In the "Church Forests" of Ethiopia


This shot from Google Earth shows an Ethiopian "Church Forest"—one of the symbolic reconstructions of the Garden of Eden that surround most Christian churches in the Northern part of the country. In fact, these sacred forests make up a large chunk of the tiny remnant of natural woodland left in Ethiopia. As a result, Church Forests have started to attract attention as pockets of biodiversity, as well as cultural curiosities. A fascinating guest post on the PLoS blog network puts the history, ecology, and culture surrounding these forests into context. Key lesson: If natural forests are going to survive in Ethiopia, then the Ethiopian people need better ways to grow more food on less land.


  1. I love these forests, and they are beautiful in person — but want to remind you that the famines and food shortages in Ethiopia (and other places) are not caused by underproduction (or overpopulation) but largely by the low prices for crops and high costs (of seeds and fertilizer, etc.) of agriculture. Farmers farm more land to earn enough to live, and these costs are determined by markets.

    1. Why are there low prices for crops during a food shortage? That doesn’t sound like a functioning market.

      1. I suspect Ethiopia is subject to the same global food market problems as are documented in the film “Life and Debt”. Definitely worth a viewing.

      2. The problem with agriculture in Ethiopia and many parts of africa is that food is too cheap.

        This is caused by the EU (and other countries) dumping cheap food on the continent, some of it as food aid. This means that you can’t earn a living being a farmer. So not enough people are farmers. This makes it easier to import rice from china than to grow it locally.

        Conventional wisdom has taught african countries to focus on secondary industry. Many leaders prefer to focus on this as it is developed. Agriculture has been neglected. So you have countries with too much cement, but not enough food.

        Meanwhile the US and EU subsidize the hell out their agriculture, because this is the basis of a prosperous society — enough food.

        **tldr** do as we do, not as we say

  2. ” If natural forests are going to survive in Ethiopia, then the Ethiopian people need better ways to grow more food on less land.”

    You mean like GM crops?

    1. I wish people would stop lumping all GM crops into the same category.

      Virtually ALL of our food has been genetically modified, every last seed and nut and plant and animal. It is the nature of life itself to genetically modify all living organisms over time. Humen beings, ourselves, are genetically modified. If the human species, if all living organisms, remained static we’d still be amoebas existing in primordial muck. We would have never evolved into the species that we are today.

      The common tomato, potato, cow, chicken, corn.. all of these things have been genetically modified to produce larger crops, larger fruit, meatier meat, to produce more milk, etc.

      Jesus himself, arguably, genetically modified fish, and wine, and loaves of bread to create an abundance of fish and wine and bread to feed crowds of followers.

      Turning water into wine… what is that if not genetic modification?

      Now, I don’t agree with genetically modifying an organism for defensive or offensive reasons (ie. to kill other species, like RoundUp Ready products do, which is morally and ethically heinous, no argument here). But genetically modifying a tomato so it grows larger than the size of a pea, which is what the original tomato looked like, it was the size of a large pea.. this I see no moral or ethical issue with.

      Please, people, put your critical thinking caps on. Use logic rather than dogma to form your decisions. Thanks.


      ps. I think these church forests are absolutely lovely. Beautiful. They fall under the category of “good works” as far as I’m concerned. :)

  3. It reminds me of the Freeman’s water reservoirs in Frank Herbert’s Dune. Another religious sect reclaiming a long forgotten history in the desert.

  4. That is interesting to hear from an actual visitor: but looking from the satpic everything around is ag-land. . .is it just because of price? I dont want to get on the ‘darn you third worlders for trying to better yourselves!’ bandwagon…

    but regardless of the price of wheat (or teff): too many people+not enough resources=no more trees.

  5. just to remind everybody that 400 years ago (pre-steam) england, and the americas were heavily wooded, but as always, glass, Iron and brick production pretty much did the forests in. the remain forests in england were protected from wholesale destruction almost solely by edict,in the americas, as late as the 1800’s virgina was the western most point of “civilazation” and the rest wooded wilderness.. of course 200 years of exploitation solved that…

    this is not a “hug Tree” message, only a reminder that poor people do what needs to be done to live, tress or no trees, and to condemn them for thier attempt at survival ignores our history of doing the same.

  6. I live in the philippines. I’m no expert but AFAIK farmers specially those who plant staple crops remain poor and cannot increase the price too much since 1. the government regulates the price either directly or indeirectly. The government does that because 2. the public is poor and they tend to freak out and rally in the streets if the price of staple food like rice goes too high

    so the smart farmers make their lives better by planting cash crops

    1. Sadly, agricultural monopolization is a worldwide problem. Even so-called rich nations like Canada fall prey to systematic economic terrorism via food production. We are constantly selling our raw goods to the United States below market value, and then are forced to buy manufactured goods back from the States at a premium price. This happens with our fisheries industry, wood pulp and paper industry, our wheat industry, our aerospace industry… not only do they monopolize our food production but they also try to monopolize our high tech industry as well. It is both angering and sickening, especially when the culprits live so close to us, just over the border.

      The United States is situated between two countries that are extremely angry with the: Mexico, and Canada. They are essentially landlocked by their own nemesis. But I digress.

      My point being, this problem affects wealthy nations and poor ones alike. It’s upsetting because if wealthy nations (ie. Canada) are unable to stand up to blatant economic terrorism imposed on them by fascist countries (ie. Arabia or the United States), then what chance do poor nations have of defending themselves too?

  7. Nicole,

    As I understood it, the famine in Ethiopia was man made in so much as the then Marxist government had seized the grain stores that most villages had, in order to tide them over in times of drought. Before the calamity struck Ethiopia was exporting grain in order to pay for a defence expenditure of 46% of GDP, this being used to fight various “insurgents” This together with extended droughts lead to the famine. After the magnificent efforts of live aid, the country received significant amounts of food aid. The result has been that the population has tripled in size. This is unfortunate for a country with scant resources as it was. Increase in population has lead to even more deforestation as wood is used for fuel, lack of forestation increases soil erosion. At the beginning of the 20th century the country had 35% forestation, now it is down to 11% and it loses 1410 km² of forest each year.
    Expect another famine real soon, but not limited just to East Africa. An ever expanding global population with finite resources do not make a happy mix.

  8. Are we seeing the reemergence of the Sacred Groves, so important to Pagan Druids? What goes around, comes around.

  9. Thanks for the replies. I was being a little Socratic, and you guys came through in order to illustrate to Nicole that the problem isn’t the market but market distortions.


    I was really just being snarky because there is so much GM hate these days. I’m quite in favor of GM crops especially in a situation such as this.

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