Chipko — A Tree Hugging Movement
A practice of ecological activism and a non-violent fight to protect the environment & trees.
Chipko is a Hindi word that means “to stick” or “to embrace” or “to hug”.
We are not discussing hugs during Valentine’s Day, or the hugs with your cute little teddy & soft toys. We are discussing Chipko, the tree-hugging movement.
The story comes from the land of Uttrakhand, a northern Indian state, known for the snow-clad Himalayas, a place of pilgrimage, a tourist paradise, but most importantly for the lush green forests. Pines, cedar, fir, poplar, oaks, and other trees line up on the Himalayan foothills — creating forest cover of more than 60% on the state’s land.
In the 1970s, rapid industrialization in India attracted many private companies to take advantage of the rich forest resources in the region (it belonged to the state of Uttar Pradesh then).
Villagers in the region were not happy with the government’s forest policy and awarding of contracts without considering their interests. In one such incident, the forest department awarded a contract to a sporting goods company to make tennis racquets. When the contacted loggers arrived at the village, the hundreds of local villagers confronted them and forced them to leave.
Similar struggles and tussles were reported from other villages in the region. At some places, groups were formed and villagers started keeping watch over the trees to avoid any felling.
In early 1974, in a small village, Reni, the local government ordered the felling of around 2,500 trees. Immediately, villagers started their protests, demonstrations were organized, and vigils were kept to ensure that trees were protected. The stand-off continued over the next few weeks.
On March 25, 1974, as diversionary tactics, village men were asked to come to another town for negotiations and compensation. Seeing that opportunity, laborers came to the Reni village to start the woodcutting operations.
When the news reached the head of the women’s group, Gaura Devi, she led 27 of the village women to the site and confronted the loggers. The loggers started to shout and abuse the women, threatening them with guns.
The women began hugging the trees to stop them from being felled. The women kept guarding their trees against the cutters for the entire night. The next day, when the men returned, the news of the movement reached the neighboring villages and more people joined the vigil and participated in tree-hugging.
Eventually, after a four-day stand-off, the contractors and workers had to retreat. When the matter reached the higher officials of the government, they ruled in favor of the villagers.
The success made Chipko, the tree-hugging movement, a worldwide practice of ecological activism. The event was a watershed moment in the history of environmental struggles in India. People started taking on larger issues of ecological and economic exploitation with the governments. Their main contention was to ensure the development of the region without causing ecological imbalances.
Chipko saw women and men coming together for a common cause
As wood and forest resources played such an integral part in women’s day-to-day livelihood, they became the main drivers of the Chipko movement.
The movement received wide involvement from female villagers. Gaura Devi, Sudesha Devi, and Bachni Devi along with many other women participated in the cause and ensured that trees were protected. Their main viewpoint was that forests must be protected at all times and the control of these natural resources should belong to the local communities.
Along with women of the region, Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Sunderlal Bahuguna would also be remembered as the key advocates of the tree-hugging movement.
Chandi Prasad Bhatt’s endeavors in forest conservation and efforts in mobilizing people for eco-development causes brought him national and international laurels. He was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1982, and Padma Bhushan in 2005.
Sunderlal Bahuguna helped the movement gain wider prominence through his 5,000-kilometer trans-Himalaya march. It is widely believed that it was his meeting with India’s then prime minister Indra Gandhi that resulted in a 15-year ban on cutting trees in 1980. He was awarded India’s second-highest civilian award Padma Vibhushan in 2009.
Chipko, the tree-hugging movement by Bishnoi Community
The one in the Himalayas became more famous, probably because it happened during the media era. But an original Chipko dates back to the 18th century.
In a small village in the Eastern Indian state of Rajasthan, the King of Jodhpur ordered the felling of trees to construct a new palace. When the Kings’ men reached the place, the villagers who mostly belonged to the Bishnoi community tried to protect their trees by hugging them. Unfortunately, many members of the Bishnoi community were killed by King’s soldiers.
After this incident, the king because of remorse and guilt banned the cutting of trees in all Bishnoi villages.
With climate change devastating the environment, it is time that we learn from such stories and be more considerate towards protecting the ecology.
Originally published at https://changestarted.com on April 9, 2021.