The Role of the Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Biodiversity Conservation: the case of some churches in Ìnderta, Tigray

Master's Thesis, 2012
111 Pages, Grade: Very good





1.1. Back ground of the study
1.2. Problem statement and justification
1.3. Research questions
1.4. Objectives of the research
1.4.1. General objective
1.4.2. Specific objectives
1.5. Significance of the study

2.1. Conceptual and Theoretical framework
2.1.1. Conceptual framework Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church The Sacred and the Profane Biodiversity and Culture
2.1.2. Theoretical Framework Economic and Institutional theorists view Cultural theorists view Christian Anthropocentrism (human-centered ethics) Christian Deep ecology (Creation-centered ethics)
2.2. Review of Related Literature
2.2.1. Biodiversity and Culture
2.2.2. Biodiversity and sacred areas in the World and Ethiopia

3.1. Description of the Study area
3.2. The study site: Churches selected for the study
3.2.1. Mika‘el Tsellamo Church
3.2.2. Mika‘el Romanat Church
3.2.3. Khokholo Yowhannis
3.2.4. Mika‘el Dagia Church
3.3. Research Methodology and Methods of Data collection

4.1. Biodiversity: Plants and Animals in Orthodox Tewahedo Churches
4.1.1. The Churches and their Plant composition
4.1.2. The Churches and their animal composition
4.2. Community’s view towards Plants and Animals in the Church
4.2.1. Community’s view on the Church Plants
4.2.2. Community’s view on Animals in the Church
4.3. Significance of Church Plants
4.4. The Sacred and Profane dichotomy in the Churches



Appendix i. List of questions: Interview discussion

Appendix ii. Photos of Church Plants and their respective description

Appendix iii. Local and English names of Animals and their respective description

List of figures

List of photo..



The very fast rate of deforestation and killing and hunting of animals in Africa has brought significant decline in biodiversity to the extent that some species are on the verge of local extinction. For Mackinnon, though the available information is limited, it is estimated that two-third of the land that could support habitats for wild plants and animals is being used for other purposes (cited in Biodiversity Support Program, 1993).

According to the Environmental Protection Authority (2003), Ethiopia is one of the richest countries in flora and fauna in Africa. As the Institute of Biodiversity Conservation sited from Tewolde Brehan (1991), there are 6500- 7000 species of higher plants of which 12 percent are believed to be endemic. Besides, the country (Ethiopia) is endowed with 284 wild mammals, 861 birds, 201 reptile, 63 amphibian, 188 fish and 1225 arthropod species of which 10, 2,5, 54, 0.4 and 21 percent respectively are believed to be endemic (Institute of Biodiversity Conservation, 2009). However, due to deforestation which is occurring at an alarming rate, the country is losing much of its unique biodiversity. The findings of Teketay cited in Zewge, (2001), shows that the major reasons for deforestation are the intensive use of land for agriculture and livestock production, and tree cutting for different purposes.

With a number of factors for deforestation and decline in or loss of biodiversity, the problem is evident in the northern highlands of Ethiopia and more severe in Tigray regional state, where forests are downscaled to few protected areas especially the Orthodox Tewahedo Church compounds. To this end, very little of the natural forest and wild animals remains today. These all are the results of both conscious (a long-term human occupation of the area, accompanied by sedentary agriculture and extensive cattle husbandry) and unconscious (consecutive civil and national wars) exploitation of the biodiversity. For this reason, the government made different efforts in various sectors of biodiversity conservation. To overcome problems in biodiversity loss, the ministry of agriculture in collaboration with different national and international organizations is working to implement agro forestry and community tree planting programs for the last three decades. However, yet the challenges of minimizing the rate of deforestation, lack of appropriate technologies to improve conservation practices, and imbalance between the forest resource and the demand of the ever increasing population of the country remain unsolved (United Nations, 2002).

