Human Ecology

, Volume 44, Issue 6, pp 715–730 | Cite as

Ethiopian Church Forests: A Hybrid Model of Protection

  • Peter KlepeisEmail author
  • Izabela A. Orlowska
  • Eliza F. Kent
  • Catherine L. Cardelús
  • Peter Scull
  • Alemayehu Wassie Eshete
  • Carrie Woods


Protection of forests because of their association with religious traditions is a worldwide phenomenon. These sacred forests play a key role in maintaining ecosystem services in regions affected by land system change. In the northern highlands of Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church controls the majority of the surviving native forest. However, the reasons why communities value the forests and the ways they use and manage them are not well understood. We use data and analysis from an interdisciplinary project and ethnographic research, in particular, to explain how Ethiopian church forests function. Church forests represent an unusual form of community-based protection that integrates locally controlled common property with external institutional arrangements: this hybrid system is highly effective at protecting the forest while maintaining cultural practices. Our results inform theoretical debates about models of tropical forest protection and question assumptions about church forests being the product of a nature conservation imperative.


Africa Common property Conservation Ethiopia Land-use change Sacred groves Tropical deforestation 



The Picker Interdisciplinary Science Institute at Colgate University funded the research. We thank Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church Diocese officials as well as the hundreds of priests, community members, and government officials in South Gondar for teaching us about church forests. Fantahun Ayele, Mabel Baez, Kayleigh Bhangdia, Joshua Hair, Kelsey Jensen, James McCann, Lindsay McCulloch, William Meyer, Travis Reynolds, and Allison Shafritz provided key assistance and feedback.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Peter Klepeis
    • 1
    Email author
  • Izabela A. Orlowska
    • 2
  • Eliza F. Kent
    • 3
  • Catherine L. Cardelús
    • 4
  • Peter Scull
    • 1
  • Alemayehu Wassie Eshete
    • 5
  • Carrie Woods
    • 6
  1. 1.GeographyColgate UniversityHamiltonUSA
  2. 2.Zentrum Moderner OrientBerlinGermany
  3. 3.Religious Studies, Skidmore CollegeSaratoga SpringsUSA
  4. 4.BiologyColgate UniversityHamiltonUSA
  5. 5.Bahir Dar UniversityBahir DarEthiopia
  6. 6.BiologyUniversity of Puget SoundTacomaUSA

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