Margaret Lowman, fondly nicknamed “Canopy Meg” by her colleagues, is a US biologist and canopy researcher, and director of the Nature Research Centre in the North Carolina museum of Natural Science. She spent several weeks in Ethiopia last August studying the country’s church forests.
Church forests are critical to safeguarding Ethiopia’s fragile biodiversity, yet they are probably one of the least-known and under-funded environmental issues of our time. Deforestation is a major problem in Ethiopia, as it is in many East African countries. Trees have been cut down over the decades to make clearings for agriculture, pastures and settlements. By recommending that the government plant thousands of fast-growing eucalypts to solve the problem, some well-meaning environmental groups actually made matters worse: eucalypts are notoriously thirsty trees, which require much more water than their native Ethiopian counterparts. They dried up the soil, making it poorer and less fertile both for crops and the few remaining existing forests.
Church forests are among the last remnants of Ethiopia’s historic Afromontane forests, which date back to the 4th century. They are important for three reasons: a) they are the only natural seed source for native Ethiopian trees and plants, b) they are home to birds and insects that play an essential role spreading pollen across the countryside, allowing crops to grow, and c) they often contain freshwater springs. Their disappearance would be a disaster for rural Ethiopia’s fragile natural balance.
“This is a solvable problem”
Protecting Church forests, however, is an easily solvable problem: all you have to do is build a fence around them, leaving about 100 feet (30 meters) between the first trees and land cultivated for crops. That avoids farmland nibbling away at the edge of the forests, and also avoids villagers gathering too many branches from the forest outskirts to use as firewood. Obviously, connecting these fragmented bits of forests between themselves would be an even better solution, but that is currently impossible without starving part of the population, which depends on farmland to survive.
Viewed from above, church forests are tiny dots in an arid landscape. Connecting them is impossible without starving local populations, explains Meg Lowman. Photo: Google Earth.
When I returned to Ethiopia last summer after my first awareness-raising visit in 2008, local priests and communities were proud to show me the stone fences they had erected, which were already allowing new bushes and trees to appear at the outskirts of the forests. They also drew my attention to another point I had never thought of: the need for toilets in the vicinity of churches. When we studied church forest insects, we noticed an abnormally large number of a kind of dung beetle that proliferates around human faeces. We realised this is because church goers, due to lack of toilets, tend to relieve themselves in the forest. So now, in addition to my usual work as a biologist, I’m also reading up on latrine construction and public health issues!
Ethiopian Christians truly love their forests, which have a deep spiritual meaning to them. Our goal is to strongly engage the church, in particular Sunday school students, in local conservation initiative. Our hope is that future generations will become responsible stewards for the remaining forest.”
Meg Lowman teaching local children to identify different species of insects gathered near the Zhara church forest. Video posted on YouTube by Canopymeg.
To fund fence and latrine construction projects near Ethiopia’s church forests, Margaret Lowman and the US-based Tree Foundation plan to set up a fund-raising initiative that would allow donors to have an endemic insect species discovered in Ethiopia’s Church Forests to be named after them. For more information, visit www.canopymeg.com.