Research Topics for the REU in Ethiopia (2015-2018)

Working closely with Colby College faculty mentors and Ethiopian student and faculty partners, our 2015-2018 REU Site Participants actively contributed to the design and implementation of original research including: (i) community surveys and interviews examining the cultural, economic and ecological  values of church forests and (ii) ecological studies directly exploring human impacts on church forest vegetation, insects and other biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Generally speaking, research topics involved:

Social and economic studies collecting and analyzing household and priest interview and survey data exploring the cultural benefits church forests provide, including qualitative inquiries into church forest lore, uses of church forest spaces, and rites surrounding sacred springs, as well as more quantitative survey studies of the economic and ecological benefits priests and farmers derive from church forests (e.g., firewood and construction wood use, honey production, fruits, medicinal plants, perceived soil and rainfall impacts, etc.).

Ecological studies focusing on church forest biodiversity (identifying and quantifying diversity of plants, terrestrial insects, and aquatic macroinvertebrates), forest restoration (controlled studies analyzing the impacts of grazing on seedling growth), and measurement of ecosystem services flows (including productivity, water quality, pollination, and pest-control).

Geospatial analyses of church forest size, species composition, and distribution across degraded agricultural landscapes and watersheds in northern Ethiopia using the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Lab at Colby College and diverse data sources including historical spy-plane photographs, recent United States Geological Survey satellite imagery, and HarvestChoice agricultural productivity data. All GIS-related studies will also involve either a social or an ecological science component.

REU students work with mentors to develop and refine an independent project in their primary area of interest. However, because of the integrated nature of this project all students are involved in both social science and ecological science projects, working together to accomplish research goals.


Examples of Recent Student Research

October 2015

Ralph Olacio Presents at the 2015 Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Annual Conference

Ralph Olacio (Summer 2015 REU Site Participant, Montclair State University, Class of 2016)

Through the Summer 2015 REU Site program student Ralph Olacio worked with U.S. and Ethiopian collaborators to collect data including:
– Land use data on parcels surrounding church forests;
– Stream water quality data exploring church forest hydrological ecosystem services; and
– Social survey data considering church forest ecosystem services from the perspective of rural Ethiopian church leaders and community members.

These field data were combined with GPS data on land use types, soil erosion control practices, presence of irrigation, number of trees, and what crop was cultivated along the borders of selected church forests to provide a multifaceted perspective on the impacts of church forests on ecosystem services flows in surrounding landscapes.

September 2015

The Wise Man Built His House…Among the Trees

Klaus DeBoer (Summer 2015 REU Site Participant, Sterling College, Class of 2016)

“Earlier this year, I applied for a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. Its title – Undergraduate Research into the Cultural, Economic and Ecological Significance of Church Forests in South Gondar, Ethiopia – was seemingly descriptive. However, when I was accepted to the program, I wasn’t aware how full the experience would be…”

Read the full text of Klaud DeBoer’s blog post on the Summer 2015 REU Site program at Colby College and Debre Tabor University here on the TREE Foundation website.

ESA_SaraLoTemplio_August2014September 2014

Reflections on the 2014 Ecological Society of America (ESA) Annual Meeting

Sara LoTemplio (Colby College, Environmental Studies & Psychology, Class of 2016)

What did you do?

I was invited to present my research project “Ethiopian Orthodox Church Forests Provide Hydrological Ecosystem Services” at a late-breaking research session in the 2014 ESA conference in Sacramento, California. With funding from the Environmental Studies Program and the Dean of Faculty’s Student Special Projects Fund I traveled to California from August 10th-16th. Over the course of the conference I not only shared my own work at Colby, but I also got to see a lot of really interesting science happening all over the world.

What did you learn?

While I can always read about their work, meeting and talking to the people conducting it gave me insight as to how they got to where they are in their science careers and gave me ideas as to what to do next. Going to a wide variety of talks allowed me to gauge what I am interested in, and even though some of the science was over my head, the talks gave me something to aspire to. I also learned a lot about how much presentation style mattered– some of the topics I was most interested in turned out to be the dullest talks and some that I was least interested turned out to be the best, simply because of the way the presenter presented. It was also great to present my own work because I received valuable feedback on my research from some of the world’s experts in ecology and ecosystem services.

How has this experience influenced you?

I found ESA to be an incredibly valuable experience as an undergraduate student presenter. I never dreamed I would have the opportunity to travel across the country to present my own research at one of the world’s most prestigious ecological science conferences. The conference also provided great networking opportunities! Most of the people I spoke with were really impressed that Colby students were presenting as undergraduates… and at one point a professor from Dartmouth even told a member of our Colby team to talk to him about a summer job. We also met some recent Colby graduates pursuing ecology PhDs who took us out to lunch and talked to us about graduate school.

June 2014

Research Panel Presentation at the 2014 Association for Environmental Studies and Science (AESS) Annual Meeting

Three Colby students and Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Travis Reynolds will present a thematic panel to discuss “Community Forest Governance in a Globalizing World: Opportunities and Challenges in Rural Africa” as part of the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences’ Annual Meeting June 11-14 at Pace University in New York City. The thematic panel will feature a series of presentations by Reynolds and the students highlighting research underway in East Africa.

Marie Abrahams ’14 will present “Economic and Environmental Implications of Non-Timber Forest Products: A Study of Shea (Vitellaria paradoxa ssp. nilotica) in Gambella, Ethiopia.” Ellen Evangelides ’14 will present “Landscape-Scale and Community-Scale Analyses of Church Forest Conservation in South Gondar, Ethiopia.” Jacob Wall ’16 will present “Competing Preservationist and Utilitarian Perspectives on Church Forests in Amhara, Ethiopia: Evidence from Social and Ecological Surveys.” Reynolds will present “Does Third-Party Certification Change International Conservation Practices? An Event History Analysis of Environmental and Social Goal Attainment in the International Small Group and Tree Planting Program (TIST) in East Africa.” Grey Benjamin ’14, a coauthor on one of the projects, is also participating in the AESS conference.

