Forests once covered an estimated 40% of Ethiopia’s landscape. Today, only 2% of the country’s original forests remain intact, dotting the country with small pockets of green.

On a closer look, many of Ethiopia’s surviving forests share one key feature: a church, nestled within the trees. These "church forests” are mini oases of biodiversity. They provide vital ecosystem services such as food and fresh water to local people, while serving as sacred spaces of worship for the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church which protects and maintains them.

Ethiopia’s church forests are just one example of a growing movement among faith-based organizations to support and lead on forest restoration. But they could play a much bigger role moving forward. Thanks to their broad influence, significant land holdings and, in many cases, pro-environmental values, faith-based groups can be powerful allies in restoration projects worldwide.

While faith organizations have largely been overlooked in mainstream restoration efforts to date, stronger collaboration with them presents an important opportunity for governments, NGOs and others working on restoration to expand their efforts and deepen their impacts. 

Protecting and Restoring the World’s Forests Requires All Hands On Deck

Forests are some of the world’s strongest bulwarks against climate change, sequestering billions of tonnes of carbon each year while providing ecosystem services that make communities more resilient, from food and freshwater security to rainfall and climate regulation.

Yet despite widespread pledges to halt and reverse deforestation, forest loss has continued at a staggering pace: In 2021, the world lost about 11 football (soccer) pitches worth of forest per minute. While countries must act swiftly to curb this deforestation, stepping up restoration efforts will also be critical to mitigating global temperature rise and avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.

A woman walks down a dirt path in the Ethiopian desert.
In Ethiopia, only 2% of the country’s original forests remain intact. Deforestation and forest degradation driven by human activity pose a major threat to forest ecosystems globally. Photo by Rudolf Ernst/iStock

In expanding restoration efforts, governments cannot and should not act alone. Smaller-scale, locally led efforts — such as those driven by Indigenous and grassroots community groups in Latin America and Africa — have proven key to effective restoration in many cases. Collaboration with faith-based organizations has been limited so far. But many of these groups are increasingly espousing and acting on pro-environmental values, creating opportunities for innovative new partnerships.

Why Faith Organizations Can Be Key Players in Restoration

While not all faith-based organizations prioritize sustainable forestry, certain groups, like Ethiopia’s Tewahedo Orthodox Church, actively strive to manage their lands sustainably. For them, a pro-environmental approach is an integral part of their identity, evoking a religious motivation to protect and restore not only specific forests that are considered sacred or culturally important, but also broader forest ecosystems. This commitment can stem from the perception of nature itself — often seen as Mother Earth or a manifestation of divine creation — as deserving of veneration.

One notable example is the Laudato Si’ Encyclical from Pope Francis. The Papal letter, which emphasized the importance of caring for the natural environment, prompted a multi-faith response and inspired The Laudato Si’ Action Platform, which has fostered sustainability initiatives worldwide. Representatives from the Baha’i, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, Sikh, and Orthodox Church together with the Anglican Communion have also issued statements and declarations in support of environmental protection.

When it comes to restoration efforts, faith-based organizations can be powerful allies and champions for several reasons:

  • Broad influence: According to Pew Research Center, about 84% of the world’s population is affiliated with a religion, and even those without a specific religious affiliation hold religious or spiritual beliefs. This suggests that leveraging faith-based approaches to sustainability and restoration can reach a significant portion of the population.
  • Unique perspectives and knowledge: Certain faith-based organizations can bring a profound understanding of stewardship and the oneness of all life through diverse religious and cultural perspectives — such as Indigenous cosmovisions and other forms of local wisdom. This may help promote an action-oriented or practical wisdom approach to protecting and restoring forests and landscapes.
  • Substantial land holdings and assets: Faith-based organizations own about 8% of habitable land (an estimated 510 million hectares) and approximately 5% of commercial forests, creating ample opportunities to demonstrate sustainable land management and restoration practices. Faith groups also hold nearly 10% of the world's total financial investment and have a significant presence in education, media and publishing. Collaborating with these organizations, even if not all are fully committed to sustainability at present, has the potential to catalyze transformative changes and expedite global progress on restoration initiatives.

Some faith-based organizations are already taking an active approach to forest and landscape restoration, with initiatives spanning from Ethiopia to India, Japan, the Philippines and beyond. 

Ethiopia’s Church Forests

Ethiopia’s church forests embody a profound interconnection between spirituality and the sustainable management of natural resources. The forests are considered sacred spaces of worship and social gathering where trees are symbolic of the presence of angels guarding each church. But their value extends far beyond this religious significance: These ecosystems also provide vital resources like food, fuelwood, construction materials and water in a country that has lost around 95% of its native forests over the last century due to human activity.

There are as many as 35,000 of these forests in northern Ethiopia managed by the Orthodox Tewahedo Church, an indigenous and integral Christian institution in Africa.

A round church sits on a hillside in the center of a small forest with mountains in the background.
Ethiopia’s church forests are vital sources of biodiversity and natural resources in a country that has lost about 95% of its native forests over the last century. Photo by Rod Waddington/Flickr

Among Ethiopia’s remaining forests, the church forests play a crucial role as protectors. Although each individual church forest may not have a high variety of species, when taken as a whole, they harbor more than half of the 270 native tree species that are known to exist in tropical Northeast Africa, representing greater biodiversity than what is found in the few remaining natural forests in the same region. They also provide habitat for local pollinators that are critical not only to wild plant species but also to the surrounding region’s agriculture.

