Growing up in the South Gondar region of Ethiopia, Alemayehu Wassie went to church every Sunday. Sure, it’s a familiar weekly ritual for Christians the world over, but Wassie’s trip from home to pew was quite different from the sleepy morning drive, fueled by coffee and doughnuts, known to many Westerners. That’s because Wassie, a member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, would trail dust from the spent soil of the surrounding populated areas through an ancient and sacred forest to reach his parish.
“You always pass through these forests appreciating nature, appreciating God’s gift,” Wassie says over shoddy cell phone service from Bahir Dar in northern Ethiopia. “They are also burial sites, so they are the beginning of your life and also where you are going to end. Emotionally, when you go to these forests, you always feel your loved ones and your ancestry.” Ancestry that could extend as far back as A.D. 34 in a country that’s home to some of the world’s first Christians — the earliest Ethiopian conversion is recorded in the Bible itself (Acts 8:26-27).
Raised under the weight of that religious history, it was not until later in life that Wassie, now 46, discovered what he believes is even more significant — and more urgent — about Ethiopia’s sacred forests: ecological conservation. Peppered throughout a landscape that’s slowly been decimated by centuries of agricultural and urban development, these forests — numbering around 12,000 — act as natural barriers to continued erosion and a source of life-giving water and biodiversity. But they are facing the twin threats of continued encroachment and a younger population that’s disconnected from the church and unmoved by the potential loss of these hallowed grounds (they once occupied 329,000 square miles — a figure that, as of 2016, had dropped to below 28,000).
Since receiving his forestry degree from Alemaya University of Agriculture in 1992, Wassie has been working to save, restore and expand Ethiopia’s rapidly shrinking church forests. He served as forestry expert at the Ethiopian Ministry of Natural Resources and worked with several nongovernmental organizations before receiving his Ph.D. in forest ecology and management at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. In 2008, Wassie teamed up with Margaret “Canopy Meg” Lowman, director of global initiatives and senior scientist for plant conservation at the California Academy of Sciences, to raise international awareness of the church forests. “Dr. Wassie is a true pioneer in every sense of the word — one of a handful of scientists studying Ethiopian forests,” Lowman tells OZY, calling him “a leader in both religious and scientific circles.”
Before human settlement reached Ethiopia nearly 200,000 years ago, forests filled an estimated 35 percent to 40 percent of the country. That number dropped to 16 percent by the 1950s, and sits at just 5 percent today. Satellite images confirm the data: Viewed from above, Ethiopia’s overwhelmingly dusty surface is dotted with 3,500 verdant atolls of trees, at the center of which sit Orthodox churches. “If you want to begin reforestation, you have to start with church forests,” Wassie tells me. Called Debr or Geddam by locals, these forests are living symbols of the Garden of Eden and the bounty of God’s gifts to man. They are places of worship, meditative retreats during religious festivals and burial sites. Some of Ethiopia’s church forests, which range from 5 acres to 1,000 acres, are upwards of 1,500 years old.