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Ethiopia’s Church Forests

Ethiopia is almost completely depleted of its forest cover. In the early 1900s, nearly forty-five percent of the country was covered by forests. But the demand for agricultural land to feed the country’s growing population saw this forest being gradually sacrificed for farmlands, until more than ninety percent of this vast tropical forest had disappeared. The remaining forest is not contiguous but scattered in tens of thousands of small groves, mostly in the northern part of the country. At the center of these bright-green pockets of biodiversity is almost always an Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church.

Ethiopia’s Church Forests

Left: The Debre Mihret Arbiatu Ensesa church, which looks from above like a bright pinwheel, is surrounded by trees. Right: The Entos Eyesus church and its forest fill an entire tiny island in the middle of Lake Tana, near Bahir Dar. Photo credit: Kieran Dodds

Churches in Ethiopia have always been covered by small forests. Locals believe that the forest protects the sacredness of the church. The tree canopy, they say, prevent prayers from being lost to the sky. The forests are as old as the churches themselves, planted by the local communities at the same time the churches were being built. This makes some of these fertile oases over 1,500 years old. The forests are protected by the religious stewards and the communities around them, making these priests, monks, nuns, and the disciples the unlikely guardians of their country’s last remaining forests.

The exact number of church forests is not known. According to some estimates, there are as many as 35,000 sacred groves in the vicinity of Lake Tana and the northern highlands, and some 1,400 in the South Gondar Zone alone. They range in size from five acres to well over one thousand. The priest is generally responsible for maintaining the church at its center, while the locals use the forest ecosystems for firewood, honey, freshwater and cattle grazing.

Ethiopians revere the forests, but unknown to them, their actions have been damaging the fragile ecosystem. They lead cattle into the forests to graze, which trample and eat seedlings. Lacking alternatives, sometimes the priests themselves 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. Fallen branches and brush are sold for cash.

Ethiopia’s Church Forests

The Mekame Selam Kolala Meskel church, in the South Gonder region of northern Ethiopia, surrounded by a forest and protected by a wall. Photo credit: Kieran Dodds

Since the early 2000s, forest ecologists and local, Dr. Alemayehu Wassie, and his American associate, Dr. Margaret Lowman, have been encouraging the locals to love and protect these forests, and even enlarge them if possible. Wassie and Lowman suggested building low stone walls around the forests to keep wandering animals off. The simple solution proved to be so efficient that within a few years the forests have notably thrived. In forests that are intact, the water quality is better than in the surrounding fields, tree seedlings survive more often, and the forests themselves are teeming with life, most importantly, the pollinators which are important for both the growth of the the forests as well as for the agriculture around them. Impressed by the results, many priests started expanding the outer walls in order to coax the forests to grow farther.

But Wassie’s dreams are bigger. His next plan is to somehow connect some of these distant flecks of forests and rebuild the vast tropical forest that once covered the province. It’s an ambitious project, but Wassie is optimistic.

“All the pieces are there,” Wassie told National Geographic. “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.”

Ethiopia’s Church Forests

Left: The Tebebari Michael church in Anbesame, Amhara. Right: The Betre Mariam church in Zege, at the edges of Lake Tana. Photo credit: Kieran Dodds

Ethiopia’s Church Forests

A man reads holy scripture within the churchyard of the Robit Bahita church, near Bahir Dar. Photo credit: Kieran Dodds

Ethiopia’s Church Forests

The Gebita Giyorgis Church. Photo credit: Kieran Dodds

Ethiopia’s Church Forests

Two women walk through the church forest at the Betre Mariam church near Zege. Photo credit: Kieran Dodds

Ethiopia’s Church Forests

A woman on her way to worship walks through a hole created in the wall by a fallen tree. Photo credit: Kieran Dodds

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