Excerpted and adapted from the bookGandhi Today: A Report on Mahatma Gandhi’s Successors, Simple Productions, Arcata, California, 1987, reprinted by Seven Locks Press, Washington, D.C., 1987; and printed in an earlier version in Coevolution Quarterly (later named Whole Earth Review), Fall 1981
Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.
At the time of my India visit, I knew next to nothing about the rapid destruction of forests in Third World countries, or about its costs in terms of firewood shortage, soil erosion, weather shifts, and famine. Still, I was at once intrigued at hearing about the Chipko Movement—mountain villagers stopping lumber companies from clear-cutting mountain slopes by issuing a call to “hug the trees.”
So, one Fall morning in 1978—along with a Gandhian friend, a young engineer—I found myself on the bus out of Rishikesh, following the river Ganges toward its source.
Before long we had left the crowded plains behind and were climbing into the Himalayas. Thick forest covered the mountain slopes, interrupted only occasionally by terraced fields reaching dramatically up the mountainsides. Our bus bumped along a winding road halfway between the river below and the peaks above, as it followed the river’s meanders around the sides of mountains.
This was the Uttarakhand—the name given to the Himalayas of Uttar Pradesh state, lying against India’s border with Chinese-ruled Tibet. A major source of timber and water power, this was a region of vast natural riches—in contrast to the poverty of the people living there.
Yet even the forest riches of the Uttarakhand might have their limits. After an hour or two of the ride, the forests within sight of the road were becoming noticeably thinner. Still later we could see deep gashes running up the sides of the mountains.
“Landslides,” my friend explained.
At some points the bus came upon debris piled up at the edges of the road; and several times the bus had to drive over debris not yet cleared away. The slopes were increasingly bare.
It was completely dark when we spotted the lights of the small town of Gopeshwar, birthplace of the Chipko Movement. There we would hear that movement’s story from one of its founders, Chandi Prasad Bhatt.
* * *
Chandi Prasad Bhatt, 1978
Photo by Mark Shepard
Chandi Prasad was raised in Gopeshwar—a very small village, during his youth. Farmland was scarce in the overpopulated mountains, and so were jobs. Like most men of the mountain villages, Chandi Prasad was eventually forced to work in the plains, becoming a ticket clerk in Rishikesh for the bus company.
Chandi Prasad felt deeply concerned over the plight of the mountain people as a whole, and he often walked through the mountains to talk to the villagers about their problems. Among the most important, of course, were the shortages in farmland and jobs. But added to these were oppressive government policies concerning the forests.
The villagers depended on the forests for firewood, fodder for their cattle, and wood for their houses and farm tools. But the government restricted huge areas of forest from their use, and then auctioned off the trees to lumber companies and industries from the plains—a practice inherited with little change from the British colonialists. Because of these restrictions and an ever-growing population, the mountain women found themselves walking hours each day just to gather firewood and fodder.
In 1956, Chandi Prasad found hope when he heard a speech by the Gandhian leader Jayaprakash Narayan, who was on a tour of the area. Chandi Prasad and other young people launched themselves into the Gandhian campaigns, organizing villages for economic development and fighting liquor abuse throughout the Uttarakhand.
Then, in 1962, a brief border war between India and China brought drastic change to the Uttarakhand. Though the region had not itself been involved in the conflict, the Indian government wanted to secure more tightly all its territory bordering China. For the Uttarakhand, this entailed a program of rapid economic development.
Road-building began throughout the region. Lumbering operations escalated as the roads brought remote forests into easier reach. Towns grew as workers arrived from the plains.
The mountain people didn’t benefit much from this development, though they were meant to. Construction work was assigned to contractors from the plains, who brought with them skilled and semiskilled laborers. The mountain people themselves were hired only for jobs such as hauling rocks, and were paid next to nothing. Meanwhile, the increase in population and lumbering made it even harder for the mountain women to find their firewood and fodder.
Chandi Prasad and other Gandhian workers decided to tackle the problem of job discrimination. They organized a labor cooperative, with 30 full-time members and 700 part-time, which bid for and won several contracts to build sections of road. On these jobs, the co-op was able to pay double the wages paid by outside contractors to their own workers.
But the co-op soon found hurdles placed in its way. For instance, its completed jobs were undervalued by government assessors, causing the co-op to lose money. It seemed the co-op’s practices and success had offended some people. The co-op was faced with the choice of either losing more money or greasing the palms of government officials. Instead, it decided to stop building roads.
