Changes in Community Perspectives on the Roles and Rules of Church Forests in Northern Ethiopia: Evidence from a Panel Survey of Four Ethiopian Orthodox Communities

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International Journal of the Commons





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Some of the only Afromontane forest in northern Ethiopia today is on lands managed by followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, where for centuries priests and communities have conserved forest groves around church buildings. The ecological value of the thousands of church forests in Ethiopia has been widely acknowledged, but little is known about the diverse local institutions that govern these resources, or how such institutions might be changing in response to Ethiopia’s rapid recent economic development. This study uses a unique panel survey to explore changes in community perspectives on the social and ecological roles of church forests, and rules governing church forest use, in four Orthodox communities over time. Our sample consists of 122 household surveys conducted in 2002 and a further 122 surveys from 2014, with 71 households interviewed in both periods. We find that reported uses of church forests vary across forests and over time, with larger forests more likely to be used for extractive purposes such as firewood and construction timber, while smaller forests have become more restricted to renewable or non-extractive uses such as natural medicines, honey, and prayer. Results of logistic regression suggest church followers’ support for preserving church forests increases with age and access to alternative sources of firewood – including exotic Eucalyptus spp. plantations which are increasingly widespread in northern Ethiopia. We also observe a shift since 2002 away from an expectation that church followers themselves hold responsibility for rule enforcement in church forests to a perceived sharing of responsibility by church authorities (i.e. priests) and government (i.e. police) in 2014. Together the progressive introduction of exotic tree species in church forests combined with the erosion of religious norms surrounding local forest governance may threaten the integrity and diversity of these unique social-ecological systems.


Church forests, community forest management, Ethiopia, institutional diversity, land use, religious conservation, remnant forest patches



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