In this video, part of the award-winning series Standing on Sacred Ground, fundamentalist Christian converts interrupt a matrimonial ceremony by starting to build a structure in a sacred meadow in the Gamo Highlands, Ethiopia. Like the hundreds of groves of trees that the Gamo people also hold sacred, this meadow is so meaningful that community members say that they feel its damage or destruction as an almost physical pain. For some of the Christians, meanwhile, the site represents ‘an abomination of animism’ and they feel compelled by God to confront it.
For centuries the Gamo people have protected sacred sites on their ancestral lands including at least 270 sacred groves. In these spaces they perform sacrifices, rituals for the harvest and ceremonies of thanksgiving. They summon the rains and evoke the dry season, perform fire ceremonies, settle disputes, store their ritual relics and bury their dead. The Christians also maintain the right to establish separate cemeteries in the forest groves and with an increasing number of Christian converts these sites can become arenas of conflict.
Religious pluralism may be important in maintaining the biodiversity of this rich landscape. In one of the most densely-settled agricultural landscapes in the world, botanists, in conjunction with elders and community members, have documented exceptional diversity throughout the Gamo Highlands. According to Desalegn Desissa, an Ethiopian ethnobotanist and an expert of the sacred sites of his homeland, biodiversity thrives in these places so dearly protected by their Indigenous keepers.
“Small sacred forests of less than ten hectares will contain more than 100 [plant] species,” says Desissa. The Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society has found that biodiversity, as well as the number of endemic species, is higher in sacred groves than in surrounding forests as the groves shelter species that no longer survive in non-sacred areas.
“Biodiversity in Ethiopia now is really preserved in sacred sites and community forests,” Desissa says. “A sacred site is a real place . . . The conservation is real conservation. I tell that to the global community, that it’s better to work with the local community to conserve global biodiversity.”