As I was growing up, Ethiopia was synonymous with one thing: famine. The BBC broadcast heart-breaking footage of children with swollen bellies covered in flies, and Live Aid was born out of those scenes of genuine human catastrophe. Those images stuck with me for years, and even though I grew to appreciate that a country is bigger than the 10 o’clock news and a moment in history, Ethiopia still conjured scenes of dust and despair.
But there are other images of Ethiopia. The Church Forests, mainly concentrated around the source of the Blue Nile, were created as a physical reminder of God’s creation, symbolic Gardens of Eden in areas where much land has been cleared for agriculture. Administered by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church, they’re home to much of the country’s biodiversity, and while they’ve always served a spiritual purpose, now the church is working with conservationists to help preserve the country’s flora and fauna. And that has a knock-effect for communities, with plans to engage the children involved with the churches with mini-conservation surveys based around insects, projects that are simple and cheap and therefore sustainable and replicable in the future for more on this, check out the work of Dr. Margaret Lowman, who has been working with local churches to help preserve the forests.
It’s funny how, in that last paragraph, I drew an implicit distinction between the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘physical’. That’s a failing of the Western Church, I think, where concern for the environment is seen as something New Agey and has a negative impact on how we approach issues like climate change. When we adopt an attitude of domination rather than genuine stewardship, the church can be embedded as part of the problem rather than contributing to a solution.
But the Church Forests have been doing this for over 1,500 years. And while they’re now having to build protective walls around their forests, there’s still a challenge here – what if churches from around the world learned from Ethiopia? What if this was one of the models by which the church engaged with environmental issues? What if one of the priests who look after the Church Forests was asked to speak at one of our big conferences? That raises a lot of questions and issues, around perceived authority and colonialism, and the environment is a lens through which we need to confront this. The question at the root of it all, though, is simple:
What if we became better at learning from each other?