Ethiopia: Selling the Sacred

Gamo People and Sacred Forests of EthiopiaEthiopia: Selling the Sacred

By Hwaa Irfan


We are at a time in global governance, when pretty much each minister does as he pleases. This can be observed in the U.S. whereby ministers outside of the jurisdiction of  President Obama have been meeting lobbyists, undermining any overall step in favor of the greater good. One looks to Africa, and Africanize what has been learnt from the colonialists, the exact same practice of self interest in the name of the people.

In Ethiopia, President Girma Wolde-Giogis was not involved in this process, but it happened anyway, the sale of sacred forests as part of the landgrab pandemic that has been hitting the continent of Africa. Landgrab is the branch of neocolonialism that for a price over a leased period, land is acquired to increase food security for other countries, decreasing food security for Africa. The leaseholder is an Indian company, Verdanta Harvests, and the aim to turn the land into tea plantations – not exactly a food security issue! That will involve clearing the land of all that is sacred to the Mazenger in order to turn the land into profit.

Struggling to Maintain Traditions

The Mazenger of Gambella, an indigenous people of Ethiopia have been struggling to hold to what is a part of their traditions going back to the pre-Christian era. Like most indigenous peoples that tradition involves land, the very land they have been marginalized on. The land concerned covers the ancient forest of the tributaries of the White Nile. The Solidarity Movement of Ethiopia uncovered a series of documents that come out of the text book of globalizing colonialists, full of double-speak, manipulation, and intimidation in order to take control that land. It was not until last year, 2010, that it became known to the Mazenger that their sacred forests were up for lease. Ignored is the fact that like the uncontacted tribes of South America, the sacred forests of the Mazenger is their livelihood from which they are able to eat, to hunt, to gather, to nurture, and to heal with when sick. By depriving them of the sacred forests, the problems of the Mazenger will become the problem of the state, even when the state chooses to ignore the needs of the people.

The Mazenger did try to address the issue, and sent a team of representatives to the capital, Addis Ababa. They met with the President Girma Wolde-Giogis whose power is representative.  President Girma did pursue the issue, and sent a letter to the local Environmental Protection Agency demanding for the lease to be canceled. The letter was sent to the Ethiopian Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development stating that the short term benefits do not outweigh the long term benefits.  However, the Governor of Gambella Region had other ideas. Governor Omot Obang Olum declared that the 5,000 hectares of sacred forests had been leased to Verdanta for 50 years of which U.S.$19,000 had already been paid, and the roads, employment and income from the plantations would be to their benefit. Why would they need something they already have, a means to provide for themselves without external influences under conditions that were suitable to them with honor – the honor that peoples around the world from the Middle East to Wisconsin, U.S. have been rising up to reclaim.

The Mazenger approached President Girma Wolde-Giogis again in December 2010, who wrote to both the Minister of Agriculture, and the much disliked Prime Minister Meles Zenawi ordering the Ministers to stop in virtue of the abundance of the rainforests, but the President was ignored! Instead, Prime Minister Zenawi who treats the people with disregard told them to change their leaders. The sacred forests are now under the control of Verdanta. If one’s body, mind and soul has been sold to the devil for a price, one might mistakenly believe that this is all in the name of progress, and Africans cannot manage their affairs anyway, but what does know of Africa, other than the racist perception inculcated by a system that seeks to perpetuate itself by any means – serving only the global elite, local capitalists who inflate prices impoverishing the rest of the world.

Why the Forests are Sacred

Before this question is explored, it must be noted that the biodiversity of the Ethiopian forests are as important as that of the Amazon, which has received much attention. This biodiversity remains within our life time, because of the indigenous peoples who protect and live by it.  A study by the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society has found that the level of biodiversity is greater in the sacred forests than in non-sacred forests providing a refuge for certain plant species which have disappeared elsewhere. The religious believes indigenous to the region have played a strong role in that protection, a protection that has been supported by religions introduced to the region, i.e. Christianity, and Islam.  However, given that Christianity has become the dominant religion of the highlands, the protection of the sacred forests has mainly fallen under Christian jurisdiction. However, this relationship has no always been an easy one.

For the Gamo who largely have held onto their traditional beliefs, they have often come into clashes with the fundamentalists of the Orthodox Christian church. Their highlands and sacred places, sits above the volatile East African Rift Valley. Many of their shrines have been destroyed, and churches have been built on their sacred grounds including the forests compromising the symbiotic relationship between the people and their forests – to them by looking after the sacred forests, the sacred forests will look after them understanding that it is the mutual respect between land and the people that sustains the people.

“When all the trees have been cut down,
when all the animals have been hunted,
when all the waters are polluted,
when all the air is unsafe to breathe,
only then will you discover you cannot eat money.”  – Cree Prophecy

What can replace the multi ecosystem of Afroalpine grasslands, the rare bamboo forests, evergreen Afromontane forests, the lands made fertile by monsoonal rains, and deep aquifers that feed into many lowland areas – the wetlands,, the highlands, the 792 plant species, and variety of birds, and animals. Can Zenawi in his love of power replace all of this? When they have all gone, and the country can feed itself no longer, shelter from the burning sun or find clean water to drink, what will the offspring of Zenawi do then?

Cultural Value

The plants of the forests, have played an important socio-economic role in the lives of the people. These sacred forests have provided a communal gathering place uniting different groups/tribes/clans. In acknowledgment of this God given gift, the Oromo for example have a prayer ceremony called Irreessa before the harvest. Irreessa is carried out under the big trees in the meadows of the river in the forest. Likewise, the Gurage, and the Amhara have similar practices. To the Oromo, the forests cannot be exploited, and exploitation includes the felling of trees. In a region that has suffered great deforestation, the importance of this exploitation is all important to the benefit of the common good, just as the British have experienced in recent times with the threat of a biomass economy i.e. plants to replace fossil fuels. However, in the sacred forests harvesting of trees does take place.

For the Omotic speaking Gamo, who are the main tribe of the highlands, they protect the forests, the burial grounds, and the communal meeting places across Ethiopia’s southwest plateau – 1,600 square miles. They live off small holdings, and live by communal grazing for their sheep and cattle. They cultivate cereals, fruit trees, applying organic practices, using a form of cultivation that is based on terracing like in some parts of the Philippines. This terracing has prevented soil erosion, and controlled water pollution. It has also allowed them to cultivate 91% of their land. They live in traditional huts pleasing to the eye in small family groups. They recognize the human dependence on the earth that sustains us, and practice rainmaking, rainstopping, and thanks giving ceremonies. The strict laws that govern their relationship to the sacred forests are called wagaa, the basis of which is that all things are connected and sits in a delicate balance. As Gamoan elder Abera Ogato describes:

“Here we know that sacred forests protect waters. The pastureland is for the livestock. The livestock make the manure to fertilize the crops. Without manure there is not enough fertilizer for the highland soil. So to maintain productivity from a plot of land you must have all these things in balance.”

Community gathering in the Dorbo sacred pasture land to get blessing from indigenous religious leaders (sitting in the front row) by  Desalegn DesissaMany of the sacred forests protected by the Gamo are burial grounds, and the grasslands that surround the burial grounds are off limits to grazing, but on limit for mourning. There are 12 types of sacred places, and they include:

  • Kashaa (forest)
  • Dubushaa ( outdoor communal meeting places)
  • Boncho zummaa (mountains)
  • Boncho shafaa (rivers)
  • Kalloo (pasture lands)
  • Bonchetida fultoo (springs)

Each sacred forest or grove, has an eqaa a spiritual leader/shaman who is responsible for leading the community ceremonies. The eqaa is considered as the custodian of all traditions that includes the well-being of the lands, and the waters, which is transmitted to members of the young generation. The eqaa is a part of a system of authority which constitutes the:

  • Kawo (King)
  • Halaqa (Chief)
  • Korafnae (Clan head)
  • Maaka (Ritual priest)
  • Adento (Family Head)

However, all of this has been undermined by the growth of the state and the population. Church members of the evangelical Protestant Church do not hold the same values, and tend to overgraze, and cut the trees. Also, in the throes of proselytizing, sacred forests have been targeted, demanding that new converts cut trees in order to prove their Christianity.  St. Francis of Assisi would surely have something to say about that paternalistic interpretation of his faith. This interpretation is the basis of capitalism, which presumes itself to be superior to nature, however it was this nature that has protected the Gamo from famine, when the rest of the country was prey to it!

The researchers of the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society have done much to catalog all species, and sacred places, and develop, implement a public awareness campaign, bringing together governmental administrators and traditional custodians, and donating seeds to local farmers who in turn have established indigenous tree nurseries to reforest and expand the sacred forests. There are extremely important lessons to be learned from the Gamo not only for the whole of Africa, but for a world that is eating away at the earth.

“The people of the Gamo have developed the ability to conserve crop genetic resources while practising highly productive farming strategies. Globally, we are down to two or three viable strains of our most important food crops; whereas, in the Gamo, they have more than 65 varieties of barley, more than 12 varieties of wheat and more than 100 varieties of enset and dozens of varieties of cassava, taro and yam. The Gamo defies the common assumption that agricultural intensification decreases biodiversity.


