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What do a Super Bowl Hero and a Forest Biologist Have in Common?

March 12, 2013

by Meg Lowman

“I can try to explain it to you, but unless you see it for yourself, you really can’t gasp the situation. They’re going through one of the worst droughts ever, it’s barely rained in three years. There is no water to grow vegetation, no water to drink. Everything is like desert. For people in the United States, it’s hard to wrap your mind around that.”

—Anquan Boldin, football star of Baltimore Ravens’ winning Super Bowl 2013 team

As a nerdy scientist, I was never a Super Bowl fan. This year when Anquan Boldin, who shares my passion for building stone walls in Ethiopia, made the first touchdown of the winning Baltimore Ravens, I became one. Although science and sports appear worlds apart, both of us are dedicated to aiding a country that faces drought, poverty, deforestation, and disease.

Northern Ethiopia has a serious problem with its forest resources. The last remaining forests exist as small fragments called “church forests.” These forests surround virtually all the Ethiopian Orthodox churches. Thanks to Google Earth, the shrinkage of these forests in recent decades can be documented. At current rates, these precious green islands are rapidly disappearing forever. The causes are clear. Farmers plow too close to the forest boundaries, which kills the trees around the edges. Cattle meander into the woods nibbling the seedlings and threatening the next generation of trees. Villagers are constantly tempted to grab occasional dead branches for firewood. Despite these activities, Ethiopians love their church and depend on these forests for essential ecosystem services, especially fresh water. These forests provide the last remaining seed source for Ethiopian native trees, important medicines, honey, fresh water, homes for pollinators and other animals, and a highly-valued spiritual sanctuary. In short, no one in rural Ethiopia wants the forests to become extinct.

Church forest near Debre Tabor, Ethiopia.

Church forest near Debre Tabor, Ethiopia.

For five years, I have headed up a conservation task force to reverse northern Ethiopia’s deforestation. This requires gaining the complete trust of the church leadership, as well as offering creative solutions acceptable to the diverse needs of clergy, villagers, and the science of forest management. In some breakthrough negotiations only two weeks before the Super Bowl, we brought government officials to the table with church leadership, hopefully ending the carnage around the forest edges. Local government officials pledged to settle the boundary disputes between church forests and farmers, and church leaders promised to conserve their remaining forests. We now have generous American students and citizens donating for construction of beautiful stone walls to demarcate the church forest boundaries.

Conservation is usually not this easy. Grassroots efforts that engage local people in negotiations and involve listening to different points of view often prove more successful than high-powered negotiations in far-away capital cities. The Ethiopian Orthodox church considers the stewardship of all of God’s creatures as a primary mission, as do conservation biologists who seek to conserve biodiversity. Working together, church and science are achieving amazing results for Ethiopia. And it does not hurt to have a famous Super Bowl star willing to building the stone walls.

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