Consumed from within? social and ecological drivers of internal clearings in Ethiopian Orthodox church forests

Gelawdios Church, Ethiopia, CNES / Airbus 2023


In a largely deforested landscape, thousands of small pockets of indigenous forest remain in Ethiopia’s northern highlands. These “church forests” are maintained by Ethiopian Orthodox church communities, and they provide valuable reserves of indigenous species diversity and ecosystem services. However, there are important tradeoffs between the different ecosystem services church forests provide. The size of community-made clearings within church forests used for prayer and other church services have to be balanced with services derived from intact forest cover and dense vegetation. This research uses a spatial, social-ecological model to examine patterns in church forest size and vegetation density across 2,743 church forests in the Amhara Region. Results suggest that larger internal clearings correlate with larger forest area, and clearings also scale with population size. We also find that greater elevation and distance to population centers are associated with higher church forest density, while greater community wealth is associated with reduced forest density and area. These trends initially suggest that internal clearings can support conservation efforts, but they are nuanced by prevalent non-native Eucalyptus planting and increasing internal deforestation for graveyard space for wealthier communities. Additionally, we find that internal clearings are an important source of omitted variable bias in estimating the relationship between density and area in church forests. As a consequence, incorporating church clearings into social-ecological models leads to meaningful differences in church forest density and area estimates. Ultimately, this study suggests that church forests in Ethiopia may be sustained rather than consumed from within.

Land Degradation & Development (ACCEPTED)