Church forests in Ethiopia

by Jeremy Cherfas on January 5, 2012

For ages now scientists and others have spoken about working with sacred spaces, such as temple groves, to conserve the biodiversity they harbour. At a PLoS blog (which bills itself as “Diverse perspectives on science and medicine”) is a fascinating account of a very special set of sacred forests and recent attempts to improve their conservation.

Followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Churches believe they should maintain a home for all of God’s creatures around their places of worship. The result? Forests ringing churches.

There are some 35,000 church forests in Ethiopia, ranging in size from a few acres to 300 hectares. Some churches and their forests may date back to the fourth century, and all are remnants of Ethiopia’s historic Afromontane forests. To their followers, they are a sacred symbol of the garden of Eden — to be loved and cared for, but not worshipped.

Read the full article and you might agree that “not worshipped” is putting it mildly. The dominant ground insects are dung beetles adapted to work with human material. Latrines will probably do the forests a power of good. As will fences to keep livestock out. But the crucial need will be to work with the local farmers, to ensure that they can grow more on less land, allowing the forests breathing space and maybe even a bit of expansion. To what extent, I wonder, do crops in the surrounding fields depend on ecosystem services such as pollination and pest and disease control provided by the inhabitants of the forests?

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