The workers formed a new organization, the Dasholi Gram Swarajya Sangh (“Dasholi Society for Village Self-Rule;” Dasholi is the administrative area around Gopeshwar). The aim of the Sangh was to start small industries using the resources of the forests. Its first project was a small workshop making farm tools for local use.
After a while, the workers decided to bid for trees from the local forests. Large lots of trees were sold by the state Forest Department through the “contractor system,” which awarded the trees to the highest bidder, with the purchase price going to the state government. Sometimes the Forest Department sold selected trees, marked for felling; at other times, it sold the rights to a marked area, which was then clear-cut. Normally the contracts went to large businesses from the plains, which took the trees to the plains for sale and for factory use.
With money borrowed from the community, the Sangh over time bid for and won four small contracts, selling some of the wood locally and the rest in the plains. Within a few years the number of full-time workers in the Sangh had increased from 30 to over 200.
But the big contractors seemed determined to halt the competition. They began to overbid on the contracts, while making up their losses by illegally cutting extra trees. Again the workers were forced to turn elsewhere.
The workers had better luck with a plan to buy and market herbs collected by mountain gatherers—herbs that were normally sold to plains traders, who made exaggerated profits on resale. The Sangh was able to pay much higher prices to the gatherers, and even drove up the prices paid by other traders.
Encouraged by this success, the Sangh next built a small processing plant to make resin and turpentine from pine sap—one of eight such processing plants being set up in the region with help from the federal government. But again the Sangh ran into discrimination, when the state Forest Department refused to allot adequate supplies of pine sap to the eight plants, or to allow the plants to buy the sap at the same price paid by a partly government-owned producer in the plains.
In 1970, the workers encountered another consequence of official forest policy—this one more grim than any they had faced before.
During that year’s monsoon rain, the Alakhnanda River rose 60 feet, flooding hundreds of square miles. The waters swept away hundreds of homes—including one entire village—as well as 30 passenger-laden buses and five major bridges. Almost 200 people died. When the waters reached the plains, over 100 miles downstream, they dropped silt that clogged nearly 100 miles of canal, halting irrigation and power production in the northern part of the state for six months before the residue could be cleared.
Workers from the Sangh mounted a relief operation for mountain villages marooned by the flood. During the operation, the workers tried to discover what had caused the flood, by talking to the villagers and making their own observations.
It became clear that this disaster was not strictly natural.
The chief cause, the Sangh workers decided, was the commercial lumbering that had expanded so dramatically after the war with China. When mountain slopes were cleared of trees, rains washed away the topsoil, leaving the soil and rocks underneath to crumble and fall, in landslides. Much of the soil from the mountain slopes was deposited in the rivers below, raising the water level and forming temporary dams that could burst under pressure. At the same time, the bare slopes allowed much more rain to run off directly into the river. The end result was floods.
Forest Department officials allotted trees without regard to these effects, which they didn’t seem aware of. On top of that, contractors regularly bribed the forest rangers to let them take trees beyond their allotment. The Forest Department had a program of replanting cleared slopes, but it was inadequate; so bare slopes usually remained bare.
Another cause contributing to floods was road building, which often resulted in landslides when proper construction methods were neglected.
The mountain people themselves were not blameless. They had bared many slopes while gathering firewood and fodder and while grazing their livestock, either not realizing or not caring much about the effects of their actions. Of course, they were forced to meet their survival needs from areas limited by the government—which became harder to do as the population grew. Besides that, the government policies made the villagers feel the forests did not belong to them—that the government merely allowed them to live there—which discouraged any sense of responsibility the villagers might have for preserving the forests.
The Sangh workers prepared a report of their findings and submitted it to the government. It brought no response. But the workers themselves had learned a lesson they would not forget: The same forest policy that denied them fair use of forest resources was gradually destroying their mountain home.
* * *
In October 1971, the Sangh workers held a demonstration in Gopeshwar to protest the policies of the Forest Department. They demanded that the department abolish the contractor system and instead award contracts to local cooperatives—to generate jobs for the mountain people while halting the contractors’ illegal felling practices. They also demanded an end to discrimination in the supply of pine sap, and enough access to the forests so that the mountain people could meet their needs.
Over the next year, the Sangh workers pressed their demands through a press campaign and talks with high officials. None of this seemed to bear fruit. In late 1972, more rallies and marches were held, but these too failed to bring results. The thoughts of the Sangh workers turned toward direct action.
Meanwhile, the Sangh received a fresh blow: The Forest Department turned down the Sangh’s annual request for ash trees for its farm tools workshop. The department then allotted some of the same ash trees to the Simon Company, a sporting goods manufacturer from the plains. Tennis rackets took priority over plows!