In such devastated areas, conserving and maintaining biodiversity has been a very challenging task, and most approaches did not bring significant change. The only areas where one can observe forests/trees in northern Ethiopia are in some protected areas and the church surroundings and hence, these patches of biodiversity in the church compounds are believed to survive as a result of the religion and tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church’s conservation system and protective patronage (Dagnachew, 2001). In line with this Zewge (2001) underlines that;

The sacred church and monastery lands of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Churches have, however, survived for many centuries as islands of natural forest biodiversity in a sea of deforested landscape in much of the Ethiopian Highlands.


Having the knowledge of the multi-faced benefits of biodiversity conservation, the Ethiopian government is enhancing the activities and organizational structure of biodiversity conservation from time to time. As part of its enhancement activities, the government upgraded Plant Genetic Resource (PGR) to Institute level which is named as Institute of Biodiversity Conservation and Research (IBCR) by proclamation No. 120/98 and reestablished it with the name of Institute of Biodiversity Conservation (IBC) by proclamation No. 381/2004 (FDREEPA, 2004). Yet, few protected areas and church and monastery compounds are the only areas in which biodiversity are conserved (Alemayehu, 2007).

As different writers have agreed, sustainable use of environment depends on two main factors: (1) having appropriate local knowledge and technology to use resources, and (2) the environmental ethics that guides the relationship between human and nature in a sustainable way (cited in Alemayehu, 2007). In the development of human beings (either for misuse or wise use of the environment) institutions can play a significant role. For instance, in states like Ethiopia in which religion has a great value, Orthodox Tewahedo Church plays a prominent role in conserving biodiversity.

The Christian Anthropocentrists believe that God created nature for human’s benefit by using the biblical instruction of Genesis which instructs Adam and Eve to be “fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth and subdue it; have dominion over everything that moves upon the Earth.”, which supports the argument of Anthropocentrism: nature should be used as a means (wealth) for the people (Chandran and Ramachandra, 2008). However, the Christian Deep Ecologist, Nash concludes that the massive losses in biodiversity matter morally, not primarily because of the instrumental value of the other species (other than human beings), but rather because of the intrinsic values of the species that humans ought to respect (Zaleha, 2009). However, although the observation in the Orthodox Church compounds seems in line with the proponents of Deep ecology, there is no research done regarding Orthodox Tewahedo Church values and practices in Ethiopia in general as well as the wereda Ìnderta in particular.

In influencing peoples’ perspectives on biodiversity conservation, the Orthodox Tewahedo Church is believed to play its role in three ways to conserve biodiversity: (1) Based upon and rooted in their own understanding of the relationship between humanity and the rest of nature; (2) They can teach about the environment and natural systems upon which life depends; (3) They can provide active leadership in initiating practical environmental projects. Having Said this, the Church norms and values which are being respected in the Church compound are not applicable in other areas/ outside the Church compound which can be in this case expressed in the form of separation between sacred and profane and levels of sacredness linked with secrecy of spaces, from open space to very much closed one.


The primary research questions of this thesis are:

1. What are the value-bases for biodiversity conservation according to bible and other religious traditions of the EOTC?
2. Can the existing biodiversity Conservation practices in and around the church compound be attributed to the space wise dichotomy of the sacred and the profane? Why? And How?
3. How do individuals/ followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church behave towards biodiversity while they are in and around churches and in other areas?
4. Do conservation practices in the churches animal and plant type specific? How?
5. How the Church values, which are in favor of biodiversity conservation, can be applicable to other areas?


1.4.1. General objective

The main objective of the study is to investigate the role of the Orthodox Tewahedo Church in biodiversity conservation. Based on the above general objective the following specific objectives are in order.

1.4.2. Specific objectives

i. To find out those religious values (principles and actions) of the EOTC that are in favor of biodiversity conservation.
ii. To explore the EOTC church values in relation to biodiversity conservation in terms of the sacred and profane; space-wise dichotomy
iii. To assess the space-based biodiversity conservation attitudes of the followers of the Orthodox Tewahedo Church.
iv. To identify the cultural bases on what plants and animals are conserved in the Churches while not in other areas.
v. To explore ways out in expanding the pro-biodiversity conservation church values and principles in the biodiversity conservation efforts.


