PhD thesis “Ethiopian Church Forests: Opportunities and Challenges for Restoration”
by Dr. Alemayehu Wassie Eshete

General Introduction

Dr. Alemayehu Wassie Eshete

Tropical dry forests are among the most exploited forest ecosystems of the world and have been increasingly fragmented (Cabin et al., 2002). The fragmentation results in small stands of forest bordered by open, often agricultural lands (Bustamante and Castor, 1998; Kollmann and Buschor, 2002; Fleury and Galetti, 2004; Saunders et al., 1991). Under the increasing pressure by the human population, via e.g. grazing activities or tree harvesting, natural regeneration may be hampered and, as a result, the persistence of the remnant forest patches and their indigenous species in many areas are threatened. This is particularly the case in the rapidly developing tropical areas such as in Ethiopia (Cotler and Ortega-Larrocea, 2006).

Dry Afromontane forests of Ethiopia have faced vast exploitation and almost all these forests have been converted to agricultural lands (EFAP, 1994; Demel, 1996; Tesfaye et al., 2003), except for small fragments that are left in the most inaccessible areas or around churches (“Church forests”) (Bingelli et al., 2003; Alemayehu Wassie et al., 2005a; Aerts et al., 2006a; Bongers et al., 2006). The disappearance of the forests has been most drastic during the past 100 years. In the beginning of the 1900s, the forested area of the country was estimated at about 40% (EFAP, 1994) but now downscaled to 4.2 % of the land area (FAO, 2001). However, the small isolated patches of natural forest stands occurring around more than 30,000 churches still persist in a degraded landscape and might contribute to restoration, biodiversity conservation and provide many other economic and social benefits. The effectiveness of these church forests to provide “ecosystem services” for the landscape and serve as ‘stepping stones’ for restoration will depend on their long-term sustainability. Recent inventories show that populations of the tree species in the church forests are small, decreasing in extent over time and several tree populations appear to have no regeneration at all (Alemayehu Wassie, 2002; Bingelli et al., 2003; Alemayehu Wassie et al., 2005a). Population decline and failure of regeneration may contribute to a progressive ecological deterioration of church forests (Viana et al., 1997; Alemayehu Wassie, 2002; Bingelli et al., 2003). The overall objective of this PhD research is therefore, to assess forest community structure and composition of the church forests, investigate major problems for regeneration of woody species and thus explore the possible options for conservation and forest restoration in Northern Ethiopia.

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