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The church forests: what we’ve learned so far

August 24, 2010

Eucalyptus lumber for sale

Eucalyptus, a fast growing non-native species of tree, is grown widely as a lumber crop. You see huge piles like these lining the roads for sale. One would think that these Eucalyptus crops would be a sufficient alternative to cutting down trees in the church forests. But Alemayhu tells us that trees in the forest are still being cut down.

Eucalyptus (the stand of trees on the right) is a big cash crop and grown extensively

We have so many questions about the forest here. Many of us were surprised at the degree of degradation that this forest has been subject to. The understory of the forest has been cleared for food crops like coffee, foot paths criss cross the forest, only the trees remain of the original forest community.

On the edge of the church forest peering out towards an open field - this gap in the church forest wall allows cattle to wander in

We spoke with the head priest at our research site. He appealed to us to help draw the attention and the funds of the government to their plight. He stated three major problems for his students and the church forests. 1) Cattle is herded by local farmers near the edge of the church. They trample and eat tree seedlings, they also compact the earth making it difficult for seeds to successfully germinate. 2) There is no clean drinking water source at the church forest. Where do these people get their water? 3) There is no toilet facility for the people in the church forest. This last piece puzzled us most of all. Why didn’t they dig pit toilets? Did they fear contamination of underground water sources? How has the alternative of using the entire forest as a toilet not proved to be problematic enough till now?

Meg and Alemayhu are greeted by a church priest and disciple

Alemayhu said that the priests of these forests are the most highly respected individuals in Ethiopian society, moreso than scientists with PhD’s and high ranking government officials. The priest said, too, that the rise of other religions in Ethiopia have weakened his authority over the area. There was a time when the threat of excommunication from the church community was a strong enough deterrent for crimes against the church or the community (e.g. cutting down trees).

This stone wall is cattle proof and will hopefully stop the rapidly receding forest edge, notice the contrast between forest and grazing pasture (but the wall needs to be completed in order to be effective - see picture above) (photo: Phil Wittman)

Several priests convened to hear Meg speak about the importance of the church forests back in January of 2008. Since that meeting, the priests in the forest we are working on, Zhara forest, have begun constructing a stone fence around the forest. Meg was astounded that the church took it upon themselves to begin building walls to protect the forest. The walls must be built of stone to hold up against the straying cattle from grazing in the forest. Neighboring farmers refused to let the church collect stones from their fields since the wall was being erected against their cattle. So the church had to invest some of its few resources towards purchasing the stone for these walls.

A hazy shot of our second church forest, Debresena.

In America, the first question that is asked upon hearing that 35,000 church forests exist across Ethiopia is “How can we connect them?” This mentality is distinctly American, where the ethos of conservation, the national and state park system, have been prominent for decades. Here we are tempted to ask the question of where resources should be directed. Should resources be used to save these tiny 10 hectare forests? Are they a lost cause? Should we concentrate instead on larger forests that still have a chance of survival?

Coleoptera (beetle) taxonomists eagerly gather around a rotting fallen tree looking for specimens

As with much preliminary research, many more questions are raised than answered. Much of the data we are collecting here serves as baseline data for comparison to forests in other parts of the world and as a starting point for further research here. Very little is known about these forests in the international scientific (or lay) communities. The papers that come of this work will help to publicize their plight and get them the attention they need for conservation measures to be enacted.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 24, 2010 1:01 pm

    Nice writing. You are on my RSS reader now so I can read more from you down the road.

    Allen Taylor

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