In the early 20th century, around 45% of Ethiopia was covered by forests. Due to population pressure and encouraged by the Communist regime in power from 1974 through 1991, which nationalised the land and distributed it to people who cleared forests for subsistence farming, now only 5% of the land is forested.
When you see a forest in Ethiopia today, the odds are there’s a church in the middle of it. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is one of the oldest Christian churches in Sub-Saharan Africa, dating from A.D. 333, when Christianity was proclaimed the state religion. For much of its history, the church was administered as a branch of the Coptic Church of Alexandria, Egypt, but became independent in 1959, with its own patriarch.
An article in the current issue of Nature, “Biodiversity thrives in Ethiopia’s church forests” describes how “[t]he church, to which more than half of Ethiopians belong, views the natural forest as a symbol of heaven on Earth, where every creature is a gift from God and needs its habitat” has preserved more than 35,000 forests surrounding its churches.
Ecologists studying the biodiversity in these oases are helping churches protect their forests from encroachment by the neighbouring population and their animals. They’re building walls.