This is a link to the story I wrote for BBC about the work that researchers are doing in the sacred forests in the highlands of Ethiopia’s Amhara region, but what follows are some of the B-sides, the backstories of my adventures there that didn’t make it into the story directly.
Here’s a brief overview of the project: I joined a team of researchers from the US, Canada, and Ethiopia as they studied the health of the sacred forests in the highlands of northern Ethiopia’s Amhara region. They might be called ‘forests’ but they’re really isolated clusters of trees surrounded by agricultural fields. Most of the trees between the forests have been cut down to use the wood for cooking and construction to support an expanding population- this region of Ethiopia alone has over 31 million people. In the centre of each forest is a round church and the trees are considered part of the church itself. People worship in the forests, celebrate festivals, children learn lessons, and some people are buried there- the forests are an integral part of the people’s lives and that’s what has saved them from being cut down. It’s a process known as ‘shadow conservation.’ If the forests have survived for hundreds (in some cases thousands) of years - an amazing feat of stewardship by the local people - why the sudden concern about their longevity?
The fact that the forests are so well used has both protected them and poses their biggest threat. The amount of human disturbance, combined with the edge effects created by their isolation means they aren’t healthy. In some, the researchers found few native plants, low biodiversity, virtually no seedlings and thus no potential for regeneration, and the soil has been leeched of nutrients. The team hoped to learn what factors allowed some forests to be healthier than others to help inform future conservation practices.
The primary people I worked with were:
Dr. Catherine Cardelús - Colgate University
Dr. Carrie Woods - University of Puget Sound
Dr. Peter Klepeis - Colgate University
Dr. Peter Scull - Colgate University
Dr. Berhanu Tsegay and various graduate students from Bahir Dar University
Undergraduate students from Colgate University and the University of Puget Sound
Lake Tana and the Blue Nile River
The city of Bahir Dar is the capital of the Amhara Regional State where all 44 sacred forests were located. It sits on the shores of Lake Tana, the largest inland body of water in the country. The lake has a number of islands, some of which have sacred forests and churches on them and one of these was the first church we visited. These churches are more accessible for tourists and I joined three of the students with the team on one of the tour boats to get there - a 45 minute boat ride on a hazy afternoon that gave the lake a surreal look where the sky seemed to melt into the water. We were told to keep an eye out for hippopotamuses but only caught a glimpse of their tell-tale round ears above the water.
We passed a few islands that appeared out of the haze and then docked at one of the largest. A well-worn, dusty path led into the trees from the shore and there were some vendors who’d set up stalls selling rings, fantastically coloured paintings, and woven shawls. Vervet monkeys and a silvery-cheeked hornbill kept an eye on us as we spoke to each vendor. This was clearly a tourist destination but we were the only visitors that day.
The path led eventually to a clearing with the round church in the centre. The inner part of the church was off limits but I was able to go into the outer ring of the building and take photos of the vibrant paintings and tapestries with images of biblical stories that cover the entirety of the wall - something I wasn’t allowed to do in any of the other churches.
Lake Tana is also the source of the Blue Nile River. It’s about 1400km long and merges with the White Nile in Sudan’s capital city, Khartoum. From there, it becomes the Nile and continues north through Egypt to the Mediterranean. We drove from Bahir Dar for an hour along a road that almost shook the truck to pieces, passing through a few villages and we eventually arrived at one of the biggest tourist attractions in the area with my favourite welcome sign I’ve seen - it’s clearly important that the sign not overshadow the attraction itself. The day we visited the Blue Nile Falls, the waters weren’t living up to their name but the chocolatey water made for some great colour contrasts too.