A group of children were listening to a story beneath the shade of an African juniper tree in a small church forest near Debre Tabor in northern Ethiopia. Three women walked along a path, the sound of their chatting permeating the dense trees as our group of 12 people, clearly foreigners, approached.
When the children spotted us at the forest’s edge, they came running along the dusty path, jumped over a low rock wall, ducked under branches and approached us curiously. I was tagging along with a group of researchers led by ecologist Dr Catherine Cardelús from Colgate University in New York state and Bernahu Tsegay from Bahir Dar University, Ethiopia who were here to learn about the forest’s ecology. The kids, meanwhile, were already experts. They knew every inch of the place; having grown up in these trees, this is the only forest they have ever seen.
I was in a ‘sacred forest’, more than 1,000 of which are scattered across the landscape in a near perfect lattice, each protecting a traditional Ethiopian Orthodox church at its centre. These small, neat clusters of trees, each about 2km away from the next, ensure that the local people are never far from the forests that are so deeply rooted in their social and spiritual lives. They’re used as community centres, meeting places and schools; for religious ceremonies, burial grounds and even bathrooms; and provide the only shade for miles. Although some sacred forests are fairly accessible, like the island forests on Lake Tana that can be visited on a half-day boat tour from the city of Bahir Dar, in the rural, mountainous landscapes of South Gondar, east of Bahir Dar, where I now was, the church forests can be harder to find.
Each dot of green stands out on the landscape because they are some of the only trees left in a country that’s experienced widespread deforestation. Some forests are more than 1,000 years old, and these precious trees have been spared thanks to shadow conservation – conservation as a by-product of religious stewardship. But they are small and threatened by encroaching roads, buildings and farmer’s fields. Paradoxically, humans have both protected them yet pose the biggest threat to their future.
A priest appeared at the forest’s edge and listened as our interpreter explained that we were here to learn more about the relationship between the local people and the forests they worship in. He nodded, and we followed him along a dusty path into the forest’s shade, leaving the shimmering heat of the farmers’ fields behind.
The forests average just five football fields in size, so it only took a few minutes to make our way from the outer edge to the church in the middle. The entire forest consisted of a ring of trees that formed a doughnut shape around a central clearing. A stone wall surrounded the clearing and a round church sat in the middle with an ornate cross on top, the national colours – red, yellow and green – boldly outlining the roof. I later learned that the symbolic distance between the church and this wall is traditionally described as ‘40 arm-lengths of an angel away’.
The priest explained that the forests are sacred because each houses a tabot in the centre of the church, which is thought to be a replica of the original Ark of the Covenant. The sanctity of the tabot radiates outward from the centre, so that the closer one is to the church, the more sacred the space. The same goes for the trees – they are seen as ‘clothing’ for the church, part of the church itself, which is why just a small ring of trees – those closest to the church – has been protected, creating tiny forests with fields pushing right up to the edges.
Small forests, however, are more susceptible to human and natural disturbances, and this region has undergone massive deforestation over the past few decades. Today, only about 5% of Ethiopia is covered in forest, compared to around 45% about a century ago. Although it’s mostly the trees between the forests that have disappeared, the sacred forests are indirectly affected, too.
Sitting cross-legged near the edge of the forest with the team’s geographer, Dr Peter Scull, we watched a farmer driving his oxen through his neighbouring field. Scull told me how the team of researchers used a trail of historic photographic records to pinpoint the location of these forests, measure their size and determine exactly how the landscape has changed over the last century. It turns out that technologies developed for war are now helping inform a project on conservation in church forests.
Scull explained that in the late 1930s, the occupying Italian army took aerial photos of the region and stored the images in ammunition boxes when they withdrew in 1941. They weren’t found again until 2014, when 8,000 images turned up in the basement of the Ethiopian Mapping Agency in Addis Ababa.
After World War Two, in the 1960s, the US Corona satellite programme also passed over the region. The Corona programme was the US’s first photoreconnaissance spy satellite that was launched during the height of the Cold War to identify potential USSR missile launch sites. Former US President Bill Clinton declassified the images in 1995, and a comparison of the historical images with modern Google Earth images showed the researchers that the forests boundaries haven’t shrunk – and some, in fact, have grown, thanks to the planting of non-native eucalyptus trees for timber harvesting.