Biodiversity conservation is a top priority issue in the world of both developed and developing countries. For this purpose, literature argues that indigenous knowledge and institutions like church (Orthodox Tewahedo Church) are crucial. But since the church values are not clearly identified and are not in a discourse, the biodiversity conservation in church compounds is prevalent outside the church compounds.

The study is essential to enhance dialogue between policy makers and academic researchers for it aims at understanding the indigenous knowledge and practices in the Orthodox Tewahedo church, which are positively contributing in conserving the biological diversity. It is indispensable because it will identify the principles and practices of the Church. Besides, as a new research area, in the field of Environmental Anthropology, the research can be used for researchers as a spring board for further researches on the specific issue.



2.1.1. CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is believed to be the largest of the five non- Chalcedonian Eastern Churches (the Coptic, the Ethiopian, the Syrian, the Indian, and the Armenian), which are by the historian Adrian Fortescue called The Lesser Eastern Churches., but which others prefer to call the Oriental Orthodox Churches, to distinguish them from the Byzantine Orthodox Churches (Getnet, 1998).

The religion, Orthodox Tewahedo Christianity, which is believed as playing an important role in Ethiopian life and that maintained until today, was emerged in Ethiopia in the mid-4th century. The church (Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo) is a unique church deeply based upon Ethiopian history, social life and ethics (Abbink, 2003). Furthermore, the word ‘Tewahedo’ is an Ethiopian term meaning ‘made one’ (Lule, 2008). The church considers this word as the best expression conveying the faith of the church; it emphasizes the inseparable unity of the Godhood and Manhood in the Person of Christ.

The Church, Orthodox Tewahedo Church has over 40 million followers, 500,000 clergies and 35,000 churches in Ethiopia. In addition to its religious activities, EOTC has also a long history of conservation of forest resources, which usually envelop the churches. Although the main purpose of churches is as places for worship, burials and meditating religious festivals, they also provide valuable, often unique, and secured habitats for plants and animals, and green spaces for people (Alemayehu, 2007). The Sacred and the Profane

According to Durkheim, religion is a system of symbols, beliefs and rituals that are based on the classification of common things into the sacred or the profane which are borne out of a society’s need to maintain some level of social cohesion.

The sacred is the socially transcendent and which gives a sense of fundamental identity based on the likeness constructed and sustained by difference or opposition over and against: (1) The alien other (which may be another culture that threatens the maintenance of its identity); (2) The profane i.e. the world of everyday routine, particularly economic activity and its rationality. In addition to this, community is based on symbolic unity, which is an imagined likeness with limits or boundaries that separate it from a different, alien other. Thus, it contrasts with the functionally-specific relations and instrumental rationalities characteristic of societal associations (Allen. J., Pickering. F. and Miller. W., 2002).

The sacred icons are more stored and protected from their profane surroundings. Therefore, sacred places were created to contain the sacred icons and these places become some powerful, through a kind of sacred contagion, that they can even serve as refuge for criminals or hunted animals. Furthermore, Eliade (1956) underlines that;

Some parts of' space are qualitatively different from others. "Draw not nigh hither," says the Lord to Moses; "put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place where on thou standest is holy ground" (Exodus, 3, 5). There is, then, a sacred space, and hence a strong, significant space; there are other spaces that are not sacred and so are without structure or consistency, amorphous.

Thus, the term sacred is used to describe different contexts, separated from the profane including sacred forest, mountains, lakes and marine areas. For instance, Soutter et al. (2003) used the term to describe the sacred groves and for them sacred forest refers to specific areas recognized by peoples and communities as having special spiritual, religious, cultural and historical significance. Biodiversity and Culture

People may value biodiversity for spiritual, economic, aesthetic, cultural and scientific reasons. Although it has implication at international, national and local levels, biodiversity conservation is directly relevant to the local community, often biological resources represent primary source of livelihood, medicine and spiritual values. However, it can be difficult to reconcile these values. Thus, it is very important to be able to clarify different values that underlie positions taken on various sides of a given issue relevant to biodiversity and to understand how values can affect willingness to adopt different patterns of resource use or to reach compromises (Biodiversity Support Program, 1993).

