Skip to main content

Ethiopian Church Forests: A Hybrid Model of Protection

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7

References

  1. Achard F. A., Ebeuchle R., Mayaux P., Beuchle R., Mayaux P., Stibig H., Bodart C., Brink A., Carboni S., Desclee B., Donnay F., Eva H. D., Lupi A., Rasi R., Seliger R., and Simonetti D. (2014). Determination of Tropical Deforestation Rates and Related Carbon Losses from 1990 to 2010. Global Change Biology 20: 2540–2554. doi:10.1111/gcb.12605.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Aerts R., Overtveld K., Haile M., Hermy M., Deckers J., and Muys B. (2006). Species Composition and Diversity of Small Afromontane Forest Fragments in Northern Ethiopia. Plant Ecology 187(1): 127–142.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Aerts R., Van Overtveld K., November E., Wassie A., Abiyu A., Demissew S., Daye D. D., Giday K., Haile M., Tewolde Berhan S., Teketay D., Teklehaimanot Z., Binggeli P., Deckers J., Friis I., Gratzer G., Hermy M., Heyn M., Honnay O., Paris M., Sterck F. J., Muys B., Bongers F., and Healey J. R. (2016). Conservation of the Ethiopian Church Forests: Threats, Opportunities and Implications for their Management. Science of the Total Environment 551: 404–414. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.02.034.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Agrawal A. (2002). Common resources and institutional sustainability. In Ostrom E., Dietz T., Dolšak N., Stern P. C., Stonich S., and Weber E. U. (eds.), The Drama of the Commons, National Research Council, Washington, D.C., pp. 41–87.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Amare D., Mekuria W., T/wold T., Belay B., Teshome A., Yitaferu B., Tessema T., and Tegegn B. (2016). Perception of Local Community and the Willingness to Pay to Restore Church Forests: The Case of Dera District, Northwestern Ethiopia. Forests, Trees and Livelihoods. doi:10.1080/14728028.2015.1133330.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Ayele, F. 2014. Forest history of South Gondar, Ethiopia: Analysis of the Gondar Archives. Unpublished document. Bahir Dar, Ethiopia.

  7. Belay, K.T. Van Rompaey, A., Poesen, J., Van Bruyssel, S., Deckers, J., and Amare, K. (2014). Spatial Analysis of Land Cover Changes in Eastern Tigray (Ethiopia) From 1965 To 2007: Are There Signs of a Forest Transition? Land Degradation & Development 26(7): 680–689.

  8. Berhane-Selassie T. (2008). The socio-politics of Ethiopian sacred groves. In Sheridan M., and Nyamweru C. (eds.), African Sacred Groves: Ecological Dynamics and Social Change, James Currey, Oxford, pp. 103–116.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Bhagwat S. A., and Rutte C. (2006). Sacred Groves: Potential for Biodiversity Management. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 4(10): 519–524.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Bhagwat S. A., Nogue S., and Willis K. J. (2014). Cultural Drivers of Reforestation in Tropical Forest Groves of the Western Ghats of India. Forest Ecol Manag. 329: 393–400. doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2013.11.017.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Bonan G. (2008). Forests and Climate Change: Forcings, Feedbacks, and the Climate Benefits of Forests. Science 3250: 1444–1449.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Bongers F., Wassie A., Sterck F. J., Bekele T., and Teketay D. (2006). Ecological Restoration and Church Forests in Northern Ethiopia. Journal of the Drylands 1: 35–44.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Boucher, D., Elias, P., Faires, J. and Smith, S. 2014. Deforestation Success Stories: Tropical Nations Where Forest Protection and Reforestation Policies Have Worked. Union of Concerned Scientists http://www.ucsusa.org/forestsuccess [accessed 18 August 2015].

  14. Boylston, T. (2012) The Shade of the Divine: Approaching the Sacred in an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Community. Ph.D. Dissertation. London School of Economics, Department of Anthropology.

  15. Bradshaw C. J., Sodhi N. S., and Brook B. W. (2009). Tropical Turmoil: A Biodiversity Tragedy in Progress. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 7: 79–87.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Byers B. A., Cunliffe R. N., and Hudak A. T. (2001). Linking the Conservation of Culture and Nature: A Case Study of Sacred Forests in Zimbabwe. Human Ecology 29(2): 187–218.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Cardelús C. L., Lowman M. D., and Eshete A. W. (2012). Uniting Church and Science for Conservation. Science 335: 915–917. doi:10.1126/science.335.6071.915.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Cardelús C. L., Scull P., Hair J., Baimas-George M., Lowman M. D., and Wassie Eshete A. (2013). A Preliminary Assessment of Ethiopian Sacred Groves at the Landscape and Ecosystem Scales. Diversity 5(2): 320–334.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Cardelús, C., Scull, P. Wassie Eshete, A., Woods, C., Klepeis, P., Kent, E., and Orlowska, I. (n.d.). Shadow Conservation and the Persistence of Church forests in Northern Ethiopia. Biotropica, forthcoming.

