Growing up in the South Gondar region of Ethiopia, Alemayehu Wassie went to church every Sunday. Sure, it’s a familiar weekly ritual for Christians the world over, but Wassie’s trip from home to pew was quite different from the sleepy morning drive, fueled by coffee and doughnuts, known to many Westerners. That’s because Wassie, a member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, would trail dust from the spent soil of the surrounding populated areas through an ancient and sacred forest to reach his parish.
“You always pass through these forests appreciating nature, appreciating God’s gift,” Wassie says over shoddy cellphone service from Bahir Dar in northern Ethiopia. “They are also burial sites, so they are the beginning of your life and also where you are going to end. Emotionally, when you go to these forests, you always feel your loved ones and your ancestry.” Ancestry that could extend as far back as A.D. 34 in a country that’s home to some of the world’s first Christians — the earliest Ethiopian conversion is recorded in the Bible itself (Acts 8:26-27)
Raised under the weight of that religious history, it was not until later in life that Wassie, now 46, discovered what he believes is even more significant — and more urgent — about Ethiopia’s sacred forests: ecological conservation. Peppered throughout a landscape that’s slowly been decimated by centuries of agricultural and urban development, these forests — numbering around 12,000 — act as natural barriers to continued erosion and a source of life-giving water and biodiversity. But they are facing the twin threats of continued encroachment and a younger population that’s disconnected from the church and unmoved by the potential loss of these hallowed grounds (they once occupied 329,000 square miles — a figure that, as of 2016, had dropped to below 28,000).
Since receiving his forestry degree from Alemaya University of Agriculture in 1992, Wassie has been working to save, restore and expand Ethiopia’s rapidly shrinking church forests. He served as forestry expert at the Ethiopian Ministry of Natural Resources and worked with several nongovernmental organizations before receiving his Ph.D. in forest ecology and management at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. In 2008, Wassie teamed up with Margaret “Canopy Meg” Lowman, director of global initiatives and senior scientist for plant conservation at the California Academy of Sciences, to raise international awareness of the church forests. “Dr. Wassie is a true pioneer in every sense of the word — one of a handful of scientists studying Ethiopian forests,” Lowman tells OZY, calling him “a leader in both religious and scientific circles.”
Before human settlement reached Ethiopia nearly 200,000 years ago, forests filled an estimated 35 percent to 40 percent of the country. That number dropped to 16 percent by the 1950s, and sits at just 5 percent today. Satellite images confirm the data: Viewed from above, Ethiopia’s overwhelmingly dusty surface is dotted with 3,500 verdant atolls of trees, at the center of which sit Orthodox churches. “If you want to begin reforestation, you have to start with church forests,” Wassie tells me. Called Debr or Geddam by locals, these forests are living symbols of the Garden of Eden and the bounty of God’s gifts to man. They are places of worship, meditative retreats during religious festivals and burial sites. Some of Ethiopia’s church forests, which range from 5 acres to 1,000 acres, are upwards of 1,500 years old.
Deforestation in Ethiopia started in the 1950s with farmers felling trees for timber and cattle trampling and feeding on the seedlings, preventing regrowth. With an increasing (2.5 percent, according to the World Bank) and often famine-stricken population, 80 percent of which live in rural areas, ongoing pressure to turn over land for crops and livestock is intense. Furthermore, Wassie explains, the younger generations have little regard for the sacred nature of church forests. “Partly because of globalization, mostly youngsters have come to violate some of the old-time traditions,” he says, adding simply: “They are becoming less religious.”
But these forests, as Wassie’s research attests, have a significance that goes beyond religion and cultural symbolism. They are islands of biodiversity, housing hundreds of plant, animal and microbial species that are vital to the ecological health of the country — and are under threat from encroaching agricultural initiatives. With dwindling pockets of natural landscape surrounded by farms and grazing lands, where does the wildlife seek shelter? “It’s only church forests,” says Wassie. He and colleagues from Colby College, which runs a program in South Gondar researching the cultural, economic and ecological roles of church forests, have identified birds, mammals, reptiles, insects and microorganisms — including pollinator species that are crucial to supporting Ethiopia’s agriculture. The trees themselves are key to inhibiting erosion and retaining water in the soil, while the forests are a constant source of freshwater streams by attracting rain clouds and guiding rainwater into rivers, lakes and the underground water table (75 percent of the Earth’s freshwater supply comes from forests).
Wassie’s strategy for saving Ethiopia’s church forests is built on conservation, education and expansion. First, he wants to protect the remaining acreage by erecting stone walls around their perimeters to discourage locals from cutting down trees while also serving as demarcation lines for tracking reduction or growth. He then hopes to expand the forests by establishing “corridors” of seedlings between parishes, encouraging growth along these weblike networks.
The education piece centers on communicating the team’s stark findings to the general public. “We are taking satellite images from Google Earth and presenting them to church leaders to show how they are shrinking,” Wassie says, who hopes these leaders will help galvanize parishioners around the need for conservation. To reach younger generations whose sensibilities are trending more global than religious, Wassie has created booklets for Sunday school students that bring to life the forests’ importance beyond their spiritual value. “Under Dr. Alemayehu’s guidance, priests have openly discussed the ecological benefits church forests provide to surrounding communities and agro-ecosystems, the roles of the church community in degrading and protecting forests [and]the impacts of climate change,” explains Travis W. Reynolds, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby College who has worked with Wassie in Ethiopia for the past five years, studying forest ecology and community forest management.
But how does one get a population to care about forest conservation when its main concern is where the next meal will come from, or whether they might be gunned down in a peaceful protest against an oppressive regime? Just last year, after two seasons without rain, 18 million Ethiopians were left in desperate need of food and water. In the period between November 2015 and July 2016, Ethiopian security forces cracked down on anti-government demonstrations, opening fire into crowds and killing 669 people. When I ask Eden Chane, an Ethiopian expat, about the church forests, she responds with a different question: “Did you see the protests? They fired machine guns into a crowd of people. I cannot go back.” Expecting Ethiopians to focus attention on the health of their forests when lives are at risk can feel unrealistic, if not delusional.
Wolbert G.C. Smidt, co-author of the book Discussing Conflict in Ethiopia, agrees that there is tension surrounding forest conservation: On the one side are sacred spaces, rich in natural biodiversity with a church at their center, and on the other side there’s pressure to clear the land and make it arable. And although Smidt points to “an amazing number of small-scale activities” that have returned a measure of ecological stability to some villages, these efforts cannot make inroads in the broad sections of the country — “especially many lowland regions, which are affected by increased migration from the highlands and urbanization,” he says.
Ethiopian Orthodox Church forests are said by priests and parishioners to be necklaces of emerald green adorning their parishes. The canopy, so the legend goes, acts as a net to save prayers from getting lost to the wind. Through their work, Wassie and his colleagues are adding to this mythology, with parishioners now mobilizing to build protective walls to clothe their naked churches. It seems the centuries-old cultural history of sacred forests continues to evolve alongside changes in demographics, climate and social attitudes. But mythology is not enough to preserve these forests — except in the collective memory — and the loss will be dramatic, and permanent. “If we lose them, we will lose the whole biodiversity they contain forever,” Wassie intones gravely.
As we say our goodbyes over cellphone static, Wassie remains hopeful, invoking the forests’ mythic past as a sign of their ability to endure: “Church forests are the past and a library of history, and they’re also our future, where we will begin to bring back what has been lost.” The measure of what has been lost is substantial; it remains to be seen how much can be restored.