After 1992 (the Convention on Biological Diversity), which realized that many areas of the world that contain high levels of biodiversity are anthropogenic landscapes inhabited by indigenous and local communities, approaches have been refined, linking conservation initiatives with local culture (Maass, 2008 and Cocks and Dold, 2006). Furthermore, in his Anthropological work, Maass (2008) identified that a comprehensive understanding of the cultural context (indigenous knowledge in his case) of a given community is necessary in biodiversity conservation activities.

As sustainable biodiversity conservation is a precondition for sustainable development, cultural and biological diversity are necessary and equally important prerequisites for sustainable development (UNESCO and UNEP, 2003). Besides, the recognition of the cultural and spiritual values is the very important factor to enhance the biodiversity conservation efforts. I.e. if a people know the cultural significance of wild plants that would have a crucial role to conserve the biodiversity (Dold and m. L. 2006). These there is an “inextricable link” between biological and cultural diversity. Thus, at policy level the balance of environment, society and economy is necessary for sustainable development (Maffi, 2007).

Dudley et al (2005) reported that the spiritual faiths, which are followed by most people, have impacts on the natural environment: the interaction can be through the form/s of Sacredness of places and/or Influence of faiths. But since the existence of sacred areas within a protected area can create a challenge for managers, decisions whether or not to make a sacred area important to faiths into an official protected area need to be made on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, they added that such activities of making such areas an explicit part of biodiversity conservation strategies has the additional and very important function of bringing conservation issues into the mainstream thinking of faith groups. However, due to cultural breakdown, pressure on biodiversity and poor governance, the significance of the sacred sites are under threat.

Jessup & Peluso (1986) studied common property resources management of minor forest produce in Indonesia. They found that the indigenous forest product collectors do not use all available resources or engage in all possible economic activities at any given time. Rather they switch from one to another or vary the degree of their involvement in response to changing opportunities and problems, including fluctuations in commodity prices and employment as well as environmental variation. These communities develop ownership rights by planting trees or by marking and tending a wild one. Kinship is an important factor underlying the property right. Ethnic groups and villages tend to be identified with more or less inclusive kin groups. Residence in a village, with the right to common property that it confers, is established by birth or marriage, and right to tenure. Inheritance is also according to kinship; descendants share equally in the inheritance of rights to land, trees, and other property.


The world today is in search of sustainable biodiversity conservation. As a contribution towards finding a lasting solution, strategies are being drawn up and many ideas are being tested. To address the problem of the biodiversity loss national and international, governmental and nongovernmental institutions and organizations are being made an effort. Although some progress is being made the world still lacks a magic solution or formula.

To analyze the existing Orthodox Tewahedo Church practice with regard to biodiversity conservation, I referred my first reflections mainly to four theories as basis of reflections i.e. regarding factors determining biodiversity conservation in commonly owned areas, the Economic and institutional theorists and the Cultural theorists view of biodiversity conservation. Besides, as religion is one of the strong and powerful indigenous institutions, religious perspective towards biodiversity conservation in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church compound and outside examined using the Christian ethics regarding biodiversity conservation. These are Christian Anthropocentrism (human centered) and Christian Deep ecology (creation centered). Economic and Institutional theorists view

The discussion of the biodiversity conservation in the church compounds started with the analysis of community’s attitude from the perspective of economic, game theory and “rational theory model”, where the individual decision-making or choice making capabilities in relation to the benefit achieved from using the Church biodiversity was analyzed. From this point of view, communities view towards biodiversity in the Church compound and outside became a subject of study. These theories mainly focused on the human action and attitude towards biodiversity and the causes for such action.