But the images show that trees and shrubs used to grow outside the forest proper, which acted as a buffer zone and protected the trees from wind, erosion, and temperature and humidity changes. In the past few decades, the trees in the buffer zone have been harvested for construction and fuel, and the land converted to farmland. There’s no gradual transition from forest to farmland anymore; the buffer zone has completely disappeared.
The photos also reveal that what used to be an unbroken canopy of greenery now has gaps that let sunlight in where there should be shade. And with fewer trees between forests, each one has become an isolated refuge for plants and animals. From the air, the splashes of green forests look like survivors huddled together for protection.
The aerial shots, however, can’t capture what kinds of trees are growing, how many seedlings there are, whether the soil has the nutrients that plants need and how much human disturbance there is. For that, you need boots on the ground.
Throughout the day, the researchers took soil and leaf samples from species like the Prunus africana, the African cherry with its expansive crown, and Juniperus procera, the African juniper, a slow-growing native tree that was used to build churches when it was more plentiful. The kids gathered around us, shyly at first but then calling out the tree names in Amharic, laughing when we tried to repeat the words. Some kids asked if this was the most beautiful forest we’d ever seen.
However, we weren’t in a lush tropical rainforest or the endless coniferous forests of North America. Forests like this, where there are a lot of man-made structures like paths, buildings and clearings, tend to have an abundance of dense, weedy plants that stifle other growth, and there are too many non-native trees growing in place of native species.
The forests are alive, but they’re not in great shape. And while the next generation of kids run in and out of the trees, playing games, when it comes time for them to take on the stewardship role, there’s concern about what will be left.
A healthy forest should have a robust canopy and young trees in the understory. “Some of the forests we go to have these beautiful, gorgeous, big trees,” said ecologist Dr Carrie Woods, gesturing up at the canopy, “but the problem is, you look underneath and it’s grass and rocks.” In some forests, there is no next generation of trees.
However, while the forests aren’t robust, Cardelús says that they also aren’t being degraded as much as they feared. Some parishes are taking direct steps to bolster forest health by adding a low stone wall around the outer forest perimeter to prevent livestock coming in to graze. And it helps a little, allowing richer seedling communities to grow.
People are the ones who need these forests and they are the ones who’ve preserved them, so we should celebrate what the local people have done
Parishes also take advantage of government programmes to provide free seedlings. Unfortunately, the seedlings are often non-native trees like eucalyptus, which outcompetes the slower-growing native species. Eucalyptus plantations have sprung up on the edges of many sacred forests and have become central to the economy. In a country that needs its scarce wood for cooking and building, eucalyptus has been a saviour, and in the end, it’s a tough choice to balance the desire for native species with the need for fast-growing timber to sell.
So far, the team has visited 44 sacred forests in South Gondar, hiking up dusty hillsides, across streams and farmers’ fields to the mountaintop sites where they interview priests about their religious stewardship of the forest and take soil and leaf samples to measure the biodiversity. Cardelús hopes that the information they gather will help with conservation strategies moving forward, like starting nurseries to grow native seedlings, removing exotic or weedy species, and limiting more building inside the forests.
“But in the end,” Cardelús said, “our research shows that shadow conservation really works.”
“People are the ones who need these forests and they are the ones who’ve preserved them, so we should celebrate what the local people have done, help them do it better and help support shadow conservation in other places.”
By late afternoon, the novelty of us as visitors seemed to have only partially worn off. A shepherd, still carrying his staff, snapped a shot of us with his flip phone. Cardelús thanked the priest, and once again, the kids tagged along. One young boy pulled out a handmade flute and, like the pied piper, he led us out of the forest and back across the fields to shrieks of laughter from his companions.
It was clear the community’s spiritual and cultural lives are entwined in these trees. Despite their small size and the amount of human disturbance, the cultural attachment to a place – one that’s been worshipped in, walked on and harvested for hundreds of years – has been the conservation tool that’s saved them.
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