Skip to content

You are using an outdated browser

Internet Explorer is not supported by this site and Microsfot has stopped releasing updates, therefore you may encounter issues whilst visiting this site and we strongly recommend that you upgrade your browser for modern web functionality, a better user experience and improved security.

Upgrade my browser

The Church Forests of Ethiopia are lush, green oases of biodiversity

The Church Forests of Ethiopia are lush, green oases of biodiversity
Source: Vimeo/GoProjectFilms

A compelling mini-documentary tells the story of the Ethiopia’s Church Forests — pockets of lush biodiversity that are protected by hundreds of churches “scattered like emerald pearls across the brown sea of farm fields.”

Ethiopian Church Forests: A unique Model of biodiversity Protection

Over the past century, farming and the needs of a growing population have replaced nearly all of Ethiopia’s old-growth forests with agricultural fields. A compelling mini-documentary tells the story of the country’s Church Forests–pockets of lush biodiversity that are protected by hundreds of churches “scattered like emerald pearls across the brown sea of farm fields.”

But the hot, dry fields are only a few steps away.
The Debre Mihret Arbiatu Ensesa church, which looks from above like a bright pinwheel, is surrounded by trees. But the hot, dry fields are only a few steps away. Source: Kieran Dodds/National Geographic

“scattered like emerald pearls across the brown sea of farm fields.”

Over the past century, farming and the needs of a growing population have replaced nearly all of Ethiopia’s old-growth forests with agricultural fields. A compelling mini-documentary tells the story of the country’s Church Forests–pockets of lush biodiversity that are protected by hundreds of churches “scattered like emerald pearls across the brown sea of farm fields.”

Filmmaker Jeremy Seifert grew up attending churches surrounded by parking lots and populated by congregations that didn’t connect their spirituality to ecology. So when he first heard about the Church Forests of Ethiopia, he was intrigued.

Seifert wrote in the New York Times in 2019, ‘One of my great passions has been the environment, fighting for it, telling stories of its abuse and our need to be caretakers and champions of our shared home. I was eager to meet people whose religion had some built-in practice of respecting trees and preserving biodiversity. And that belief, coupled with the ballooning threat of climate change and a growing sense of despair, propelled me to visit the church forests of Ethiopia.’ 

Continued below…

Source: NewYorkTimes

The Entos Eyesus church and its forest fill an entire tiny island in the middle of Lake Tana, near Bahir Dar. Source: Kieran Dodds/National Geographic

“A church, to be a church, must be enveloped by a forest.”

A few months later and Seifert stood in the office of a forest ecologist, Alemayehu Wassie Eshete, who started his interview by telling him, “A church, to be a church, must be enveloped by a forest.”

‘I had never heard those words before or that idea, but I was hearing a truth I already knew,’ wrote Seifert. ‘The church should be immersed in creation, enjoying and protecting the forest and shores and mountains, the whole earth.’

As Seifert spent time with Dr. Alemayehu and filmed in the little pockets of old-growth forest that surround the churches of Ethiopia, he experienced moments of awe at the beauty of the church forests, however, they were countered by feelings of despair. They were so small. So much of the surrounding forest had already disappeared.

‘I wrestled with judging the Ethiopian Church for holding its beliefs imperfectly, like all things human. Why not save more of the forest than just a small patch around the church? Where was the church when 97 percent of Ethiopia’s primary forest was destroyed?’

‘For me, these little blips of green forest rising out of vast swaths of deforested brown earth represent hope. They are a powerful intersection of faith and science doing some good in the world.’

E.O. Wilson, in his book “Half-Earth,” declared the church forests of Ethiopia “one of the best places in the biosphere.” They are proof that when faith and science make common cause on ecological issues, it results in a model that bears repeating. We have the blueprint of life held in these tiny circles of faith, and that’s something to rejoice over and protect and expand with every resource we can muster.

Jeremy Seifert is a documentary filmmaker based in North Carolina.

Source: NewYorkTimes

Several auxiliary buildings nestle in the forest alongside the Tebebari Michael church in Anbesame, Amhara. Source: Kieran Dodds/National Geographic

Ethiopian Church Forests: A Hybrid Model of Protection

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. Researchers used 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. 

Research informs theoretical debates about models of tropical forest protection and question assumptions about church forests being the product of a nature conservation imperative.

Source: Researchgate/SpringerScience

Lush, mature forest canopy drapes over the Betre Mariam church in Zege, at the edges of Lake Tana. Source: Kieran Dodds/National Geographic
At some church sites, like the Chimba Michael church in West Gojam, the forest have been lost nearly entirely, with only a few trees sparsely scattered across the landscape. Source: Kieran Dodds/National Geographic
The fields near the Gebita Giyorgis Church are encroaching on the patch of church forest. Source: Kieran Dodds/National Geographic
The structures at the clearing’s perimeter serve as mahabir houses or housing for nuns and monks.
The inner clearing surrounding a church near the town of Mekane Eyesus in South Gondar, Ethiopia. The structures at the clearing’s perimeter serve as mahabir houses or housing for nuns and monks. Source: Researchgate/SpringerScience
Location of the study area in the South Gondar Zone, Amhara Regional State, Ethiopia. Source: Researchgate/SpringerScience
Note the presence of two churches, which is becoming more common as wealth grows and external benefactors donate money to local communities.
Aerial photograph of a church forest (7.2 ha in size) in South Gondar, Ethiopia. Note the presence of two churches, which is becoming more common as wealth grows and external benefactors donate money to local communities. Source: Researchgate/SpringerScience
Church forests are normally located on hills. Note the native scattered (i.e., stand-alone) trees distinctly outside of the forest perimeter, young Eucalyptus plantations at the church forest edge, and cattle grazing right next to the forest.
A church forest near the town of Mekane Eyesus in South Gondar, Ethiopia. Church forests are normally located on hills. Note the native scattered (i.e., stand-alone) trees distinctly outside of the forest perimeter, young Eucalyptus plantations at the church forest edge, and cattle grazing right next to the forest. Source: Researchgate/SpringerScience

The Church Forests of Ethiopia A mini-documentary by filmmaker Jeremy Seifert Over the past century, farming and the needs of a growing population have replaced nearly all of Ethiopia’s old-growth forests with agricultural fields. This film tells the story of the country’s Church Forests–pockets of lush biodiversity that are protected by hundreds of churches “scattered like emerald pearls across the brown sea of farm fields.” Source: Vimeo/GoProjectFilms
Make an Impact

8 FASCINATING FOREST FACTS & FIGURES YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW

Many different types of forests exist around the world, reflecting different climates, altitudes, and soil types. Here are 8 fascinating facts and figures on forests and trees that you might not already know: