Ethiopia’s Church Forests Are Pockets of Biodiversity

Caitlin Dempsey

Updated:

Much of Ethiopia’s original forests have been cleared from the country for agricultural purposes.  Only about 5% is now covered in forests, compared to 45% about one hundred years ago.  The pockets of Afromontane forests that remain are mostly made up of what are known as church forests.

More than half of Ethiopia’s population are members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and believe that the natural forest represents heaven on earth,  As a result, each church is surrounded by an oasis of trees and plants.

Coptic Forests

Also known as coptic forests, church forests are microforests that can range in size from a few acres to 300 hectares and provide a range of spiritual and ecological benefits to the local community.  

Ras Makkonen Selassie Church in Harar, Ethiopia. Photo: © homocosmicos/stock.adobe.com.
Ras Makkonen Selassie Church in Harar, Ethiopia. Photo: © homocosmicos.

Church forests help to provide a space for prayer and contemplation, burial lands, access to medicinal plants, sequester carbon, reduce ambient temperatures, prevent soil erosion, and provide habitat for a range of species.


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It’s estimated that there are about 35,000 church forests dotted across Ethiopia. Several conservation organizations have been involved in mapping and protecting these forested islands.  

Active preservation measures include building walls around church forests to prevent intrusion by grazing cattle and hunters.

An annotated aerial of a church forest in South Gondar, Ethiopia. Source: Klepeis et al., 2016
An annotated aerial of a church forest in South Gondar, Ethiopia. Source: Klepeis et al., 2016

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.