  20. Chandran M. D. S., and Hughes J. D. (1997). The Sacred Groves of India: Ecology, Traditional Communities and Religious Change. Social Compass 44: 413–427.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Chanie T., Collick A. S., Adgo E., Lehmann C. J., and Steenhuis T. S. (2013). Eco-hydrological Impacts of Eucalyptus in the Semi Humid Ethiopian Highlands: The Lake Tana Plain. Journal of Hydrology & Hydromechanics 61: 21–29.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Chhatre A., and Agrawal A. (2008). Forest Commons and Local Enforcement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105(36): 13286–13291.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Darbyshire I., Lamb H., and Umer M. (2003). Forest Clearance and Regrowth in Northern Ethiopia During the Last 3000 years. The Holocene 13: 537–546.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Daye D. D., and Healey J. R. (2015). Impacts of Land-Use Change on Church Forests at the Landscape Scale. Global Ecology and Conservation 3: 349–358.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. DeFries R., Hansen A., and Turner B. (2007). Land Use Change Around Protected Areas: Management to Balance Human Needs and Ecological Function. Ecological Applications 17(4): 1031–1038.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Denevan W. (1992). The Pristine Myth. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82(3): 369–385.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Dove M. R., Sajise P. E., and Doolittle A. A. (2011). Changing ways of thinking about the relations between society and the environment. In Dove M. R., Sajise P. E., and Doolittle A. A. (eds.), Beyond the Church Forest: Complicating Conservation in Southeast Asia, Duke University Press, Durham, N.C, pp. 1–36.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  28. Dudley N., Higgins-Zogib L., and Mansourian S. (2009). The Links Between Protected Areas, Faiths, and Sacred Natural Sites. Conservation Biology 23(3): 568–577. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2009.01201.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). (2010) Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010. Country Report: Ethiopia. Forest Department: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

  30. Frankl A., Seghers V., Stal S., De Maeyer P., Petrie G., and Nyssen J. (2015). Using Image-Based Modelling (SfM–MVS) to Produce a 1935 Orthomosaic of the Ethiopian Highlands. International Journal of Digital Earth 8(5): 421–430.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Fritzsche F., Abate A., Fetene M., Beck E., Weise S., and Guggenberger G. (2006). Soil-Plant Hydrology of Indigenous and Exotic Trees in an Ethiopian Montane Forest. Tree Physiology 26: 1043–1054.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Gadgil M., and Vartak V. D. (1976). The Sacred Groves of Western Ghats in India. Economic Botany 30: 152–160.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Geist H. J., and Lambin E. F. (2002). Proximate Causes and Underlying Driving Forces of Tropical Deforestation. Bioscience 52(2): 143–150.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Gibson C. C., Williams J. T., and Ostrom E. (2005). Local Enforcement and Better Forests. World Development 33(2): 273–284.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Goldman R. (2010). Ecosystem Services: How People Benefit From Nature. Environment 52(5): 15–23.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Head L. (2008). Is the Concept of Human Impacts Past its Use-By Date? The Holocene 18: 373–377.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Hoben A. (1996). The cultural construction of environmental policy: paradigms and politics in Ethiopia. In Leach M., and Mearns R. (eds.), The Lie of the Land: Challenging Received Wisdom on the African Environment, Villiers Publications, London, pp. 186–208.

  38. Hughes J. D., and Chandran S. M. D. (1997). The Sacred Groves of India: Ecology, Traditional Communities and Religious Change. Social Compass 44(3): 413–427.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Jagger, P. and Pender, J. (2000). The Role of Trees for Sustainable Management of Less-Favored Lands: The Case of Eucalyptus in Ethiopia. Environment and Production Technology Division Discussion Paper No. 65, International Food Policy Research Institute Washington D.C., pp. 81.