In March 1973, two Simon Company agents arrived in Gopeshwar to supervise the cutting of the trees. Told there was no hotel, they applied for lodging at the guest rooms of—the Dasholi Gram Swarajya Sangh.
When the agents told the Sangh workers who they were and what their business was in town, the workers were stunned. But they quickly remembered their traditional hospitality and helped the visitors settle into their rooms. Then they rushed off to tell Chandi Prasad Bhatt.
The news hit Chandi Prasad hard. He declared, “Let them know we will not allow the felling of a single tree. When their men raise their axes, we will embrace the trees to protect them.”
A few days later, a public meeting was held in the courtyard of the Sangh compound to discuss the situation. A number of ideas were advanced: barring entrance to the forest, stopping the truck from hauling away trees by lying in front of it, cutting the trees ahead of time, or even burning them.
Finally, Chandi Prasad said, “Our aim is not to destroy the trees but to preserve them. When the men go to cut them, why don’t we cling to the trees, and dare them to let their axes fall on our backs?” (Chipko means “hug,” or “cling to.”) As he described it, he locked his hands together in a posture of embrace.
The people were at first stunned by the novelty of the idea. Then they began to shout their agreement: Yes, they would hug the trees! They drew up a resolution announcing their plan, to be sent to government officials. The Simon Company agents, who had been allowed into the meeting, watched in consternation.
Several weeks later, the Sangh workers learned that the trees were marked and were about to be felled. On the appointed day, Sangh workers and others marched in procession out of Gopeshwar toward Mandal forest, where the marked trees stood. Accompanied by the beat of drums, they sang traditional songs voicing their concern for their natural home. When they reached Mandal village, just below the forest, a rally of about 100 people was held.
The lumbermen were already in the forest waiting for their employers. The Simon Company agents had collected their final permit from officials in Gopeshwar and were on their way to the forest. But when they reached Mandal village, they were so unnerved to see the animated crowd, they abandoned their plans and withdrew without the trees!
Following this, Forest Department officials tried to bargain with the Sangh workers: The Sangh could have one ash tree if it allowed the Simon Company its full quota. The Sangh refused.
The officials raised the offer to two ash trees; then three; then five. Finally, the offer reached ten trees—the Sangh’s original request.
But the Sangh workers were unwilling to allow the Simon Company its quota at any price. The issue was no longer only whether the Sangh would get trees for its farm tools workshop. At issue now was an entire government forest policy more concerned about outside businesses than about the people who lived among the forests. The allotment of trees to the Simon Company was a glaring symbol of that policy’s injustice.
Finally, the government gave in. The Simon Company’s permit was canceled, and the trees were assigned to the Sangh instead.
Soon after, the government also announced it was ending the discrimination in pine sap supplies. But that same month, the Sangh workers learned that the Simon Company had been allotted a new set of ash trees, in the Phata forest, in another part of the district.
Chandi Prasad and another worker rushed to the Phata area to tell the villagers about the Simon Company’s plans and about the new Chipko Movement. The villagers formed an action committee and set up a continuous watch over the approach to the forest. Simon Company agents had already reached the area, and they watched these preparations. After a few days, they once again retreated from the scene.
But the company wasn’t ready to give up the trees, and its permit was good for six months.
In December, more Simon Company employees arrived in Phata with a new strategy. They visited all the villages in the area, threatening the villagers with harsh treatment by the law if they tried to stop the tree-felling. They also claimed that the Chipko leaders were only interested in bribes from the company.
The Simon Company agents were invited to present their viewpoint at a rally called by Chipko leaders. With Chandi Prasad sitting by, the agents tried to intimidate the mountain people with threats and insults. But it was no use. The villagers declared they would protect the trees.
As the rally ended, word spread that the government was showing a movie that night in a nearby town. A movie is a special treat for the mountain people; so, that evening, many of the villagers and Chipko workers went into town to see it. But when they arrived, they found out the film van hadn’t come, and the movie had been canceled. They were then stuck in town for the night, since the mountain buses didn’t run so late.
When they returned next morning, they were alarmed to hear that men with axes and saws had been seen heading toward the forest.
The Chipko leaders quickly organized a procession, which marched toward the forest to the beat of drums. When the villagers reached the forest, they found that the lumbermen had run away—but had left behind five felled ash trees.
The villagers were dismayed to see the fallen trees. But they soon resolved that the Simon Company would not remove the trees from the forest. A round-the-clock vigil was set up.
A few days later, Simon Company employees tried once more to remove the trees, but retreated when they came upon the Chipko people.
