Ethiopia’s ‘little Edens’
The dominion mandate in action
Ethiopia’s forests were devastated in the 20th century. There are around 35,000 tiny islands of green forest in the parched landscape, most of them with churches at the centre.1 Some of them are as small as (two hectares) five acres, while others are up to (400 hectares) 1,000 acres.2
Most of these were razed to create farmland for the country’s growing population. Growing more food was necessary; Ethiopia often has famines. But forest ecologist Alemayehu Wassie says that razing the forests was a mistake, and “productivity could have been increased by using technologies rather than expanding farmland.”1
Why are the forests preserved particularly around the churches? Because the churches view it as their responsibility to preserve these forests, some of them 1,500 years old, as kind of replicas of Eden. “Symbolizing the Garden of Eden … , the woods are revered as places of worship to be cared for and cherished but are not considered to be living deities.”3
Wassie says, “From an ecological perspective, it’s like going from hell to heaven. You go from dry, hot fields into the beautiful forest. Anyone would see that as beautiful”.4
These forests are important because they contain birds and insects that pollinate crops. They also “conserve water, reduce soil erosion and provide natural medicine.”1
Invasive species threat
In an attempt to counteract the deforestation of the nation, eucalyptus trees were imported and planted. They had a number of desirable qualities—they grew fast, and their lumber was desirable for building. But as with many invasive species, the fact that this tree has no native pests or predators means that it out-competes the local flora. Also, it is toxic to many of the local species. It also takes four times as much water to grow.5
Science and the church in cooperation
Now scientists are studying the forests. They are finding that more of the original diversity of the plants and animals of the region has been preserved than they originally thought. And they recognize that the clergy are key to maintaining the forests. “The biggest solutions to these forests comes from the inside: the church members and clergy who believe they are the stewards of all of God’s creatures, a similar mission to us as conservation biologists.”2 “They were so passionate from the start because they saw themselves as stewards of all God’s creatures. I, as a conservation scientist, believe we have a responsibility to save biodiversity. That’s the same goal.”4
Together with forest ecologist Meg Lowman, they began to educate the priests about their work in hopes of partnering with them to conserve the forests. They are encouraging the churches to build stone walls to prevent the edges of the forests from being damaged.1 The stones for the walls are removed from surrounding fields, which also improves crop yields.1 There is growing support for this project from the local population:
“The locals consider the forests as jewellery to the church, and the walls are the clothing. We have invoked a cultural shift for conservation because now all the churches want walls built around their ‘naked’ forests.”2
The walls are causing the protected forests to thrive, so much so that some of the walls are being extended outward to expand the forests. The hope is that one day the church forests can connect to one another, restoring the landscape to what it once was. Wassie is hopeful:
“All the pieces are there. 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.”4
Christianity and the environment
Even though some of the beliefs of the Ethiopian church come from tradition and not the direct teaching of Scripture, the respect they have for these forests has preserved biodiversity that has been wiped out everywhere else.
This is a direct consequence of their belief that it is their responsibility to be stewards of these forests. This clearly derives from their understanding of the ‘dominion mandate’ given to mankind (Genesis 1:26–28).
Some cite this Creation Week mandate as something that’s harmful for the environment, because it gives humans permission to use creation for our benefit (while saying nothing about exploiting or ravaging it). However, in this case the dominion mandate is the reason why Ethiopia’s biodiversity has been preserved.
References and notes
- Abbott, A., Biodiversity thrives in Ethiopia’s church forests, nature.com, accessed 5 February 2019. Return to text.
- Robinson, L., How churches are the gatekeepers of Ethiopia’s forests, Africa Geographic, Issue 32, magazine.africageographic.com, 24 April 2015. Return to text.
- Gili, E., Are church forests key to conservation in Ethiopia? dw.com, 21 January 2014. Return to text.
- Borunda, A., Ethiopia’s ‘church forests’ are incredible oases of green, National Geographic, nationalgeographic.com, 18 January 2019. Return to text.
- Lowman, Meg, Dispatch from Ethiopia: curse of the church forests, Huffington Post, huffingtonpost.com, 30 April 2014. Return to text.