Hardin (1968) inferred that most of the time individual interests over rule the collective interest. Therefore the management model of privatisation of state (government) was stressed forth. This initiated discussion on the conservation and management of commonly owned biodiversity. According to Wells (1997) biodiversity conservation activities and increasing net economic benefits should go hand in hand unless all efforts will remain fruitless. Besides, Dasgupta (2000) underlined that market and government failure are not the only factors for biodiversity destruction rather badly functioning of “micro-institutions” like the households are also factors as well. Cultural theorists view

Unlike the “rational choice approach” which concentrated on the rational decision in the conservation of biodiversity owned in common, the findings of many anthropologists and sociologists on small-scale societies showed that commonly owned biodiversity are conserved not only by rational institution created for a purpose economic utilization of resources, but also by various cultural elements like kinship, religion and social organization, which also played vital role in the conservation. They highlighted that the decline in biodiversity of commonly owned natural resources was not only due to institutional frailer but it is also because of external factors like colonialisation, modernization (changes in culture) and market forces.

According to Dudley et al (2005) the spiritual faiths, which are followed by most people, have impacts on the natural environment: the interaction can be through the form/s of Sacredness of places and/or Influence of faiths. Since the existence of sacred areas within a protected area can create a challenge for managers, decisions whether or not to make a sacred area important to faiths into an official protected area need to be made on a case-by-case basis. However, no research has been done in the specific research area (Ìnderta woreda).

The analysis of Maffi (2007) regarding the relationship between “human and environment” from the perspectives of biocultural diversity, implied that the relationships of human culture with the environment acknowledge the existence of an “inextricable link” between biological and cultural diversity. Moreover, the balance of environment, society and economy is believed to be necessary for sustainable development, which is a paradigm emerged in the 1980s. Christian Anthropocentrism (human-centered ethics)

Anthropocentrism is a theory, which puts human beings as center of the universe: Everything is centered on humans or evaluated by human measures and serves human interests, and starts from human interests.

In an anthropocentric ethic nature deserves moral consideration because for its intrinsic value. As Kortenkamp and Moore (2001) cited from Campbell (1983), the term ‘Anthropocentric’ was first coined in the 1860s, amidst the controversy over Darwin’s theory of evolution, to represent the idea that humans are the center of the universe. The theory considers humans to be the most important life forms, and other forms of life to be important only to the extent that they affect humans or can be useful to humans. In an anthropocentric ethics, the moral consideration of nature emanates from the consequence that degradation or preservation of nature could have (Kortenkamp and Moore, 2001).

The essential feature of anthropocentrism is the belief that humans are separate from and ethically superior to the rest of nature. To this end, humans consider themselves to be rightfully, the master of nature subduing it for their own instrumental value (Beckmann, Kilbourne, Dam and Pardo, 1997).

In discussing the cause of the environmental crisis, many people believe that the anthropocentric view that humans dominate over and rule nature encouraged human exploitation of nature, and thus was the ideological cause of the environmental crisis.

The Christian Anthropocentrists believe that God created nature for human’s benefit by using the biblical instruction of Genesis which instructs Adam and Eve to be “fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth and subdue it; have dominion over everything that moves upon the Earth.”, which supports the argument of Western philosophy: nature should be used as a means (wealth) for the people (Chandran and Ramachandra, 2008).

From an anthropocentric point of view, humans have a moral duty only towards one another; any duty they seem to have towards other species or entities is really only an indirect duty towards other people. There is no ethical implication in the relationship between humans and nature (Yang, 2006).

According to Lynn White (1974), in absolute contrast to ancient paganism, Christianity established not only dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends. Furthermore, he added that;

By gradual stages a loving and all- powerful God had created light and darkness, the heavenly bodies, the earth and all its plants, animals, birds, and fishes. Finally, God had created Adam and, as an afterthought, Eve to keep man from being lonely. Man named all the animals, thus establishing his dominance over them. God planned all of this explicitly for man's benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man's purposes. And, although man's body is made of clay, he is not simply part of nature: he is made in God's image. Christian Deep ecology (Creation-centered ethics)

According to Kortenkamp and Moore (2001), the term ‘deep ecology’ was evolved from the term first coined ‘biocentric’ in 1913 by an American biochemist, Lawrence Henderson, to represent the idea that the universe is originator of life (cited from Campbell, 1983). And latter the term was adopted by the so called ‘deep ecologists’ in the 1970s to refer the idea that all life has intrinsic value (cited from Nash, 1989). Thus, the term “Deep ecology” was coined by the philosopher Arne Naess in 1973 and then the notion developed and popularized by the sociologist Bill Devall and philosopher George Sessions. (Gandhi, 2007).

