Chipko women’s movement keeps on huggin’
RENI, Uttaranchal, India
Any new-age nature-lover can hug a tree, and many do. But it takes a special kind of person to embrace a tree which is about to be chopped down, and challenge the woodsman “if you want to cut the tree you’ll have to cut through me.”
The Chipko movement in north India was founded on this kind of challenge.
I met Srimati Bali Devi Rana,a leader of this rather unstructured movement, at her at her 210-person village of Reni, about an hour above the Indian hill station of Joshimath in the state of Uttaranchal.
Sitting on the roof of her two story-house, with hay drying at our feet and tall peaks just a few kilometers away, she welcomed me with glasses of cold clear water, tea and homemade nibbles made of corn flakes, peanuts and masala. Srimati, an animated woman wearing an orange woolen head scarf and homespun jacket and shirt, ran me through the historical origins of the movement.
Around 1730, people of the Bishnoi community in Rajasthan tried to protect their community forests by hugging the trees; some 363 people were killed by soldiers following orders of the Maharaja of Jodhpur. On hearing of the massacre, the maharaja ordered timber cutting to stop.
That established the principle that tree hugging is a viable, but sometimes bloody way to protect local forests. Tree hugging as a social movement became as Indian as chapati and dhal. And the need to protect trees grew more and more urgent as India’s population grew, new roads opened up previously inaccessible regions to exploitation, and people in the lowland cities saw that there was considerable money to be made by exploiting the forests. But mountain folks argued that the forests were their sole source of livelihood, since their terrain and weather prevented significant agriculture.
In April 1973 the movement sprang up again. The issues were (and remain) complex, but basically the government, which owned most of the forest, gave logging and exploitation rights to commercial companies from the faraway plains, excluding the local mountain folk from economic gains that they depended on.
This situation festered and finally exploded when the local village commune set up to run forest-product industries was denied its annual quota of ash trees so they could manufacture farming tools; the government instead gave the logging rights to a large “foreign” manufacturer of sporting goods.
The villagers were incensed by this disregard of their traditional rights, and loss of an important income source.
Srimati explains that the forest contractor sent in 200 axement one evening when the contractor knew that most of the men had gone into the town to collect seasonal compensation from the district headquarters. “Two of our women, who had gone down to the river to collect water saw these forest laborers going up and quickly informed and alerted the rest of us,” Srimati explains. “All the women decided that even in the absence of men, we must act on our own try to stop these laborers from cutting trees.”
The women confronted the contractor’s axemen and tried to talk them out of it. When that failed the women rushed to protect the trees, “embracing them as children”, and challenging the contractors to swing their axes against the unarmed villagers’ backs.
This protest, and subsequent actions, led to a major victory in 1980 with a 15-year ban on tree cutting in the Himalayan forests of Uttar Pradesh, by order of India’s then prime minister, Indira Gandhi. The movement later spread to other states and helped to get government officials to focus on the need for natural resource policies which were more sensitive to people’s needs and environmental factors.
As Srimati Bali Devi Rana, who is the head of the Mahila Mangal Dal (Women’s Welfare Group) in northern India, offered me fresh slices of cucumber and homemade biscuits, I told her about my first contact with Chipko, which is a Hindi word meaning “stick to” or “cling” — not “hugging” as the feel-good western translation puts it.
I was working for World Widlife Fund in Switzerland, and I was asked to show an Indian visitor the sights. More than a few heads turned as Sunderlal Bahuguna, slight, much-bearded, wearing a colorless woolen homespun robe a la Mahatma Gandhi, embraced a several-hundred year-old oak tree near the Chateau de Nyon. In his deep Indian accent he explained how the women of northern India had started Chipko in order to protest against the deforestation that was threatening their livelihood. Bahuguna, a seemingly-humble man, whose 5,000-kilometer trans-Himalayan footmarch and appeal to then-prime minister Indira Gandhi resulted in a ban on tree-felling, was visiting Switzerland to seek international support to stop the Tehri dam in the Himalayan region. Bahuguna claimed that people “butcher the earth”, and he railed against “suicidal activities being carried out in the name of development.” He gave me a new perspective on nature conservation, introducing me to the power of emotional, culturally-specific campaigns enacted by the people most affected by environmental damage. At the same time, I wondered why the international face of a woman’s movement was that of a man.
As I reminisced about my favorable impressions of Bahaguna, who had introduced me to such tantalizing concepts, Srimati Bali Devi Rana interrupted me.
“Sunderlal Bahuguna is a thief,” she exclaimed. Taken aback by such voluble emotion from a pleasant Asian woman I had just met, I asked her to explain her accusation. “Sunderlal Bahuguna was a contractor who cut the trees and made a lot of money,” she explained. “After he made a lot of money he claimed he had a change of heart and declared he was part of the movement.”
Obviously passions run high when trees meet politics.
When I visited Reni village Srimati Bali Devi Rana had just returned from Nairobi, to receive a UNEP award and speak at an international conservation conference, sharing the stage with Kenyan Nobel peace laureate Wangari Maathai. It was the first trip outside India for the 57 year-old woman, a voyage no doubt made more than a little challenging since she speaks no English. I pointed out that Chipko is famous around the world. Did that make her proud?
Not particularly, she decided. “Lots of learned people come here to write scholarly papers about our idyllic life,” she said, “but they live in cities that are dirty.” She thought a moment. “We don’t write our literature. Our literature is the mountains, the jungles, the animals and holy spirits. People come to see our literature.”