  40. Jagger P., and Pender J. (2003). The Role of Trees for Sustainable Management of Less-Favored Lands: The Case of Eucalyptus in Ethiopia. Forest Policy and Economics 5: 83–95.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Kent E. F. (2013). Sacred Groves and Local Gods: Religion and Environmentalism in South India, Oxford University Press, New York.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  42. Klepeis P. (2003). Development Policies and Tropical Deforestation in the Southern Yucatán Peninsula: Centralized and Decentralized Approaches. Land Degradation and Development 14: 1–21.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Klepeis P., and Laris P. (2006). Contesting Sustainable Development in Tierra del Fuego. Geoforum 37(4): 505–518.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Laurance W. F., Koster H., Grooten M., Anderson A. B., Zuidema P. A., Zwick S., Zagt R. J., Lynam A. J., Linkie M., and Anten N. P. R. (2012). Making Conservation Research More Relevant for Conservation Practitioners. Biological Conservation 153: 164–168.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Lawrence G., Richards C. A., and Cheshire L. (2004). The Environmental Enigma: Why Do Producers Professing Stewardship Continue to Practice Poor Natural Resource Management? Journal of environmental policy and planning 6(3): 251–270.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Lemenih M., and Kassa H. (2014). Re-Greening Ethiopia: History, Challenges and Lessons. Forests 5: 1896–1909.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Lowman M. D. (2010). Finding Sanctuary - Saving the Biodiversity of Ethiopia, One Church Forest at a Time. The Explorers Journal Winter 2010: 26–31.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Maddox G. H. (2009). African Sacred Groves: Ecological Dynamics and Social Change (Review). African Studies Review 52(1): 207–208.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Matthiesa B. D., and Karimovb A. A. (2014). Financial Drivers of Land Use Decisions: The Case of Smallholder Woodlots in Amhara, Ethiopia. Land Use Policy 41: 474–483.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. McCann J. (1997). The Plow and the Forest: Narratives Deforestation in Ethiopia, 1840-1992. Environmental History 2: 138–159.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Meire E., Frankl A., De Wulf A., Mitiku H., Deckers J., and Nyssen J. (2013). Land Use and Cover Dynamics in Africa Since the Nineteenth Century: Warped Terrestrial Photographs of North Ethiopia. Regional Environmental Change 13: 717–737.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Mwangi E., and Ostrom E. (2009). Top Down Solutions: Looking Up from East Africa’s Rangelands. Environment 51(1): 34–44.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. NABU (Germany’s Nature Conservation Alliance, Naturschutzbund Deutschland). (2015). NABU project region Lake Tana accepted as UNESCO biosphere reserve. http://www.laketana-biosphere.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/15074A-Lake-Tana_E.pdf [accessed 27 August 2015].

  54. Nyssen J., and Petrie G. (2013). Historical Aerial Photography of Ethiopia: Recovery & Organisation of Important Documentation from the 1930s. Geoinformatics 16.7: 32–33.

    Google Scholar 

  55. Nyssen J., Haile M., Nauds J., Munro N., Poesen J., Moeyersons J., Frankl A., Deckers J., and Pankhurst R. (2009). Desertification? Northern Ethiopia Re-photographed after 140 years. Science of the Total Environment 407: 2749–2755. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2008.12.016.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Nyssen, J., Frankl, A., Haile, M., Hurni, H., Descheemaeker, K., Crummey, D., Ritler, A., Portner, B., Nievergelt, B., Moeyersons, J., Munro, N., Deckers, J., Billi, P., and Poesen, J. (2014). Environmental Conditions and Human Drivers for Changes to North Ethiopian Mountain Landscapes Over 145 years. Science of the Total Environment 485486: 164179, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2014.03.052.

  57. Ogbaharya, D.G. (2013). Change and Continuity in Natural Resources Management: A Historical Institutional Analysis of Ethiopia And Namibia. Ph.D. Dissertation, Northern Arizona University.

  58. Oldekop J. A., Bebbington A. J., Hennermann K., McMorrow J., Springate D. A., Torres B., Truelove N. K., Tysklind N., Villamarin S., and Preziosi R. F. (2013). Evaluating the Effects of Common-Pool Resource Institutions and Market Forces on Species Richness and Forest Cover in Ecuadorian Indigenous Kichwa Communities. Conservation Letters 6: 107–115.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. Ormsby A. A. (2011). The Impacts of Global and National Policy on the Management and Conservation of Sacred Groves of India. Human Ecology 39(6): 783–793.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  60. Ostrom E. (1991). Governing the Commons, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

    Google Scholar 

  61. Ostrom E., and Nagendra H. (2006). Insights on Linking Forests, Trees, and People from the Air, on the Ground, and in the Laboratory. PNAS 103(51): 19224–19231. doi:10.1073/pnas.0607962103.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Osuri A. M., Madhusudan M. D., Kumar V. S., Chengappa S. K., Kushalappa C. G., and Sankaran M. (2014). Spatio-Temporal Variation in Forest Cover and Biomass Across Sacred Groves in a Human-Modified Landscape of India’s Western Ghats. Biological Conservation 178: 93–199.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. Pohjonen V., and Pukkala T. (1990). Eucalyptus globulus In Ethiopian forestry. Forest Ecology and Management 36: 19–31.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  64. Poschen-Eiche, P. (1987). The Application of Farming Systems Research to Community Forestry: A Case Study in the Hararge Highlands, Eastern Ethiopia. Tropical Agriculture 1. Weikersheim, Germany: Scientific Books.