After a week’s vigilance by the villagers, the Simon Company’s permit expired. The company had failed to obtain a single tree.
* * *
Though the Chipko workers were elated by this victory, there was a much greater challenge to come.
A few months earlier, the Sangh workers had had a fresh reminder of the lessons of the Alakhnanda flood. Disastrous flooding had struck the Mandakini, another major river of the region.
Experts and policymakers in the plains were starting to notice that floods from the Himalayas were becoming steadily worse, and some even saw the connection between human actions and these “natural” disasters. But this awareness failed to reach the people managing the forests. The Forest Department knew only how to allot trees according to principles unchanged for a century—principles that protected the forests from the mountain people, not from the administrators.
The Chipko people knew this, but still they were shocked by what came next. Just months after the Mandakini flood, the Forest Department announced an auction of almost 2,500 trees in the Reni forest—a forest overlooking the Alakhnanda River. The lessons of that river’s previous flood had been completely ignored.
Chandi Prasad quickly set out for the villages in the Reni area.
In one village, a gathering he spoke to faced the mountain where the forest was to be cut, its peak already ravaged by tree-felling and landslides. Chandi Prasad reminded the villagers of the flood of 1970. He asked if there wouldn’t be more landslides and worse floods once the remaining forests on the mountain were cut down.
The villagers nodded agreement. But one of them rose and said they themselves had just marked those trees for the Forest Department.
Chandi Prasad was dismayed. “In that case,” he told them, “you might as well have cut the trees yourselves.”
The villagers protested: The government had paid them to do it. How could they refuse?
Chandi Prasad said, “And if the government paid you to cut down the trees, would you do that too?”
There was a silence. Then one of the villagers said, “No, we would not cut down the trees. But how can we stop others?”
To their amazement, Chandi Prasad explained that they could save the forest by hugging the trees. After more talk, the villagers agreed.
And so did villagers in other places Chandi Prasad visited. After he left the area, two of his colleagues living there continued to spread the message of Chipko.
Photo by Anupam Mishra
The auction was scheduled for the beginning of January in Dehra Dun, a city in the plains. Chandi Prasad went to Dehra Dun shortly before the auction. First he contacted Forest Department officials. He told them about the danger of landslides and floods from cutting the forest, and he pleaded with them to cancel the auction. The officials ignored him.
Chandi Prasad next appealed to the contractors’ agents gathering in the city. He warned them that the winning contractor would have to face the resistance of the Chipko Movement. The agents refused to take him seriously. They had heard about the Chipko Movement—but it was one thing to protect a few ash trees, and another to save a whole forest!
The only people who gave Chandi Prasad a sympathetic hearing were a group of students, who proposed to disrupt the auction. But Chandi Prasad couldn’t approve such methods. So the students instead printed leaflets and posted them around the auction hall. On the morning of the auction, Chandi Prasad stood at the door of the auction hall and pointed to a posted leaflet as the contractors’ agents entered the hall. But their response was the same as before.
At the end of the auction, Chandi Prasad told an employee of the winning contractor that his company would face the Chipko Movement at Reni. Then he returned to Gopeshwar.
Over the next few months, gatherings and rallies were held throughout the Reni area to prepare the people for what was to come.
In mid-March, the first group of contractors’ laborers arrived in a town close by the Reni forest to wait for a final permit to enter the area. The villagers and Chipko workers waited tensely for the confrontation.
A week later, government officials made a surprise announcement: Compensation for land taken over for military purposes after the China war would be paid out in Chamoli, a town some distance from Reni. The morning after the announcement, the Reni men rushed to Chamoli to collect their money. After all, they had been pressing for payment for fourteen years! Meanwhile, Chandi Prasad—who had not heard about the announcement—was being held up in Gopeshwar by a visit from a high-level Forest Department official, who had developed a sudden interest in the Dasholi Gram Swarajya Sangh.
That morning, the contractors’ men, along with forest officials and a company agent, climbed onto a rented bus and were driven from the town toward Reni forest. Shutters were drawn over the bus windows so no one could see in—though the departure of the village men had left most of the valley deserted. The bus stopped short of the village of Reni, and the men took a roundabout path to avoid the village.
But a little girl spotted the men marching toward the forest and ran to tell Gaura Devi, an elderly leader of the village women. Gaura Devi rushed around the village, calling the other women away from their cooking. Within minutes, about 30 women and children were hurrying toward the forest.
Gaura Devi, 1978
Photo by Anupam Mishra
They soon caught up with the men, who had made camp and were preparing lunch. The women pleaded with them not to cut down the forest and explained what it would mean to the village if they did. They asked the men to return to the village after finishing their meal and wait to talk to the village men.
