From an aerial perspective much of the north Ethiopia it looks like a great big brown field, only occasionally crossed by roads. But there are small pockets of green forest, thanks to the churches that are part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Churcha denomination with some 50 million members.
More than 3,500 of these churches they are scattered throughout the Ethiopian countryside and most are found within the forests. Church followers believe that the forests are just as sacred like the religious buildings that rest in the shade inside.
That ideal contrasts sharply with much of the rest of the country. At the beginning of the 20th century, the forests shaded about 40 percent Ethiopian. Now, largely due to expanding reproductive rates and the need for agricultural land to feed the world’s 12th largest population, the country’s landscape is only 4 percent forested.
It is the churches that protect much of that 4 percent. Some of the churches are 1,500 years old, which means that the forests around them are also ancient. These lush, green areas not only soothe the skin of sun-dried people (and often livestock). They are vital islands of biodiversity in a region that is burdened by deforestation and overgrazing. They help protect water supplies and soil quality, and provide habitat for pollinators, which are important not only for forests but also for adjacent crops.
A study published in March 2019 in the journal PLOS One showed that disturbances from both humans and livestock affect the overall health and biodiversity of church forests. Too many human feet and animal hooves fragment forests, reduce forest size and density, and increase the isolation of these fragile ecosystems.
Some churches have built low stone walls prevent cattle and other animals from trampling undergrowth and demarcate the forest. The study found that the walls have helped in those areas, but not in planting new forests. For that, the authors of the study recommended an active program of planting, weed removal and the disincentive of new roads and clearing.
“The interdependence between the forest and the church community makes conservation efforts essential,” they write.