Deep in Ethiopia’s South Gonder, sparsely conserved forests have found an unlikely ally against deforestation: an Oriental Orthodox Church. “In Ethiopian Orthodox Teaching, a church—to be a church—should be enveloped by a forest. It should resemble the Garden of Eden,” says Alemayehu Wassie, an ecologist who studies church forests and ecosystem health. 

Church forests are small, fragmented Afromontane regions safeguarded by Ethiopian priests and religious communities, a practice known as shadow conservation. The forests are torus shaped—each encircles a central replica of the Ark of the Covenant, symbolically “clothed” by enclosing vegetation. 

This church’s religious connection with the forest has derived from centuries of deeply-entrenched theological doctrine. In 451 CE, the Ethiopian Church split from other churches in the Council of Chalcedon (an early Christian conference), rejecting the inflective belief that human and divine natures are separate. Tewahedo, the Ge’ez name born out of that schism, means unity. Modern-day Tewahedo Orthodox Christians believe the forest represents a unified, divine presence on Earth, and this spiritual osmosis bleeds into community dialogue surrounding conservation.

Shadow conservation is both talismanic and vitally important in maintaining Ethiopia’s biodiversity. Church forests, which number some 35,000 across the country, occupy a unique ecological niche, benefiting agriculture by attracting insects that pollinate crops and birds that control pests. They host copious hotspots of evergreen trees and flowering plants, such as Diospyros and Justicia. Church forests also sequester carbon from the atmosphere and maintain cool temperatures, conserving water.

However, such forests are few and far between, often dwindling in size due to agricultural encroachment and lacking ecosystem services. Indeed, 97 percent of forested land in Ethiopia has been stripped for agricultural purposes—a staggering figure, given that almost half of the country was forested a century prior. Church forests’ most exigent threats are small-scale farmers, who allow their animals to graze along its fringes, and the churchgoers themselves, who overuse its resources. Repeated anthropogenic influence has eroded key buffer regions and disrupted wildlife. 

Yet agriculture constitutes an important buttress of the Ethiopian economy: it employs 85 percent of the workforce, comprises 50 percent of GDP, and offers a path to self-sufficient employment for small-scale farmers, who produce 90 percent of nationwide output. Further, Ethiopian farmers have long struggled with diminished crop yield. Wassie’s collaborator and American tropical ecologist, Meg Lowman, emphatically notes, “You can’t expect hungry people to conserve forests when they need to plant an extra row of corn or millet.” 

There are, however, alternatives to accommodate what little remains of the country's Afromontane forests and ensure agricultural success. Last year, the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency published a ten-year review of Ethiopian agricultural data, which, among other guidelines, disputes the apocryphal benefits of agricultural land expansion: “improvement in crop yields is unlikely to come from an expansion of the resource base." Instead, the report underscores the relevance of agricultural research, fertilization, and input supplies—all related to land productivity—as keys areas of development. The first step in protecting church forests is investing in these activities.

The next step in stymying the conversion of church forests to agricultural land would be communicating the forest’s vital importance to locals. For example, Wassie and Lowman have conducted workshops for priests, enlisted churchgoer support, and engaged schoolchildren in outreach field work. Such efforts improve stewardship; oftentimes, priests remain unaware that their forests require ecological restoration until they see low-altitude imagery, and families start conserving for posterity. Wassie has also helped raise funds for resources to prevent forest degradation and erect corrective low walls around the forest boundaries. These hedges, built to delineate the end of agricultural land and the beginning of the church forests, deter wood-seeking farmers and grazing animals from entering.

In recent years, many church forests have begun the long road to recovery, thanks in part to large-scale community restoration projects driven by spirituality and a commitment to preserving the natural world. An evocative sustainability portrait, these forests transcend three inextricably tied functions of the forest—the spiritual sanctuary, means of sustenance, and ecological constellation—to provide modern insight into how all three can coexist.