Continuing a Tradition

PCVs have long had an interest in preserving trees. Now a new project to save a unique verdant treasure is underway.

By Janet Lee (Emdeber 1974-76)

As Returned Peace Corps Volunteers from Ethiopia and Eritrea, we have many shared memories: the sights, sounds, and odors we experienced in country. Some assaulted our senses and others were quite delightful — although they may have affected each of us individually in a different way. Who doesn’t remember the first burning taste of berbere, women singing invitations to each other to come for coffee, the chilling whoop of the hyena in the middle of the night, the fragrant smell of roasting coffee, or that first sour bite of injera?

Usually injera was baked in some type of outdoor kitchen with dangerously long sticks of burning wood poking out from underneath a clay metad, the lid shaped from dried cow dung. Do I remember correctly that a large bundle of wood cost a mere semuni, about 25 cents? Women and girls would comb the nearby forests for large branches and carry them back to their village hunched over under the weight and bulk. Generation after generation of females repeated this process, roaming further and further into the countryside.

Slowly the forests were converted into pastures, fields, or deserts. Often wood was used for building materials. Over a century ago, eucalyptus (bahir saf—the tree from across the sea) was introduced as a quick fix. Its leaves had an unmistakable fragrance, remarkably like cough drops! Although it spread quickly, it depleted the soil and soaked up all of the water. Today, nearly 95 percent of the ancient, natural Ethiopian forests are gone.

Some of our Peace Corps colleagues did what they could to reforest small areas of Ethiopia and encouraged a younger generation to take up the cause. PCV Glen Gish was profiled in The Herald for his work in the formation of a forestry club and for planting trees across the mountainsides in Mekelle.

Now a new project has the potential for a similar effect of reviving Ethiopia’s tree cover by preserving the country’s Church Forests. More than 35,000 of these small emerald green forests dot the northern highlands of Ethiopia, each a sanctuary in what is often an otherwise barren landscape. An Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church stands prominently in the center of each forest, serving as both a caretaker of the forest and of the souls that live in the surrounding area. There has been little recognition or research on these remnant pieces of forest ecosystems, until now.

Dr. Alemayehu

Alemayehu Wassie Eshete, an Ethiopian Forest Researcher who dedicated his doctoral work on Coptic forests, enlisted the support of Margaret Lowman, an internationally known tropical ecologist and researcher for the project. Lowman, fondly known as “Canopy Meg,” has studied forest ecosystems on five continents and was intrigued by the Church Forests in Ethiopia after having made an initial visit to the area where she met with church elders. She has written prolifically about forest canopy ecology and is the author of Life in the Treetops.

Meg Lowman

This month Lowman is returning to Ethiopia with a film crew where she will team up once again with Alemayehu in an effort to document the existence of these small sanctuaries and the perils that threaten their survival. In addition to funds to support the documentary project, the team needs to expand its network of supporters to increase awareness of this fragile ecosystem. Peter Buntaine, a filmmaker and graduate of the New York University Film School, is leading the production. A movie trailer provides insights on the expectations of what they hope to accomplish.

Without protection, the Church Forests could vanish. The first step may be as simple as building a stone fence around each forest to serve as an enclosure protecting the vegetation from further grazing, and also to serve as a point of demarcation to prevent encroachment from a farmer’s plow. The Church Forests project will be equal parts science and outreach, working with children’s church groups and neighboring schools. Church elders have also requested that simple pit latrines be dug within the enclosures since church services are long, some lasting the better part of a day, and many in the congregation must answer the call of nature.

During initial trips by the team, children were intrigued by and participated in insect collection. With such activities, it is hoped that engaging young people will assure that there will be stewards of the church forests in the future. The intent is that the church infrastructure will inspire the local community to create sustainable solutions. The Tree Foundation and National Geographic have contributed partial funding to this project.

Further information about preserving Ethiopia’s Church Forests can be found at the Tree Foundation website.

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