forests and she says they gasped audibly at the pictures showing the  woods shrinking inwards over time. Lowman says they intuitively grasped the value of ecosystem services because, for them, it fell under the purview of their spiritual duties to protect the biodiversity around their places of worship.

Preliminary research by Tehri Evinen, a master’s candidate in forest sciences at the University of Helsinki, has uncovered in more detail how the priests conceive of their spiritual forests. “What [matters to them] religiously is the number of trees, not the ecological health of the forests” Evinen wrote in an e-mail. “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.”

Despite this, the biggest threats to these forests are not external factors such as industrial loggers or agribusiness, Lowman says. Rather, the biggest threat lies inside: the church members and clergy who use the forests for firewood, and rely on them for livelihoods.

The clergy and church members use the wood from trees to repair their church, to make charcoal for church activities, and to make sacred utensils. Plants in the forest are eaten or used to make dyes. Deadfall is sold to congregants for cash.

The trip ingrained in Lowman’s mind that engaging the priests and church members was a vital part of studying and conserving the remaining coptic forests.

Insightful insects

This past August, Lowman returned to Ethiopia and led a team of 13 scientists to survey several church forests on the south shore of Lake Tana and at a rural village about 60 miles to the northeast, Debre Tabor. The purpose on the team’s trip, hopefully the first of many, was to assess the insect biodiversity and the economic importance of the tree species remaining in these sacred forests.

“We didn’t even know if birds or mammals would be left in these highly threatened areas,” Lowman says. “We chose insects to survey because we wanted an index of something we hoped would be healthy. It would be awful to give the local people bad news right at the start. Mammals were worrisome because it may be they’ve all been hunted or poached. Birds were also problematic because the fragmentation level is so high. But also, pollinators are such an important part of ecosystem services that we thought being able to educate the local people about them at the same time would be useful.”

And this embodies the heart of how Lowman has conducted her scientific career: equal parts science and public outreach.

Lowman’s team examined every level of the forests: they climbed into the canopies, shook bugs from tree limbs, and set insect traps.

They surveyed the lower reaches and scoured the forest floor where dung beetles carry out important waste-removal processes. They surveyed ants, beetles, flies and wasps and counted birds, mostly in the surrounding fields. The team collected in the day, and during the night; rain or shine. By the end, they gathered data on 5,500 insects mostly from two forest churches: Debresena (outside of Debre Tabor); and Zahara, close to Bahir Dar.

A month before the research trip, Lowman started a new job as the director of the Nature Research Center at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Part of the center’s mission is to communicate science to the public and actively engage children. So she live-streamed video of the field work back to the museum as a pilot project. Soon, the researchers garnered the attention of local children who watched, and even helped, the researchers collect their specimens. Lowman described it like this in the North Carolina Naturalist:

Armed with our nets and ropes and vials, we attracted a large swath of children who watched our every move and marveled at the six-legged creatures swept from the foliage. Despite the language barriers, we all laughed when ants fell on our heads, and shrieked with joy when a purple beetle appeared on the surface of our collecting tray.

When she returns next year, Lowman plans to further engage the children through educational activities to teach them about the importance of their remaining forests. Though 95 percent of their forests have been wiped off the map, the remaining forest churches provide important ecosystem services. They harbor pollinator species that forests and crops require, and they sequester carbon and conserve water. Wassie estimates that 1.1 billion tons of soil is eroded in northern Ethiopia every year. The trees of the forest churches help to hold a small portion of the landscape’s soil steadily in place.

Fences, feces, and farming

When people worship at the churches, it may be a several-hour to an all-day long affair. Which means that people often need to relieve themselves in the forests, where there are typically no toilets. Priests and disciples also live in huts in the forest, using it for nature’s call because no other facilities exist.

“We found a preponderance of dung beetles specific to human feces,” Lowman says. “So obviously the system is being degraded even without intent.” In fact, more than three-quarters of their faunal collections from the ground samples were these dung beetles.

When the team asked a priest what ideas he had for how the researchers could help them, he asked for toilets. Lowman says the original research project has now blossomed into fund-raising to help the communities build fences (to keep livestock out) and to build pit toilets. Her team calculated they need to raise $42,000 for latrines and $271, 871 for fences and walls. Lowman holds hope that improving the hygiene of the people who use the churches will not only build trust but will also enhance the health of the forests themselves.

Another opportunity Lowman sees for improving Ethiopia’s church forests reflects back upon the force that created them: agricultural. She says that if the farmers could get more productivity out of their crops, then they could use less land for agriculture. Some of the land could be reforested.

“But they need more food as the population increases. They are starving,” Lowman says.

“You can’t expect hungry people to conserve forests when they need to plant an extra row of corn or millet.”

Bose Corn Maze by John Biehler,

Lowman retains her strongest optimism for the youth of these areas. Which is not surprising since she has devoted a large part of her career to outreach geared to school kids, such as through the Jason project. (Because of her extensive outreach, children often write to her asking, “Dear Canopy Meg, How can I help save the rain forests?” For a start, she writes them back.)

In the case of Ethiopia’s precious green dots, Lowman’s research team is slated to head back in the dry season of 2012, and educational outreach to children ranks as high on her priority list as surveying insects and trees.

David Jarzen, a palynologist with the Florida Museum of Natural History, and a member of the research team led by Lowman, summed it up this way in an article written for The Palynological Society’s December newsletter:

The future of these church forests remains to be seen. Some of the team scientists are already planning a return visit to the region during the dry season in January or February. A closer, more detailed study of the fauna and flora, over several years, covering wet and dry seasonal changes of these forests is needed to fully understand the nature of the forests and strategies for their conservation. Whether these people allow their forests to remain intact, or cut into small plots as they are now, will determine the fate of their culture.

Which may be why Canopy Meg is investing in Ethiopia’s kids to help save their country’s forests.

Piece originally published at PLOS Blogs |


Original interviews with Meg Lowman, Jan. 19 and Feb. 14, 2011.

Eshete, Alemayehu Wassie. 2005. Ethiopian Church Forests: Their Contribution in Combating Ecological Degradation and Climate Change in Northern Ethiopia. PowerPoint Presentation for the Society of Ecological Restoration. Access here.

Jarzen, David; Margaret Lowman; Susan Jarzen. 2010. Ethiopia: A Land in Need. PowerPoint Presentation.

Jarzen, David, Susaz Jarzen and Margaret Lowman. 2010. In and Out of Africa. American Association of Stratigraphic Palynologists. Newsletter. (43)4:11-14.

Lowman, Margaret. Fall/Winter 2010. CSI in Ethiopia: Children Survey Insects. North Carolina Naturalist.

Lowman, Margaret. Winter 2010/2011. Finding Sanctuary – Saving the biodiversity of Ethiopia, one church forest at a time. The Explorers Journal.

About the Author:

T. DeLene Beeland is an independent science writer, who often covers nature and the great outdoors. She’s writing a book (UNC Press), and is a frequent contributor for the Charlotte Observer’s Science section. You can find her on Twitter and on the Wild Muse blog.