Wednesday, March 07, 2012

A science and religion collaboration for saving Ethiopian forests

by Salman Hameed

I often hear in conversations if science and religion are in conflict or are they compatible. The answer to this quetsion is that - well - it depends. There are instances when they clash (often on the questions of "origins") and there are instances of fruitful collaboration. Here is a fascinating example from Ethiopia, where a collaboration between religion and science may end up saving forests (from Science):

Humans have been cutting Ethiopian forests for fuel and agriculture for centuries (1). Only about 35,000 fragments remain in the northern highlands, ranging in size from 3 to 300 hectares. These fragments escaped deforestation because of their religious and spiritual importance; they are protected by, and are an integral part of, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church (2). Within each forest, an Orthodox priest and his disciples live, conduct services, and oversee its use. These forests are both a religious and a biodiversity sanctuary (3–6), and they provide local people with essential ecosystem services such as fresh water, shade, honey, pollinators, and spiritual value.

The church leadership views biodiversity conservation as one of its primary stewardships, but the lack of perimeter delineation of these forest fragments threatens their future. Presently, less than 4% of the original forest cover remains in the region (7, 8), and the remaining forests continue to be encroached upon (9), in part because of population increases—Ethiopia had a population of 43 million in 1984 but almost 80 million by 2000 (10). These church forests are also threatened by foraging livestock that increase soil compaction, hindering seed germination and forest regeneration. Sadly, when a forest disappears, the priest, his disciples and others living in the area also leave.

Environmental concerns can allow the develoipment of mutual respect for both science and religion. Carl Sagan recognized this in the late 1980s and made an effort to court the support of religious leaders on issues realted to global warming and on the movement to reduce stockpile of nuclear weapons. E.O. Wilson has also been working with Evangelical leaders in the US on preserving biodiversity. With some of the challenges ahead, we may need cooperation from all elements of the society and develop an interdisiplinary approach to get a handle on the complex social, cultural and economic issues. Here is back to the issue of Ethopian forests:

With such precious few fragments remaining, Ethiopia faces a conservation crisis. Understanding the role that church forests play in the provision of ecosystem services is critical, particularly for soil conservation, fresh water protection, and carbon sequestration. To preserve these forests, and perhaps even expand them, we must take an immediate, aggressive, and multidisciplinary approach that includes all stakeholders. For example, biologists, social scientists, ethnographers, religious leaders, and local people must collaborate. We must work to understand the relationship between local peoples and the forest and empower them to protect it. More immediately, we must establish perimeters to prevent grazing and encourage the planting of local trees in the forest areas (8). By taking these steps, we can protect Ethiopia's forests from further decline.

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