  65. Pungetti, G., Oviedo, G., and Hooke, D. (2012). Sacred Species and Sites: Advances in Biocultural Conservation. Cambridge University Press.

  66. Ramakrishnan P. S., Saxena K. G., and Chandrashekara U. M. (eds.) (1998). Conserving the Sacred for Biodiversity Management, Science Publishers, Inc., Enfield, N.H.

    Google Scholar 

  67. Reynolds, T., Shimekach Sisay, T., Wassie Eshete, A., and Lowman, M.. 2015. Sacred natural sites provide ecological libraries for landscape restoration and institutional models for biodiversity conservation. Policy Brief for the 2015 U.N. Global Sustainable Development Report.

  68. Robbins, P. 2012. Political Ecology, Second Edition. Oxford: Blackwell. (First edition, 2004).

  69. Roy Chowdhury R., and Turner B. L. II (2006). Reconciling Agency and Structure in Empirical Analysis: Smallholder Land Use in the Southern Yucatán, Mexico. Ann Assoc Am Geogr 96: 302–322.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  70. Scull, P., Cardelús, C., Klepeis, P., Woods, C., Frankl, A. and J. Nyssen. (2016). The Resilience Of Ethiopian Church Forests: Interpreting Aerial Photographs, 1938–2015. Land Degradation & Development. Published online: 6 Oct.

  71. Sheridan M., and Nyamweru C. (2008). African Sacred Groves: Ecological Dynamics and Social Change, James Currey, Oxford.

    Google Scholar 

  72. Stiles, D., Pohjonen, V.M., and Weber, F. (1991). Reforestation: The Ethiopian experience, 1984–1989. Technical Support Division of UNSO (United Nations Sudano- Sahelian Office). New York: UNSO.

  73. TREE Foundation. (2015). TREE Foundation: Tree research, exploration and education. http://treefoundation.org/projects/church-forests-of-ethiopia/ [accessed 22 June 2015]

  74. United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (2005). Conserving Cultural and Biological Diversity: The Role of Sacred Natural Sites And Cultural Landscapes (Symposium), UNESCO, Paris.

    Google Scholar 

  75. Wassie A. (2002). Opportunies, Constraints, and Prospects of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Churches in Conserving Forest Resources: The Case of Churches in South Gonder, Northern Ethiopia, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala.

    Google Scholar 

  76. Wassie A., and Teketay D. (2006). Soil Seed Banks in Church Forests of Northern Ethiopia: Implications for the Conservation of Woody Plants. Flora-Morphology, Distribution, Functional Ecology of Plants 201: 32–43.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  77. Wassie A., Sterck F. J., Teketay D., and Bongers F. (2009). Tree Regeneration in Church Forests of Ethiopia: Effects of Microsites and Management. Biotropica 41: 110–119.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  78. Wassie A., Sterck F. J., and Bongers F. (2010). Species and Structural Diversity of Church Forests in a Fragmented Ethiopian Highland Landscape. Journal of Vegetation Science 21: 938–948.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  79. Waylen K. A., Fischer A., McGowan P. J. K., Thirgood S. J., and Milner-Gulland E. J. (2010). Effect of Local Cultural Context on the Success of Community-Based Conservation Interventions. Conservation Biology 24: 1119–1129. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01446.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  80. Wild, R., and McLeod, C. (Ed) (2008). Sacred Natural Sites: Guidelines for Protected Area Managers. Gland, Switzerland: International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. http://www.iucn.org/about/work/programmes/social_policy/?1745/IUCN-and-UNESCO-publish-guidelines-on-sacred-natural-sites-in-protected-areas [accessed 18 August 2015].

  81. Williams M. (2003). Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

    Google Scholar 

  82. Wilson G. (2012). Community Resilience and Environmental Transitions, Routledge, New York.

    Google Scholar 

  83. Worster D. (1993). The Wealth of Nature: Environmental history and the Ecological Imagination, Oxford University Press, New York.

    Google Scholar 

  84. Zur Heide, F. (2012). Feasibility Study for a Lake Tana Biosphere Reserve, Ethiopia. Bundesamt für Naturschutz (BfN) / Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, Bonn, Germany. http://www.bfn.de/0502_skripten + M52087573ab0.html [accessed 18 August 2015].

Download references

Acknowledgments

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.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Peter Klepeis.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Klepeis, P., Orlowska, I.A., Kent, E.F. et al. Ethiopian Church Forests: A Hybrid Model of Protection. Hum Ecol 44, 715–730 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-016-9868-z

Download citation

Keywords

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