Some of the men seemed ready to respond to the women’s pleas; but others had been drinking. The drunk ones tried to take liberties with the women, or cursed at them for trying to interfere with their work.
One of the drunks came staggering toward the women with a gun. Gaura Devi stood in front of him, bared her breast, and said, “This forest is like our mother. You will have to shoot me before you can cut it down.”
At this, the sober men decided they had best leave. They started back down the path out of the forest, while the women kept up their appeal to the drunken ones. Meanwhile, the women spotted a new batch of laborers moving up the path with bags of rations. Some of the women ran to meet them and pleaded with them to go back. The laborers agreed to leave the ration bags where they were and to leave the forest once they had finished the meal prepared for them. They were soon on their way back.
Finally, the drunken men began to sober up and realized there were very few of them left in the forest. They too started back, with the women helping to carry their tools, some distance behind.
At one spot in the path, there was a concrete slab bridging a gap left by a previous landslide. After passing over the slab, the women used the laborers’ tools to dislodge it and send it crashing down the slope, cutting off access to the forest.
All night the women sat by the severed end of the path, holding vigil over the forest above and the men huddling by their ration bags below.
The next morning the village men and Chipko workers arrived by bus. They had already learned about the government’s deceit and then about the women’s surprise victory. Chandi Prasad assured the frightened company men and forest officials that the villagers meant them no harm but only wanted to protect their forest.
The women told the village men their story; but, at this point, they didn’t mention the drunkenness of some of the men, or about the gun. After all, they didn’t want the offenders to lose their jobs.
* * *
Over the next month, rallies were held at the site, and a constant watch was kept over the forest. Meanwhile, the mountain women’s story caught the attention of the Indian public and created an outcry for the protection of the Reni forest. The government responded to all this with official protests to the Chipko workers and public denunciations of the movement.
But finally Chandi Prasad was called to the state capital to meet with the chief minister. The chief minister agreed to set up a committee of experts to investigate the situation. When this was announced, the contractor withdrew his men from Reni to wait for the committee’s decision.
The committee took over two years to finish its report—but its findings were even better than the Chipko workers had at first hoped they might be. The committee said that the Reni forest was a “sensitive area,” and that no trees should be cut—not only in the Reni forest but also in a larger section of the Alakhnanda watershed that included Reni.
On the basis of the report, the government put a ten-year ban on all tree-felling in an area of over 450 square miles.
The victory at Reni was followed by other successes. In 1977, the Chipko workers learned that forests were being auctioned in an area next to the one protected by the government ban. They asked the Forest Department to send representatives along with Chipko workers to inspect the region. They also warned the department that a Chipko campaign would be launched if the department failed to take account of what it found there.
Following the investigation, another 100 square miles were added to the protected area.
In 1978, Forest Department officials reversed the order of events: They informed Chandi Prasad that they wanted to auction trees in two forests in other parts of the district. They asked him to inspect the forests and tell them if their plans were all right. At the time of my visit, it looked likely that this would lead to protection for another 40 square miles of forest.
Since 1975, the Chipko workers have been not only protecting forest slopes, but restoring bare ones as well. By 1981, over a million trees had been planted through their efforts. Besides the local and immediate benefits, this reforestation has been helping to determine what trees and planting techniques might work best in the region as a whole.
The Chipko workers have also tried to develop methods of forest farming, both to conserve the forests and to create employment. In all these efforts, they have paid special attention to involving the mountain villagers themselves in the care of the trees.
* * *
At the time of my visit, the Chipko Movement had sprouted “branches” in most of the districts of the Uttarakhand, and it seemed likely to spread to other regions as well. Conditions like those in the Uttarakhand were found throughout the Himalayas, both in India and in neighboring countries.
“We hope that movements like ours will slow the deterioration of the mountains and let people know the need to change cutting policies,” Chandi Prasad told me. But he believed it would take a massive reforestation effort—funded and coordinated by the national government over decades—to save the Indian Himalayas as a home and source of forest resources.
Such an effort was vital not only to the mountain people but also to those in the plains. India had a critical shortage of trees nationwide and relied on the Himalayan forests as a permanent source of wood and wood products. Also, floods in the plains, fed by waters from the Himalayas, were becoming more and more severe. (Shortly before my arrival in India, Bihar and surrounding areas were hit by the worst flood in India’s recorded history—thousands of people killed, a million homes destroyed, and millions of acres of farmland covered with sand. The waters came from the Himalayas.)
