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Tree Huggers: The Chipko Movement

June 6, 2009
Villagers surrounding a tree to stop them from...
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Beginning in the 1970s, villagers in the Garhwal Himalayas of Uttarakhand began a movement to protect their land from the exploitation that was robbing them of sources of fuel and food, stable soil, and clean water. They would gather in circles around trees slated to be cut down, protecting them with there bodies. It was this action which gave the movement its name:

“Chipko” in Hindi means to cling, reflecting the protesters’ main technique of throwing their arms around the tree trunks designated to be cut, and refusing to move.

This was no Romantic preservationist effort but, rather, the work of people living at the nexus of environmental destruction and social inequality: it was fundamentally about protecting lives and livelihoods which cannot be separated from protecting the environment.

A watershed action for the movement began on March 26, 1974. The government had auctioned off the rights to 2500 trees near Reni village. In attempt to head off the sorts of protests against commercial logging which had become increasingly common, the state government had directed the men of the village to a non-existent compensation site in Chamoli. When a girl saw workers preparing to cut down the trees, she alerted Gaura Devi who in turn led twenty seven women from the village to the confront the contractors.

Talking failed. At least one official threatened the women with a gun, yet the women held onto the trees throughout the night before help could arrive from other villages and from the villagers who had been diverted. The stand-off continued for four days before the loggers left. Eventually a government committee ruled in favor of the villagers.

That women took the initiative in protecting the trees in this case was not unusual. Indeed, the bulk of this movement’s actions were spearheaded and carried out by women. As Mary Mellor writes in Breaking the Boundaries

Although the camps and the whole Chipko movement were open to both men and women, it was women who responded with the most appropriate understanding of the ecological issue and undertook long-term committed action to defend the trees (80-81).

Given women’s traditional responsibilities for gathering fuel and feeding their families, this is not surprising. It was women who had to walk further to gather fuel and fodder when lands closer at hand were cleared to benefit development elsewhere.

By the 1980s, the Chipko movement had spread widely in India and successfully prevented clearcutting in the Western Ghats and Vindhyas. In the Kumaon region, Chipko combined with the movement to establish an independent Uttarakhand state, a goal reached in 2000. In 2004, the surviving particpants in the Reni village protest gathered for a celebration of the 30th anniversary.

For those living in western countries, it is easy to whitewash the history of environmentalism or to see it as removed from human concerns and inequalities. The Chipko movement shows the fallacy of such tendencies.

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