Unlike to Anthropocentrists, Deep ecologists advocate for the intrinsic value of nature (creation). For instance, the Christian Deep Ecologist, Nash concludes that the massive losses in biodiversity matter morally, not primarily because of the instrumental value of the other species (other than human beings), but rather because of the intrinsic values of the species that humans ought to respect (Zaleha, 2009). Furthermore, the theorists believe that nature has moral consideration due to its intrinsic value regardless of its use for human beings. For deep ecology ethicists, for instance, one could decide that it is wrong to cut down a tree because it would cause for extinction of diverse of biological resources.

Deep ecology fundamentally rejects the dualistic view of humans and nature as separate and different. It holds that humans are intimately a part of the natural environment: they and nature are one. The view of what a green society should be like stems from a firm belief in bioethics and nature’s intrinsic value.

Following Commoner’s (1972) ‘third law of ecology’, that ‘nature knows best’, and his principle that any human-induced change to a natural system is likely to be detrimental to that system, deep ecologists propose humble acquiescence to nature’s ways: trying to ‘live with’ and not against natural rhythms. They oppose anthropocentrism, defined as (a) seeing human values as the source of all value, and (b) wanting to manipulate, exploit and destroy nature to satisfy human material desires.

The Norwegian philosopher Naess made the famous distinction between the shallow ecology and deep ecology movement in his lecture in 1972. For Naess, deep ecology is a critique to a commonly held doctrine that natural world has value only insofar as it is useful to humans.

The political program of deep ecology was formulated in the deep ecology platform formulated by Arne Naess and George Sessions in 1985. A Varity of religious and philosophies can have the function of deep ecology in plate form, but many are probably too anthropocentric.

According to Spinoza’s philosophy, every living thing being tries to realize its potential, its power or essence. Unity of nature means that everything is connected to everything else and that therefore the self realization of one living being is part of the self-realization of all other beings (Andolan, 2005).

Deep ecology is founded on two basic principles: one is a scientific insight in to the interrelatedness of all systems of life on earth together with the idea that anthropocentrism is a misguided way of seeing things (Zimmerman, 1982).

Deep ecology refers to an egalitarian and holistic environmental philosophy founded on phenomenological methodology. Arne Naess, George Sessions and Devid Rothenberg and the Australian Warwick Fox are believed to be the well-known deep ecologist.

Although Aldo Leopold recognized the significance of ecology much earlier, calling it "the outstanding discovery of the twentieth century," it was not until the 1960s with the rise of the Age of Ecology that the wider public became aware of the science of ecology and its relevance to environmental matters. During that period the foundations were laid for a religious and philosophical revolution of the first magnitude. As G. Tyler Miller observed:

"The ecological revolution will be the most all-encompassing revolution in the history of mankind." Warwick Fox added that deep ecologists were contributing to "a 'paradigm shift' of comparable significance to that associated with Copernicus." That new philosophical challenge was directed at the pervasive metaphysical and ethical anthropocentrism that has dominated Western culture with classical Greek humanism and the Judeo-Christian tradition since its inception (Sessions, 1987).

In a nutshell, the use of all the above theories, though each is a general one and has its own universal application, is simply to reflect on their specific applications in the specific case of biodiversity conservation in the cultural community of Ìnderta through church values. Thus, in no way is each theory approached here from the perspective of general validity test and as result neither of them can be considered as proved or disproved one in a conclusive manner. Only that a first time attempt has been made to make a reflection on the theories’ relative explanatory power in the discussion of churches role in biodiversity conservation.


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The Role of the Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Biodiversity Conservation: the case of some churches in Ìnderta, Tigray
Social Anthropology with Concentration on Environmental Anthropology
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Gebrehiwot Gebreslassie Zesu (Author), 2012, The Role of the Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Biodiversity Conservation: the case of some churches in Ìnderta, Tigray, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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