These issues were vital—yet, as Chandi Prasad stressed to me, Chipko was more than an ecology movement.
“The main goal of our movement,” he said, “is not saving trees, but the judicious use of trees.”
In a general sense, the Chipko Movement stood for the basic right of a community to control and benefit from the resources of its own home. Although three decades had passed since India had been a colony, the Uttarakhand was still treated as one.
So the Chipko Movement continued to press for a complete remaking of forest policy. Besides the protection of sensitive mountain slopes, it demanded that the resources of the mountain forests benefit the mountain people, by providing jobs and supplying survival needs. What’s more, it insisted that the mountain people be given an active role in managing their own forests.
Not that the movement wanted to reserve all benefits of the forests for the mountain people. “We respect the needs of people in the plains for the products of our forests,” Chandi Prasad said. But the Chipko people believed that even those needs could be better met if the forests were managed by those who lived among the forests and cared for them.
Outside control of the Uttarakhand’s resources had led to their irresponsible use and gradual destruction. In the end, the issues of ecology and community right to resources were closely intertwined.
There was yet one more element to the Chipko Movement that Chandi Prasad wanted to point out: a concern over the basic direction of modern society, over its relentless drive toward progress at any price.
“Our movement goes beyond the erosion of the land, to the erosion of human values,” he said.
“The center of all this is humankind. If we are not in a good relationship with the environment, the environment will be destroyed, and we will lose our ground. But if you halt the erosion of humankind, humankind will halt the erosion of the soil.”
* * *
In the Himalayan home of the Chipko Movement, the struggle for indigenous rights and environmental responsibility has evolved into the equally impressive Nanda Devi movement. For more info, visit www.nandadevi.org.
More on the Chipko Movement
Hugging the Trees: The Story of the Chipko Movement, by Thomas Weber, Viking Penguin, New Delhi, 1988.
The Chipko Movement, by Anupam Mishra and Satyendra Tripathi, People’s Action/Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi, 1978.
Hugging the Himalayas: The Chipko Experience, edited by S. S. Kunwar, Dasholi Gram Swarajya Mandal, Gopeshwar, Uttar Pradesh, India, 1982. A collection of pieces by various writers.
Gandhi Today: A Report on Mahatma Gandhi’s Successors, Simple Productions, Arcata, California, 1987 (reprinted by Seven Locks Press, Washington, D.C., 1987). The source of this article.
Envelopes should be addressed in all capital letters.
Chandi Prasad Bhatt
Dasholi Gram Swarajya Mandal
Though my research focused on the Chipko Movement as it grew up around Gopeshwar, there is another important branch founded and led by long-time Gandhian activist Sunderlal Bahuguna:
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The Chipko movement or Chipko Andolan refers to a forest conservation movement. Chipko type movement dates back to 1730 AD when in khejarli village of Rajasthan, 363 people sacrificed their lives to save khejri trees. In modern india it began in 1973 and went on to become a rallying point for many future environmental movements all over the world it created a precedent for starting of nonviolent protest in India, and its success meant that the world immediately took notice of this non violent movement, which was to inspire in time many such eco-groups by helping to slow down the rapid deforestation, expose vested interests, increase ecological awareness, and demonstrate the viability of people power. Above all, it stirred up the existing civil society in India, which began to address the issues of tribal and marginalized people.
Today, beyond the eco-socialism hue, it is being seen increasingly as an ecofeminism movement. Although many of its leaders were men, women were not only its backbone, but also its mainstay, because they were the ones most affected by the rampant deforestation, which led to a lack of firewood and fodder as well as water for drinking and irrigation. Over the years they also became primary stakeholders in a majority of the afforestation work that happened under the Chipko movement. In 1987, the Chipko movement was awarded the Right Livelihood Award. The chipko aandolan is a movement that practised the Gandhian methods of Satyagraha where both male and female activists played vital roles, including Gaura Devi, Sudesha Devi, Bachni Devi and Chandi Prasad Bhatt.
The Chipko movement started in 1970s in the state of Uttar Pradesh (now Uttrakhand). Sunderlal Bahuguna and 84 villagers risked their lives to protect the forest trees from being felled on the order of the maharaja (king).
