Alemayehu Wassie says that when a traveller sees a patch of indigenous trees in highland Ethiopia, “most probably they can be sure there is an Orthodox Church in the middle”.
This is an increasingly sparse and fractured landscape, with chronic deforestation claiming all but 4.5 per cent of the land. The highland panorama is one of recurrent drought and debilitating soil erosion, with 1.1 billion tonnes of soil washed away annually and arable spaces consistently depleted.
But the monotony of the dry land is periodically broken by oases, both spiritual and ecological. Tradition dictates that the forests surrounding Orthodox Tewahido churches are preserved, despite the fuelwood and construction needs of their congregations. Churchyards have consequently come to represent sanctuaries of biodiversity, which Wassie says may have given continuous refuge to indigenous woodlands since before the 4th Century AD.
Like developing communities across the Global South, Northern Ethiopia’s growing population look to the church for spiritual relief of the trappings of their earthly poverty; and the Orthodox church exerts an institutionalised and powerful social influence, even from its remotest highland outposts. Harnessing this influence in the name of development remains a significant challenge, and one beset by entrenched conservatism and insularity.
Yet new research findings from Wassie and colleagues offer a glimpse of the hope that the church’s spiritual energy could be applied to the very worldly arenas of reafforestation and sustainability. Wassie is convinced that church forests “didn’t come to exist just by mere chance” but through a commitment to preservation with deep theological and cultural roots.
Wassie’s comprehensive socio-economic and historical research reveals an ancient connection between the church and the forest. Perhaps most startling is the similarity between descriptions of Northern Ethiopia from 18th Century sources – as desolate and deforested with only enclaves of church forest – and the highland vistas of today. For centuries, the keepers of Ethiopian consecrated churches, or Debr, have preserved and reified indigenous forests as protective sanctuaries of the church, providing aesthetic and quiet spiritual spaces and making real the connection between humanity, nature and God.
The Orthodox Tewahido Church takes a “holistic” view of nature, according to Wassie, holding the church and its forests to be the earthly representation of the Christian Eden.
Eastward in Eden
The promise of highland church forests, Wassie is convinced, lies in this uniquely Orthodox conception of the relationship between humanity and nature. The Ethiopian church and state have been known to fiercely guard their identity, cultures and traditions against modern understandings of development, in so doing embedding poverty and inaction. Yet refreshingly, Wassie says, this ancient reverence for church forests could have a very contemporary application.
His research at Wageningen University, Netherlands suggests that articulating the case for reafforestation along theological lines might yet engender a deep-seated commitment to sustainability, turning isolated church forests into hubs in a patchwork of renewed vegetation, each a blueprint that in turn mirrors the church’s primordial garden ‘eastward in Eden’.
As the church articulates humanity’s duty of care to the archetypal Eden; so sustainable and modern forestry solutions could find substance in appeals to religious conviction. Wassie stresses the potency of the lines in Genesis – ‘And the Lord God took the man, and put him in the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it‘.
Articulating policy and coordinating action are challenges for the church, state and NGO presence in highland Ethiopia. The effectiveness of Gizet, or Orthodox religious sanctions as sustainability initiatives is as yet unknown. Nonetheless, it is clear that Wassie and his colleagues are clearing the ground of a new research area. A new front is opening – perhaps – in the battle with Ethiopian deforestation.
With thanks to Alemayahu Wassie and Dr Ermias Betemariam. Views expressed are the author’s own.