Alemayehu Wassie works in northern Ethiopia where most of the area’s forests now cover less than 5% of the territory that they did in the early 20th century.

The remaining forests are green island sanctuaries, which surround 3,500 orthodox churches. Ranging in size from five acres to more than 1,000 acres, these church woodlands are the last remnants of the dry afromontane forest of the area. They serve as stepping stones to restore the surrounding degraded landscape, and are the last refuge for both native plants and wildlife. Thanks to Alemayehu Wassie, these sacred places are now recognized for their value as conservation sites worth studying and protecting.

Facing cultural and religious challenges – the forests are believed to belong to the church and are said to be too small to worry about conserving – Alemayehu Wassie is the first person to do a large scale study of the church forests. His research has shown that the remaining forests are threatened by both natural and manmade influences – including free-roaming livestock grazing that negatively affects germination and seedling growth.

ALSO READ: Colby College Students, Professors Collaborate on Ethiopia Church Forests Paper

Alongside collaborators, like Tree Foundation, Alemayehu Wassie is creating awareness among the local communities and the 800 priests who preside over the churches. On the 28 church sites that Wassie identified as containing high biodiversity, he and his team are helping the locals to build protective rock walls around the forests. “We already see the positive effects on the forests when livestock is excluded,” says Wassie.

But Alemayehu Wassie is most proud that his efforts are creating a synergy amongst government officials, church officials and the local communities to conserve and restore church forests. “The church forests have received more attention and respect than ever before. They are native seed banks for the future of that landscape,” says Alemayehu Wassie.

To find out more about how churches are the gatekeepers of Ethiopia’s forests, read: Ethiopia’s Church Forests

Continue reading “Unsung Conservation Heroes” on Africa Geographic Magazine
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