Despite the church’s longtime stewardship, however, these forests are not immune to degradation and deforestation due to agriculture, overgrazing and other human-driven threats. But diverse sectors of society have come together to help protect them.

The Tree Foundation's Save the Church Forests of Ethiopia project unites scientists and local communities to protect and restore the church forests. They build conservation walls around churchyards to safeguard the forests' canopy and conduct workshops to enhance natural resources, with a focus on local trust and collaboration. A strong relationship with the church itself is central to these efforts: As project leader Dr. Meg Lowman puts it, "The biggest solution to these forests comes from inside: the church members and clergy who believe they are stewards of all of God’s creatures, a similar mission to us as conservation biologists."

EcoSikh’s Guru Nanak Sacred Forests

EcoSikh is an organization born from the Sikh community in 2009, one of 31 long-term environmental "faith commitments" worldwide launched by the United Nations Development Programme and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation. Drawing inspiration from the teachings of the Sikh Gurus and the Khalsa Panth (those that follow the way of Sikh Guru Gobind Singh), EcoSikh aims to instill a profound reverence for all creation within the Sikh way of life, including efforts to promote reforestation and conserve biodiversity.

A group of Sikh men work in a small plot of forest pulling weeds and picking up trash.
EcoSikh leads sustainability initiatives, including forest restoration projects, in multiple countries, acting on a core principle of Sikhism that considers it a religious duty to respect and safeguard the environment. Photo by EcoSikh/Flickr

Among these efforts, EcoSikh has introduced an initiative known as the Guru Nanak Sacred Forests. These forests are being established in India and other locations, such as Ireland and Canada, employing the Miyawaki methodology, a Japanese technique that involves planting micro forests on small plots of land. The key principle behind this approach is to use tree species that are native to the specific area, ensuring they harmoniously coexist to form a diverse, multi-layered forest community.

As of 2021, EcoSikh had created 303 micro forests in collaboration with schools, governments, community groups and the private sector as well as other religious organizations. Each forest comprises 550 native trees, with at least 30 different species per location. These areas not only enhance local biodiversity but have also helped to conserve more than 100 native, rare and endangered forest species.

The Sacred Forest initiative stems from a core principle of Sikhism that considers it a religious duty to respect and safeguard the environment — and by extension, per EcoSikh’s philosophy, to bring awareness about the urgent challenges of global warming and climate change to a broader audience. The Sacred Forests are also a unique fusion of faith, culture and values, integrating Sikh religious beliefs with a Japanese-originated methodology that has been adapted to suit local needs.

Uganda’s Lazarus’ Trees Forest

In Uganda, the Bethany Land Institute (BLI) has become a champion for restoration and ecological education. BLI is a faith-based organization working within the Laudato Si' Action Platform that is dedicated to environmental preservation, food security and poverty alleviation.

One of BLI's initiatives is the Lazarus’ Trees Forest, which aims to plant one million trees by 2050 while transforming the forest into a thriving regional ecotourism hub. This initiative aims not only to revitalize the environment but also to bring new economic opportunities to Uganda's rural communities, particularly its youth.

Three tourists with backpacks explore lush green rainforest in southwestern Uganda.
Tourists explore the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in southwestern Uganda. By restoring local forests in rural central Uganda, Bethany Land Institute hopes to not only improve biodiversity but also attract new economic opportunities such as ecotourism to the area. Photo by Travel Stock/Shutterstock

Through this initiative, the Institute distributes free saplings to local communities and trains caretakers to plant trees. In its first two years, BLI successfully planted over 110,000 trees on its campus and in the surrounding region, including several species listed in the IUCN Red List of threatened species. Moreover, the restoration of the Lazarus’ Forest has brought numerous animal species back to the area.

The foundation of the Lazarus’ Trees Forest initiative is spiritual. During its public launch in 2022, Father Emmanuel Katongole, co-founder and current president of BLI, urged stronger action, saying, “Mother Earth is crying. God’s creation is dying. We need to do something about it.” But its mission and impacts extend beyond religious reverence, with a goal to address the dearth of sustainable economic opportunities in rural Africa by creating teaching positions and fostering knowledge sharing.

Embracing Diverse Perspectives for Effective Restoration

Understanding the interplay between faith, culture and values in ecosystem restoration is a complex and promising field. Recognizing their importance can bring about a more equitable approach to ecosystem restoration, one that — alongside the role of governments, companies, and civil society organizations — also considers religious and spiritual perspectives, respects existing differences and recognizes their value.

The WRI Faith and Sustainability Initiative is focused on exploring the intersection of restoration with culture, values and faith. More research is needed to uncover examples, success stories and best practices as well as the challenges and limitations in this field. We invite practitioners, experts and communities who share our vision to share and collaborate with us for greater impact.


A special mention is extended to Tesfay Woldemariam, Celine Salcedo-La Viña, René Zamora-Cristales and Carlos Muñoz Pina, along with Rocío Campos, for their significant contributions and collaboration in shaping the content and ideas presented in this article.