“Saving Ethiopia’s ‘Church Forests’”

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The Story

“Saving Ethiopia’s ‘Church Forests’”
by T. DeLene Beeland
PloS Blogs, February 25, 2011

The Pitch

[Beeland notes: I originally pitched [the forest churches story] to OnEarth, but never heard back (and I know from another writer they can sometimes sit on things for a year). I wanted to hop on it, so I turned to Brian Mossop who edits the PLoS guest blog. We’d conversed before about me possibly blogging for them, so I had had prior interactions with him. I found this story while interviewing Meg Lowman for a profile piece for the Charlotte Observer. (I posted that one on my blog, I don’t think it’s available on the newspaper site anymore: http://bit.ly/ihgPAN).

Brian didn’t really have any editorial feedback, he gladly accepted the piece and helped promote it online via Boing Boing and Twitter. My one regret is the phrasing I used in drawing the analogy between fundamentalist Christians here in the States versus in Ethiopia, because I used this in the final too. The blog received a lot of knee-jerk reactions and comments from fundamentalists about how I was taking a “cheap shot” at them. That was never my intention. I should have emphasized the historical aspect of this attitude to a greater degree. It is what fueled Manifest Destiny in America’s early days, after all. The editor of Christianity Today also wrote me a long email about how using “fundamentalist” was a pejorative and I ought to have used “evangelical.” Let’s say he also enlightened me on the minority green Christian faiths that are springing up. Argh. Needless to say, the folks who read this piece within a conservation/ecology frame loved it. Unfortunately, the poor phrasing and lack of an editorial eye in the lead (I do think the editors at OnEarth would have caught this) left me feeling a little deflated by public reaction to it. It was selected among a handful of others by Ed Yong for his new blog thing where he picks things that were written for free (PLoS blogs does not pay) for a “science writers tip jar.” I didn’t get much, maybe $25 from the tip jar, and I returned it all back to Ed’s pot to be split up among the next week’s winners. (It just felt weird.)]

Dear Brian,

In America, many fundamental Christians believe that man has a God-given right to use the earth and all its resources and species to meet their needs. After all, Genesis says so. But across the Atlantic, a different attitude prevails among Christians in Ethiopia, which has the longest tradition of Christianity of any African country. Here, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Churches believe they should maintain a home for all of God’s creatures around their places of worship. The result? Forests ringing churches.
There are some 35,000 church forests in Ethiopia, and they are mostly concentrated in the northern reaches of the country. Here, most of the Afromontane forests have been cut down to make clearings for agriculture. It is said that if a traveler to the area spies a forest, it surely has a church in the middle. The forests surrounding the churches have become refuges for all kinds of species. But many of these church forests have become isolated by habitat fragmentation, and conservationists are grasping on to them as centerpieces of the country’s fight to retain its biodiversity.

This past summer, a rainforest canopy researcher traveled to Ethiopia and led a team of 12 other other scientists to survey several church forests. Fondly known as Canopy Meg to her colleagues, Meg Lowman’s expedition was sponsored by the National Geographic Society, the TREE Foundation, and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Their purpose on this trip, hopefully the first of many, was to survey the insect biodiversity and the economic importance of the tree species remaining in these sacred forests. They were especially focused on documenting the insect-pollinator species. The team examined every level of the forests: they climbed into the canopies and set insect traps, they surveyed the lower reaches and even the forest floor where dung beetles carry out important waste-removal processes.

Meg Lowman has three decades of colorful history researching forest canopy insects and their connection to ecosystem health. She is also the vice president of the Ecological Society of America. Her full bio can be found here:http://www.canopymeg.com/bio.htm.

I’d like to propose a PLoS guest blog post about Dr. Lowman’s work with these Ethiopian coptic churches. I’ve already interviewed her for a profile piece for the Charlotte Observer, and she indicated she is available to talk further about her work in Ethiopia. Another scientist on the trip was David Jarzen, a palynologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History; he is also someone I am acquainted with through my past work as a science writer at the same museum. Between the two of them, I feel confident I can gain access to the necessary interviews.

If you are interested in art, I’ve found quite a few wonderful photos on Dr. Lowman’s blog about the trip. It appears a very experienced photographer was along. There is also video uploaded to YouTube of her working with local children … and video embedded on her home page: http://www.canopymeg.com)

http://www.fem.wur.nl/UK/Publications/dissertations/wassie/ — over view of the church forests http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20090223/columnist/902230317 — opinion column by Meg Lowman
I look forward to hearing back from you.

Best regards,

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