Nature’s Secrets

Ravens’ receiver shares ecological playbook

February 17, 2013 

“I can try to explain it to you, but unless you see it for yourself, you really can’t grasp 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,

of the Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens

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. Science and sports appear worlds apart, but both 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.”

They 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.

The causes are clear. Farmers plow too close to the forest boundaries, which kills trees around the edges. Cattle meander into the woods nibbling seedlings and threatening the next generation of trees. Villagers are constantly tempted to grab occasional dead branches for firewood.

These forests provide the last remaining seed source for Ethiopia’s native trees, important medicines, honey, fresh water, homes for pollinators and other animals, and a highly valued spiritual sanctuary.

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. 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.

And it does not hurt to have a Super Bowl star willing to build the stone walls.

Meg Lowman, an N.C. State University professor and forest canopy expert, directs the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ Nature Research Center. Online:

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