“Furthermore, in UNEP’s analysis of 114 organic projects across 24 countries, researchers found that not only did financial stability and quality of life improve, but yields increased by up to 116%, out-performing conventional industrial agriculture.


“The Gamo people and culture are embedded in an ecosystem that is intensively managed and yet, unlike ours, includes an astounding amount of diversity, stability and resilience. Over thousands of years they have evolved a way of being in the world that has ensured their long-term survival. Their management of everything; from water tables, soil nutrient cycles to their social infrastructure stems from a view of the world as sacred, alive and entirely interconnected.” – Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee and Alan Zulch

The clearing of the 5,000 of hectares has begun. The sacred forest concerned is in Godere District, which is located at the headwaters of the five rivers which are important to downstream Sudan, and Egypt, as the five rivers are the major tributaries of the White Nile. This would increase the process of desertification sending less clean water, then less water downstream.


What You Can Do

To support the work of the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society, write them at or visit their website.

Here is the link of the petition website….



“Ethiopia ‘Sacred Forests’ Sold to Indian Tea Producer.”

Desissa, D. And Binggeli, P. “Sacred Groves.”

Desissa, D et al. “Conservation of Ethiopian Sacred Groves.”

“Gamo Highlands.”

Vaughan-Lee, E. And Zulch, A. “A Thousand Suns: The View from Ethiopia’s Gamo Highlands.”

Related Topic:

All Things Are Linked!

300 Year Old Vietnamese Forest Food System

Reclaiming Nature’s Knowledge Base

Our Africa: Europe’s Debt Pt.1

Increasing Food Insecurity for Short Term Gain

The Lesson That Cannot Be Taught!

Nature Helps Our Brain Connect!

A Food Revolution!

Finding a Global Balance

Can’t See the British Woods Without the Trees

After Cancun: Fair Trade for Africa!?

Restoring Nature: The Craft of the Town Planner

Eating Away at Our Earth Pt2.

When the Greed of the Few Starves the Many


9 thoughts on “Ethiopia: Selling the Sacred

  1. Assalamu Alaykum sister Hwaa. I would like to attend some counselling session with you but don’t know how to get hold of you. Is there anyway we can communicate pls? I live in east London. Jazaakillahu Khayr.

  2. Could u suggest me suitable organization or individual who assist in stopping deforestation in Ethiopia? I am seriously worried, there are some projects in Ethiopia( Benshangul region) where reckless cutting and burning of huge natural forest is underway; lets wake up countrymen. I do not get sleep many times when I recollect the murder of natural forest in that area. Its natural forest with huge natural stock of large trees and that are being cut. What next………
    1. Deforestation
    2. Animal migration to nearby neighboring country
    3. Soil loss/erosion
    4. Poor rainfall in subsequent years
    5. Yield low in all farm land
    6. Poverty increase and we are already suffering; lets not suffer any more than this
    Lets fight against deforestation

    • Hi Girma…

      the worst enemy happens to be Prime Minister Meles Zenawi who sees the development of Ethiopia in modern western terms… and the strongest support is President Girma himself – unfortunately Girma is undermined by Zenawi. The longest fighting environmental activist is Desalegn Sisay who works with many NGOS, both Ethiopian and foreign to save what is left of the natural resources of Ethiopia. Here is one of his recent commentaries, and you can probably Google him to get his contact details

      • Dear friend,
        Thank you.
        I will try to get him some time so that we can try to save the rest of the natural forest.
        I appreciate for your concern on the issue. lets fight for the rights of our poor nation; lets try to save our natural capital.
        The site I have mentioned is not very far from our dream-millennium dam. It is at about 150km or so from the dam and nearby area is earmarked for national park. I surprise because how come investors can destroy the natural forest bordering dam and national park. The project is located near KOTA , a small village on the way to Mankush. It has a lush green lung of our nation. During summer it looks like rain forest of Africa; it hurts me when I see dozer moving around to kill those green lungs for foreigners’ advantage. They are growing Corn by cutting valuable trees; our poor farmers can also grow Corn; why outsiders.
        I am sorry friends. If any of you like the cause I am worried. pl. join me on this issue

  3. This surprises to me that there are some other projects harming the natural forest of our country by the name of investment. I would like to bring it to the forum; who are the right persons, Can I have there e-mail id’s

  4. Dear Hwaa,

    I like your blog

    You used my paper on sacred forest in Gamo

    Let us be a friend


  5. Pingback: World Spinner

Comments are closed.