In spite of expanding formal protected areas and numerous global agreements to reduce the impacts of human activities on the environment, clearing of the world’s natural forests and the resultant loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services continues at an alarming pace (Watson et al., 2014). The causes of deforestation are diverse and complex, including economic and institutional factors, compounded by climate change. The Strategic Plan for Biodiversity agreed upon at the 10th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity emphasized the need for investment in institutions for the protection and management of biodiversity and ecosystems (CBD, 2010), with Rio+20 discussions noting “these institutions must be able to cope with changes in ecosystems, steer away from abrupt change in ecosystem function, and provide a buffer from the most detrimental consequences of unavoidable changes” (Díaz et al., 2012).
But creating institutions for conservation and biodiversity management can be both difficult and costly (McCarthy, 2012). Conservation can be especially challenging in vast human-modified landscapes such as farmland and pasture which comprise much of the 84.6% of the Earth’s land area which remains outside formal protected areas (UNEPWCMC, 2014). One alternative to building new institutions from scratch is supporting and learning from conservation institutions that exist. Sacred natural sites – such as the thousands of Ethiopian Orthodox church forests scattered across Ethiopia’s Northern Highlands (Figure 1) – represent ecologically and institutionally diverse libraries of biodiversity, whose full ecological and institutional values have only begun to be appreciated.
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