January 2014

Woji Church ForestSummary of Woji Church Forest Workshop

Grey Benjamin (Colby College, Environmental Studies & Economics, Class of 2014)

We coordinated a community workshop of over 100 community members living in or near the Woji church forest. The workshop involved several community members of the Woji church, eparated into three groups—priests, farmers, and women. Through the broad range of ages and various positions in the community, this research strove to capture the similarities and differences in group discussions, social surveys, and community mapping exercises in collectively designed to capture comprehensive insight into the historical, current, and future management and use of the forest.

The workshop involved three components—group discussion and facilitation, a written survey distributed to several church leaders, and a community mapping exercise. For both the group discussions and the community mapping, the workshop participants were split into three groups: priests (n~30), farmers (n~50), and women (n~15). Only the priests took the written survey due to low literacy among the other groups.

Each of the three groups raised many of the same uses and factors of deforestation, including:

  • Cutting trees down to sell as lumber;
  • Cutting trees down to use for firewood (cooking, heating, etc.);
  • Cutting trees down to produce charcoal;
  • The encroachment by farmers and agricultural processes;
  • The encroachment of livestock (cattle and lambs);
  • Naturally and human caused incidences of fire; and
  • The influence of political systems, namely the Derg Regime.

Although drivers of deforestation continue to threaten the health of the forest, a majority of the individuals who rely on, or belong to, the church and forest seem believe in the importance of pursuing continued restoration and conservation efforts.

We would like to thank the kind and generous priests, farmers, and women who participated in the workshop at Woji Church and who welcomed us into their home.

January 2013

Church Forest WorkshopReport to the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement

Travis Reynolds, Ph.D. (Colby College Environmental Studies Program)

In January 2013 Colby College’s Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement, in collaboration with the international non-profit TREE Foundation, sponsored a Sacred Forest Workshop in South Gondar, Ethiopia. Over the three-day meeting, more than 150 priests congregated on the medical college campus in the town of Debre Tabor. Workshop topics ranged from the value of church forests to forest threats to preservation solutions. Priests’ discussions covered the ecological benefits church forests provide, the role of the church community in protecting forests, the impacts of climate change, reforestation strategies using indigenous and exotic tree species, the consequences of corruption in church communities, and the effectiveness of wall construction around church forests as a forest preservation strategy.

Colby College students Lydia Ball ‘13, Kate Hamre ‘13 and Sally Holmes ‘13 worked with five Ethiopian students from Debre Tabor University to help implement and document the workshop. Together, the eight students served as facilitators, translators and note-takers in both English and Amharic (the national languages of Ethiopia) for both formal presentations and priest discussions. The students also administered brief surveys to the priests at the beginning of the meeting, followed by more in-depth interviews and written surveys upon completion of the workshop. The priests were eager to share their perspectives, and with the help of fellow priests and Debre Tabor University students over 90 surveys were completed before the end of the workshop proceedings. Over the coming months Colby students will be completing typeset transcripts of selected talks from the sacred forests workshop in addition to drafts of academic papers based on findings from the priest surveys.

August 2012

Letter to the Hollis Student Internship FundLydia and Debre tabor Students

Travis Reynolds, Ph.D. (Colby College Environmental Studies Program)

From June 21 to July 21 of this year I had the pleasure of working with Colby College Environmental Studies students Lydia Ball and Ellen Evangelides to conduct research on community forest management and biodiversity in East Africa. Our work examined the cultural, economic and ecological roles of natural forests in the heavily deforested landscapes of Northern and Southern Ethiopia. Lydia and Ellen were indispensable partners in this new and exciting research agenda.

We studied fragments of native forest surrounding churches in the Northern region of Gondar. While the vast majority of Ethiopia’s Afromontane forests have been cleared to make room for agriculture and human settlements, in some communities small forest parcels surrounding Orthodox churches can still be found. These “church forests” have endured for centuries – the oldest date to 300 A.D. – and often their conservation has occurred without the use of fences or other formal property boundaries. From a social science perspective, church forests thus offer an extraordinary example of durable, community-led environmental conservation through religious institutions. From an ecological perspective, these ancient forest fragments also offer extraordinary opportunities for the study and conservation of Ethiopia’s rapidly vanishing biodiversity.

Working closely with local translators and academic collaborators from Debre Tabor University our summer research activities included: (1) conducting in-depth interviews to explore formal and informal rules governing church forest access and use; and (2) collecting geospatial data (using GPS) and ecological data (using field notes, photographs and audio recordings) on the size and ecological integrity of church forests surrounding the town of Debre Tabor. We also developed and strengthened ties with local community partners and field-tested survey questions for a larger survey planned for January 2013. Finally, Lydia and Ellen also worked to develop an entirely new line of student-led research on amphibian biodiversity in the church forests. Through a series of nighttime expeditions we captured and photographed 17 frogs of at least five different species in the Debre Tabor area – an extraordinary outcome for student researchers working in a part of the world where no published data on amphibian species exist.

Conducting field research in a developing country can be very challenging, but throughout our time in Ethiopia the students exceeded all expectations. I cannot thank them enough for their contributions to my research, and their own preliminary observations on amphibian biodiversity will serve as important justification for grant proposals to expand research on biodiversity in the church forests in the coming years. They also made lasting impressions on our Ethiopian project partners: after a public presentation delivered by the students during our final week at Wondo Genet College, many attendees were astonished to learn that the speakers were undergraduates (viewers assumed Lydia and Ellen were graduate students presenting their thesis research). They represented themselves and Colby College extremely well.