Risking Life To Save Trees: The Chipko Movement Of India, An Inspiration To The World

Women played an important role in making the Chipko Movement a successful endeavour to save the environment.
Women played an important role in making the Chipko Movement a successful endeavour to save the environment.

What Is The Chipko Movement?

The Chipko Movement began as a form of non-violent protest aimed at forest conservation in India. With time, it developed into an overall environmental movement, one of the first of its kind. The Chipko Movement was successful in exposing deforestation, spreading public environmental education, and proving that organized people can achieve change.

Drawing attention to environmental issues worked to also draw attention to the challenges faced by indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups. It particularly drew attention to the issues of women, who are most likely to feel the impacts of environmental degradation. In their daily lives, women are usually responsible for collecting firewood and water, both of which become scarce resources where deforestation occurs. Women became a critical component in the Chipko Movement’s reforestation efforts as well.

Today, the Chipko Movement is considered an ecofeminist movement. Advocates of ecofeminism try to show the relationship between capitalism (believed to be rooted in patriarchal ideals) and the abuse of nature. Its followers believe that this relationship promotes the oppression of females and other non-human objects seen as feminine (such as nature).

History Of The Chipko Movement

The roots of the Chipko Movement date back to the Indian Forest Act of 1927, which limited the access that local communities had to forested land. With this limitation, rural communities living in poverty were unable to use the land for agricultural purposes. Additionally, high rates of deforestation resulted in erosion, soil degradation, and depleted water sources. These combined issues gave rise to increased rural to urban migration, particularly during the 1960’s.

A small organization, the Dasholi Society for Village Self-Rule (DGSS, later: DGSM), was established in the town of Gopeshwar in the state of Uttarakhand. Its objective was to use local trees to craft farm tools for local communities. However, the organization was prohibited from effectively achieving its goal by restrictive forest regulations. Preference for forest use was given to large, sometimes foreign, organizations. Simultaneously, landslides and flooding became more common as a result of large deforestation practices and by the early 1970’s, villagers began organizing protest marches against Forest Department policies.

In 1973, the Indian government denied then-DGSS the permit to use 10 trees for farm tools. The government then approved Simon Company (a sporting goods company) to use 300 trees to create tennis rackets. When the Simon Company crew came to cut down the 300 trees, hundreds of villagers drove them off with protests, music, and blocked access. This moment, on April 24, 1973, is largely considered the first event of the Chipko Movement.

Tree Hugging

With the success of the villagers’ non-violent protest, the government canceled the Simon Company contract and instead awarded it to DGSS. The forest protection movement spread and small communities fought against large government contracts. The movement culminated in 1974 when the government sold 2,500 trees near Reni village, despite protests. The government then distracted DGSS workers, mainly men, by creating a false payment site in Chamoli, a different village. On March 25th, with the local men in a different village, contractors came to remove the 2,500 trees.

A young girl saw the contractors and ran off to inform the village leader, Gaura Devi. Devi then organized 27 village women to take actions. The contractors threatened them and refused to turn away, so the women were motivated to hug the trees. The women continued this all night until some of the loggers left and the DGSS workers returned. Word spread to neighboring villages and more people got involved in the tree hugging. Four days later, the rest of the loggers left.

Turning Point for the Chipko Movement

Because of the attention the 1974 event received, then-Chief Minister Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna looked into the incident further. He organized an investigative committee, which later ruled in favor of the protestors. This decision was considered a huge success for the environmental movement the world over and inspired many activists to continue their fight against the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources.

Growth Of The Chipko Movement

The turning point in the Chipko Movement empowered women all over India to get involved in the protests against deforestation. Non-violent, tree hugging protests grew in numbers throughout various districts and after 10 years, it was being practiced throughout the Uttarakhand region. Locals began to insist on their right to have control over natural resources on their land. The fight took more of an economical stance as Chipko protesters demanded that the government invest in local enterprises instead of allowing large, foreign entities to take advantage of the land. They pushed for the right to a minimum wage and spread the message that environmental exploitation was detrimental to their very survival. This idea of the rural poor being more seriously affected by environmental degradation even provided a topic for academic research.

The Role Of Women In The Chipko Movement

As previously mentioned, the Chipko Movement is often considered an ecofeminist movement and has largely grown and been successful due to the involvement of women. Women really brought attention to the wide range of social issues affected by environmental degradation and exploitation. They worked to create cooperative groups that looked after and protected large areas of forest and ensured sustainable local agricultural production. Additionally, they worked to replant trees and other plants in areas that had been destroyed by large exploitation projects. Because of their efforts, then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took note of the situation. In 1980, she enacted a 15-year ban against deforestation in the Himalayan region. The aim of this ban was to allow regrowth of the decimated forests there.

Legacy Of The Chipko Movement

The Chipko Movement went on to influence other environmental protests, including movements against mining and river dam projects. Because of its success at winning back local lands, it became the bar against which other environmental movements across the world were compared and created. The Chipko Movement also led to the creation of the Appiko Movement in the state of Karnataka, which also works to protect forests. The Chipko Movement legacy continues through recycling programs, water management policies, reforestation initiatives, and energy use. Additionally, many academic scholars and researchers have taken up the top of environmental degradation and its social, environmental, and economic consequences, focusing on conservation issues in the Himalayan regions and elsewhere in India.


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