Ethiopia’s Church Forests Are Pockets of Biodiversity

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.

An orthodox church in Oromia, Ethiopia surrounded by forest. Photo: Ninara, December 2017, CC-BY 2.0

An orthodox church in Oromia, Ethiopia surrounded by forest. Photo: Ninara, December 2017, CC-BY 2.0

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

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.

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