Protecting Ethiopia’s 'church forests', green patches in a parched landscape

In the East African country of Ethiopia, a mostly arid expanse of grassy savannah, much of the fertile land has been cleared to make way for agriculture. In this dry, treeless landscape remain a few oases of green: the sacred forests that ring Ethiopia’s Orthodox churches.


Aerial view of a church forest in Ethiopia. Photo: Google Maps.


In the East African country of Ethiopia, a mostly arid expanse of grassy savannah, much of the fertile land has been cleared to make way for agriculture. In this dry, treeless landscape there remain a few oases of green: the sacred forests that ring Ethiopia’s Orthodox churches.


There are an estimated 35,000 church forests in Ethiopia, most of which are located in the north of the country, particularly in the Lake Tana area. Their size ranges from a few acres to 300 hectares. Followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church believe that "all of God’s creatures should have a home around men’s places of worship". They see the forests as a living symbol of the Garden of Eden. As such, church forests are among the last places where Ethiopia’s endangered native plant species have been left untouched. 


Yet even these spiritually-protected forests are threatened – not by external factors, such as industrial loggers or agribusiness, but by the very church members and clergy to whom they are so dear. Unaware of the harm they are causing, locals use the wood from the trees for firewood, or to repair the church and make sacred utensils. Plants in the forest are eaten or used to make dyes.


According to the World Resource Institute, a global environmental think tank, forests make up less than 5% of Ethiopia’s territory. Some experts believe that without adequate protection, the country’s last remaining forests could disappear in ten years' time. 


To avoid this, American biologist Margaret Lowman has forged a partnership with Ethiopia’s Christian Orthodox clergy and Ethiopian forest researcher Alemayehu Wassie Esheter, in an effort to involve local communities in the sustainable stewardship of their sacred forests.



Aerial view of the forest around Debresena church in South Gondar, Ethiopia. Photo: Google Maps.


Meg Lowman's team arrives at the Debresena church to collect insect samples, August 2010. Posted on YouTube by Canopymeg.


Ethiopian churches in their natural landscape

Debre Birham Selassie Church. Photo posted on Flickr by marjan_deblaauw


Balewold Church. Photo posted on Flickr by Mattylad77.


Medhane Alem Church. Photo posted on Flickr by Mike Gadd.


A church forest in Lalibela, Ethiopia. Photo posted on Flickr by jbratt.


“The church forests are the last remnants of Ethiopia’s historic Afromontane biodiversity”

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

Post written with France 24 journalist Lorena Galliot.