Photo by Kieran Dodds

Article from and written by Alejandra Borunda:

…At an academic conference in Mexico, Wassie met Meg Lowman, an American biologist whose interest was piqued by a presentation Wassie made about the church forests. Lowman invited Wassie to visit her lab to talk more about the project. When he arrived, he went down a Google Earth rabbit hole, printing out stacks of images of the church forests from above. They could work together to study and conserve the forests, they thought; Lowman had the connections to the U.S. science community to support research, and Wassie had deep knowledge of the forests and relationships with the priests who cared for them.

Wassie brought Lowman to Ethiopia, where they organized a workshop for more than 150 priests, many of whom walked for days in order to attend. The scientists fired up a laptop with a generator and projected Google Earth photos onto a bedsheet, showing the priests how the forests had shrunk over time.

“They were so passionate from the start,” Lowman says, “because they saw themselves as stewards of all God’s creatures. I, as conservation scientist, believe we have a responsibility to save biodiversity. That’s the same goal.”

Building a solution

The most efficient, straightforward thing they could do to preserve the forests, the scientists decided with the priests, was to build low, simple walls that would carefully demarcate the forests and keep wandering animals from lumbering in.

By the next year, Wassie and Lowman had raised enough money to start building. This simple fix, they found, was remarkably effective. Soon, more and more priests asked for help building their own low walls.

Now, a few years later, the pair has helped more than 20 communities erect walls around their forests, and they have a list many times as long of places they’d like to build more. Where walls have been built, the forests are thriving—so much so that some priests have decided to extend their reach, bumping the walls outward so that they can expand their forests even farther. In intact church forests, water quality is better than in the surrounding fields; tree seedlings survive more often; and pollinators, important for both the species in the forests and the agriculture around them, buzz…

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You can learn more about TREE Foundation’s Ethiopian Church Forest Conservation Project here.