The year 1964 saw the establishment of Dasholi Gram Swarajya Sangh (DGSS) ("Dasholi Society for Village Self-Rule"), set up by Gandhian social worker Chandi Prasad Bhatt in Gopeshwar, and inspired by Jayaprakash Narayan and the Sarvodaya movement, with an aim to set up small industries using the resources of the forest. Their first project was a small workshop making farm tools for local use. Its name was later changed to DGSS from the original Dasholi Gram Swarajya Mandal (DGSM) in the 1980s. Here they had to face restrictive forest policies, a hangover of colonial era still prevalent, as well as the "contractor system", in which these pieces of forest land were commodified and auctioned to big contractors, usually from the plains, who brought along their own skilled and semi-skilled laborers, leaving only the menial jobs like hauling rocks for the hill people, and paying them next to nothing. On the other hand, the hill regions saw an influx of more people from the outside, which only added to the already strained ecological balance.
Hastened by increasing hardships, the Garhwal Himalayas soon became the centre for a rising ecological awareness of how reckless deforestation had denuded much of the forest cover, resulting in the devastating Alaknanda River floods of July 1970, when a major landslide blocked the river and affected an area starting from Hanumanchatti, near Badrinath to 350 km downstream till Haridwar, further numerous villages, bridges and roads were washed away. Thereafter, incidences of landslides and land subsidence became common in an area which was experiencing a rapid increase in civil engineering projects.
Beginnings and organization
Soon villagers, especially women, began to organize themselves under several smaller groups, taking up local causes with the authorities, and standing up against commercial logging operations that threatened their livelihoods. In October 1971, the Sanga workers held a demonstration in Gopeshwar to protest against the policies of the Forest Department. More rallies and marches were held in late 1972, but to little effect, until a decision to take direct action was taken. The first such occasion occurred when the Forest Department turned down the Sangh's annual request for ten Ash Trees for its farm tools workshop, and instead awarded a contract for 300 trees to Simon Company, a sporting goods manufacturer in distant Allahabad, to make tennis racquets. In March 1973, the lumbermen arrived at Gopeshwar, and after a couple of weeks, they were confronted at village Mandal on 24 April 1973, where about hundred villagers and DGSS workers were beating drums and shouting slogans, thus forcing the contractors and their lumbermen to retreat. This was the first confrontation of the movement, The contract was eventually cancelled and awarded to the Sangh instead. By now, the issue had grown beyond the mere procurement of an annual quota of three ash trees, and encompassed a growing concern over commercial logging and the government's forest policy, which the villagers saw as unfavorable towards them. The Sangh also decided to resort to tree-hugging, or Chipko, as a means of non-violent protest.
But the struggle was far from over, as the same company was awarded more ash trees, in the Phata forest, 80 km away from Gopeshwar. Here again, due to local opposition, starting on 20 June 1973, the contractors retreated after a stand-off that lasted a few days. Thereafter, the villagers of Phata and Tarsali formed a vigil group and watched over the trees until December, when they had another successful stand-off, when the activists reached the site in time. The lumbermen retreated leaving behind the five ash trees felled.
The final flash point began a few months later, when the government announced an auction scheduled in January 1974, for 2,500 trees near Reni village, overlooking the Alaknanda River. Bhatt set out for the villages in the Reni area, and incited the villagers, who decided to protest against the actions of the government by hugging the trees. Over the next few weeks, rallies and meetings continued in the Reni area.
On 25 March 1974, the day the lumbermen were to cut the trees, the men of the Reni village and DGSS workers were in Chamoli, diverted by state government and contractors to a fictional compensation payment site, while back home labourers arrived by the truckload to start logging operations. A local girl, on seeing them, rushed to inform Gaura Devi, the head of the village Mahila Mangal Dal, at Reni village (Laata was her ancestral home and Reni adopted home). Gaura Devi led 27 of the village women to the site and confronted the loggers. When all talking failed, and the loggers started to shout and abuse the women, threatening them with guns, the women resorted to hugging the trees to stop them from being felled. This went on into late hours. The women kept an all-night vigil guarding their trees from the cutters until a few of them relented and left the village. The next day, when the men and leaders returned, the news of the movement spread to the neighbouring Laata and others villages including Henwalghati, and more people joined in. Eventually, only after a four-day stand-off, the contractors left.
Far reaching effect
The news soon reached the state capital, where then state Chief Minister, Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna, set up a committee to look into the matter, which eventually ruled in favour of the villagers. This became a turning point in the history of eco-development struggles in the region and around the world.
