REU Site: Undergraduate Research into the Cultural, Economic and Ecological Roles of Church Forests in South Gondar, Ethiopia

National Science Foundation Grant No. SMA-1359367

Debresena Church Google

Debresena Church as seen from Google Earth.

Church forests are patches of Afromontane forest surrounding Ethiopian Orthodox churches. Preserved for centuries by church leaders and communities as religious sanctuaries, church forests are, in many parts of Ethiopia, the only indigenous forests left.

Under this eight-week summer REU program students receive training at Colby College in social survey research, spatial analysis using Geographic Information Systems (GIS), ecological field methods, and written and oral communication. They then work with mentors from Colby College, the California Academy of Sciences, and Ethiopian academic and government institutions to conduct research into the cultural, economic and ecological values of church forests.


Abrahams Social Science

Colby student Marie Abrahams (’14) takes field notes outside Alember Church.

Why study church forests? Church forests are fascinating on a number of levels, for both social scientists and ecological scientists. From a social-institutional perspective, church forests show how non-state actors such as religious institutions can play major roles in conservation. From an ecological perspective, church forests are crucial reserves for Ethiopia’s vanishing biodiversity. “Outsiders” are rarely allowed entry into church forests, but after years of outreach efforts in Ethiopia, Dr. Meg Lowman of the California Academy of Sciences has established a Memorandum of Understanding for access to the church forests and cooperation with church leaders, which has allowed our research team unprecedented access to conduct research in church forests and surrounding communities.


What will student researchers do? Working closely with Colby College faculty mentors and Ethiopian church forest scholar Dr. Alemayehu Wassie, students at this REU Site will actively contribute to the design and implementation of original research including: (i) GIS analyses and community surveys examining cultural and economic values of church forests; and (ii) ecological studies of human impacts on church forest vegetation, insects and other biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Benjamin collecting insects

Colby Environmental Studies student Grey Benjamin (’14) samples flying insects in Woji Church.

Students on the social science team will receive extensive training in GIS, ground-truthing methods, and interview and household survey methods. These students will work with mentors to validate findings from remote sensing analyses conducted at Colby College, and also conduct and analyze household interviews in church communities.

Working in parallel with the social science team, students on the ecological science team will analyze plant and insect samples as part of an ongoing study of biodiversity in South Gondar church forests. Field sampling by past REU students has provided rigorous information on the ecology of insect and plant communities, and the impacts of anthropogenic pressures on those species.


Students at Dedim Church

Gathering of priests and church forest guards at Dedim Church.

How will results be shared? In the spirit of international collaboration, all REU students will work closely with Ethiopian partners, and students will also be actively encouraged to meet one or more faculty or graduate researchers from Debre Tabor University to learn about data collection or laboratory work currently underway. Such meetings will allow for student interaction with Ethiopian researchers.

All findings will be shared by students via Skype at an annual meeting of Ethiopian Orthodox church leaders. Students will also work with faculty mentors to develop manuscripts for publication and present their work at Colby College and at national meetings.