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Religion and biodiversity in Ethiopia's sacred forests

October 19, 2010:

Ethiopia's sacred forests, where land protected by churches and their communities are a vital conservation refuge for many species of plants and wildlife, are the focus of a BBC radio programme broadcast today.

Ethiopia's church forests are a vital refuge for plants, insects and birds. Image: Benson Hua.
Appearing on the BBC Radio 4 Saving Species programme, which will be repeated on Thursday and also be broadcast on the BBC World Service, was ARC director Martin Palmer who spoke of the increasingly important role played by faiths in protecting biodiversity.

More than half of Ethiopians are Orthodox Christians and the woodlands surrounding their churches have become increasingly recognised as hugely important in preserving biodiversity.

Once covered in tropical forest, much of Ethiopia’s natural landscape has been cleared for agriculture – except, that is, for fragments of sacred landscapes surrounding churches. ARC first started working with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to protect its sacred forests in the late 1980s.

Now studies by the Tree Foundation have shown that these church forests - of which there are around 35,000 - are critical for Ethiopia’s biodiversity.

Protected by the faith community – cattle are not allowed to graze there and trees may not be chopped down – these sacred forests house a large proportion of Ethiopia’s endangered plant species and are also hugely important for insects and birds.

Many ways religions help biodiversity

Interviewed on the programme, ARC director Martin Palmer said there were many other good examples of the way religions were helping biodiversity.

“In China, the sacred mountains of the Daoists have been protected because they’re sacred, even in the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution,” he said.

The Daoists have also looked at biodiversity issues and as a result banned the use of endangered species in traditional Chinese medicine.

In Mongolia, the Buddhists have reinstated a 12th century national park around Ulan Bator and have also brought in the traditional ban against hunting the highly endangered antelope, the saiga, he added.

Celebrating nature's 'transcendant value'

As well as protecting sites, religions were also able to bring an understanding of the value of nature which has nothing to do with their economic value, Martin Palmer told the Saving Species programme.

“One of the great problems of the conservation movement is that we have reduced to economics what ought be a more transcendent value for nature,” he said.

“We have reduced nature down to what we can buy or sell. What a religious perspective does, regardless of what tradition it comes from, is it says this has intrinsic value in the eyes of the Creator or the Gods. That’s a very different set of values.”

Speaking after the BBC interview, Martin Palmer said: "It's wonderful to see that the special nature of these church lands and forests has now become internationally recognised. And this is precisely why ARC, in collaboration with the Shinto of Japan and Oxford University Biodiversity Institute are developing a worldwide programme to protect religious forest sites."

The BBC's Saving Species programme, episode 25, is available to listen again for the next seven days. Visit: Saving Species.

A longer interview with Martin Palmer will also be uploaded to the Open University’s Saving Species site soon. Keep checking the OU site here.

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