The struggle soon spread across many parts of the region, and such spontaneous stand-offs between the local community and timber merchants occurred at several locations, with hill women demonstrating their new-found power as non-violent activists. As the movement gathered shape under its leaders, the name Chipko movement was attached to their activities. According to Chipko historians, the term originally used by Bhatt was the word "angalwaltha" in the Garhwali language for "embrace", which later was adapted to the Hindi word, Chipko, which means to stick. Over the next five years, the movement spread to many districts in the region, and within a decade throughout the UttarakhandHimalayas. Larger issues of ecological and economic exploitation of the region were raised. The villagers demanded that no forest-exploiting contracts should be given to outsiders and local communities should have effective control over natural resources like land, water, and forests. They wanted the government to provide low-cost materials to small industries and ensure development of the region without disturbing the ecological balance. The movement took up economic issues of landless forest workers and asked for guarantees of minimum wage. Globally Chipko demonstrated how environment causes, up until then considered an activity of the rich, were a matter of life and death for the poor, who were all too often the first ones to be devastated by an environmental tragedy. Several scholarly studies were made in the aftermath of the movement. In 1977, in another area, women tied sacred threads, Raksha Bandhan, around trees earmarked for felling in a Hindu tradition which signifies a bond between brother and sisters.
Women's participation in the Chipko agitation was a very novel aspect of the movement. The forest contractors of the region usually doubled up as suppliers of alcohol to men. Women held sustained agitations against the habit of alcoholism and broadened the agenda of the movement to cover other social issues. The movement achieved a victory when the government issued a ban on felling of trees in the Himalayan regions for fifteen years in 1980 by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, until the green cover was fully restored. One of the prominent Chipko leaders, Gandhian Sunderlal Bahuguna, took a 5,000 kilometre trans-Himalaya foot march in 1981–83, spreading the Chipko message to a far greater area. Gradually, women set up cooperatives to guard local forests, and also organized fodder production at rates conducive to local environment. Next, they joined in land rotation schemes for fodder collection, helped replant degraded land, and established and ran nurseries stocked with species they selected.
One of Chipko's most salient features was the mass participation of female villagers. As the backbone of Uttarakhand's Agrarian economy, women were most directly affected by environmental degradation and deforestation, and thus related to the issues most easily. How much this participation impacted or derived from the ideology of Chipko has been fiercely debated in academic circles.
Despite this, both female and male activists did play pivotal roles in the movement including Gaura Devi, Sudesha Devi, Bachni Devi, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Sundarlal Bahuguna, Govind Singh Rawat, Dhoom Singh Neji, Shamsher Singh Bisht and Ghanasyam Raturi, the Chipko poet, whose songs are still popular in the Himalayan region. Out of which, Chandi Prasad Bhatt was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1982, and Sundarlal Bahuguna was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 2009.
In Tehri district, Chipko activists would go on to protest limestone mining in the Doon Valley (Dehra Dun) in the 1980s, as the movement spread through the Dehradun district, which had earlier seen deforestation of its forest cover leading to heavy loss of flora and fauna. Finally quarrying was banned after years of agitation by Chipko activists, followed by a vast public drive for afforestation, which turned around the valley, just in time. Also in the 1980s, activists like Bahuguna protested against construction of the Tehri dam on the Bhagirathi River, which went on for the next two decades, before founding the Beej Bachao Andolan, the Save the Seeds movement, that continues to the present day.
Over time, as a United Nations Environment Programme report mentioned, Chipko activists started "working a socio-economic revolution by winning control of their forest resources from the hands of a distant bureaucracy which is only concerned with the selling of forestland for making urban-oriented products". The Chipko movement became a benchmark for socio-ecological movements in other forest areas of Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar; in September 1983, Chipko inspired a similar, Appiko movement in Karnataka state of India, where tree felling in the Western Ghats and Vindhyas was stopped. In Kumaon region, Chipko took on a more radical tone, combining with the general movement for a separate Uttarakhand state, which was eventually achieved in 2000.
In recent years, the movement not only inspired numerous people to work on practical programmes of water management, energy conservation, afforestation, and recycling, but also encouraged scholars to start studying issues of environmental degradation and methods of conservation in the Himalayas and throughout India.
On 26 March 2004, Reni, Laata, and other villages of the Niti Valley celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Chipko movement, where all the surviving original participants united. The celebrations started at Laata, the ancestral home of Gaura Devi, where Pushpa Devi, wife of late Chipko Leader Govind Singh Rawat, Dhoom Singh Negi, Chipko leader of Henwalghati, Tehri Garhwal, and others were celebrated. From here a procession went to Reni, the neighbouring village, where the actual Chipko action took place on 26 March 1974. This marked the beginning of worldwide methods to improve the present situation. Recently, by following the legacy of the Chipko movement, in 2017 rapid deforestation over the century-old trees, forming almost a canopy in Jessore Road of the district of North 24 Parganas, West Bengal, has also flicked off a huge movement in the form of the campaign of saving 4000 trees by the local masses.
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