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Ethiopian sacred forests research team awarded NSF grant

By Picker Interdisciplinary Science Institute on October 9, 2015

A Colgate research team has been awarded a grant by the National Science Foundation for the project “CNH-­‐S: RUI: Understanding the effective processes by which communities manage tropical forests.”

The research team is studying the extent, status and conservation of Ethiopian sacred forests. Numbering in the thousands, these sites protect some of the last remaining native forest in the country’s northern region. In each case, a ring of forest surrounds a Christian Orthodox church. The forests stand out dramatically in a landscape otherwise dominated by agriculture and rangeland. The project’s main goals are to explain the mechanisms of sacred forest protection, and determine why some sacred forest communities are responding well to social change while others are witnessing severe forest degradation. The research team uses mixed methods, including ecological sampling, geographic information science, ethnography, interviews, and archival analysis.

Tropical deforestation is an important threat to livelihoods, biodiversity, and is a large contributor to anthropogenic global warming. Explaining how sacred forests function is both a celebration of what is likely centuries-­long protection as well as an opportunity to evaluate the system for lessons about sustainable land management – knowledge that is critically needed in a time of unprecedented land-­use change in the tropics.

Principle investigator, Catherine Cardelús (biology), first traveled to Ethiopia in 2009 with funding from Colgate University’s Picker Interdisciplinary Science Institute. Subsequently, two years of additional funding from the Picker was awarded to Cardelús, Peter Scull (geography), Peter Klepeis (geography), Eliza Kent (religion), Carrie Woods (biology), Alemayehu Wassie (forestry), and Izabela Orlowska (history). This funding supported extensive fieldwork by Wassie and Orlowska as well as three research trips to Ethiopia to collect field data, which proved critical in the NSF proposal writing process.

Six Colgate students participated in the Ethiopia field work, and seven students have conducted class projects, independent research, or senior theses related to the project.

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