Few Western scientists have experienced Ethiopia’s church forests—religious sanctuaries preserved for centuries by the country’s Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the belief that a church site should resemble heaven on earth, the Biblical Garden of Eden.
And while Colby student researchers have had just that opportunity over the past three years, as reported in Colby magazine, the number of non-Colby undergraduate researchers who have entered the vigilantly protected preserves is miniscule. “You could probably count the number … on less than two hands, and probably on one,” said Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Travis Reynolds. “Anywhere.”
Those numbers will increase thanks to a $390,000 National Science Foundation grant that enables Colby to provide for eight undergraduate students to do research in the church forests over each of the next three years.
The grant establishes Colby as an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates site, with fieldwork each summer in South Gondar, Ethiopia. Under the guidance of Reynolds and Assistant Professor of Biology Cat Collins, co-principal investigators for the grant, four Colby students and four students from other institutions will receive training on campus before traveling to Ethiopia to pursue research projects, some of which will be of their own design. “Our goal,” said Collins, “is to have these students see that research all the way to completion where it’s published.”
Colby students have been doing research at the church forest sites, with Reynolds, an environmental policy professor with extensive work in community-based forest management, teaming up with Meg Lowman of the California Academy of Sciences and Alemayehu Wassie, an Ethiopian church forest scholar. The NSF grant expands the scope of the interdisciplinary research, linking environmental studies to biology with the addition of Collins, an ecologist who specializes in fragmented habitats.
The next phase of the church-forest study will utilize Colby’s GIS capabilities to examine the cultural and economic value of church forests, along with study of the human impacts on vegetation, insects, and other aspects of the habitats.
For example, Collins plans to study the effect of grazing on the church-forest ecosystems. “Part of what makes this unique is that we have the policy and culture and social side well represented, and we have the scientific, in terms of the ecology, well represented,” Collins said. “This collaboration is really about a holistic look at the ecology of the forests.”
Student researchers will not only experience the otherworldly church forests but also the broader culture that has allowed them to survive. Reynolds said the Colby-based researchers will work with counterparts from Debre Tabor University and Bahir Dar University in Ethiopia. In addition, Colby will continue to organize meetings of church leaders so the leaders can confer about their experience managing the scattered forest preserves that surround the church communities. Two years ago a conference connected to the Colby research, sponsored by the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby, was attended by more than 150 priests from church forests all across the region, Reynolds said.
The student researchers themselves are expected to consider the project from a variety of perspectives, Reynolds and Collins said. One key aspect of the grant is that the students be drawn from diverse sources, including community college and low-income backgrounds where research opportunities like these are rare.
The funding covers all of the students’ expenses, including training, travel, and logistical assistance at the site. “The idea behind the REU program is that anybody who is qualified should be able to do it,” Reynolds said. “They shouldn’t have to choose between a summer job so they can afford their books and an amazing research experience in sub-Saharan Africa.”
And it is amazing, said Jacob Wall ’16, who was on the research team at the church forest sites in January 2014 and also identified more than 7,700 church forests remotely through Google Earth and Colby’s GIS lab. “I had a lot of experience looking at the church forests from above,” he said. “It was awesome to see them on the ground.”
Wall, an environmental studies-policy major, is among the Colby researchers who will present church forest research at the Association for Environmental Studies and Science annual conference in New York City in June.
It will be Wall’s first conference presentation but not the first time his work has been showcased in that way. Work he did on the environmental effect of growing of the narcotic plant khat was selected for an ecological economics conference at the University of Vermont last year, but he wasn’t able to attend. “Travis [Reynolds],” Wall said, “presented it on my behalf.”