Church Forests, Scientific Imaginaries, and Modernity

Authors: Peter Klepeis*, Colgate University
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Coupled Human and Natural Systems, Sustainability Science
Keywords: cultural and political ecology, common property, sacred forests, Africa
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/3/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Cabinet Room, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


With growing interest in recent decades, a multi-disciplinary literature celebrates religious-based stewardship as an underappreciated example of forest protection. Most often referred to as sacred forests, the protected sites exist because local religious communities value them. In addition, given their socio-ecological benefits, scientists, NGOs and governments also hold great interest in maintaining sacred forests. These outside actors often suggest to communities (or, indeed, push them to implement) ways to bolster forest protection in the face of the potential “threats” of modernity. Drawing on ethnographic research in northern Ethiopia, I explore different interpretations of a particular type of sacred site known as a church forest. In the last 10 years or so, outside actors are aggressively seeking to protect church forests and introduce a sustainability rationale to community members; this effort occurs despite the fact that church forests are protected for religious reasons and not necessarily for environmental ones. Outside stakeholders and community members also differ in their views about development. Sustainability science often perceives a disconnect between development and forest protection whereas church forest community members celebrate material development both within the forest and the surrounding community. I use the church forest case to explore discourse about environmental sustainability and ways in which scientific imaginaries confront “indigenous” views of nature.

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