11/22/2010

The Chipko Movement: Hugging And Saving India's Trees Since 1730

Villagers surround tree to protect it from the axe
"We have arisen, we are awake
No longer will thieves rule our destiny
It is our home, our forests
No longer will the others decide for us"

- Chipko protest chant 

The Himalayan region of northern India is a stunning land rich in natural resources. A wide diversity of forests cover regions from flat, low plains to the tree line in alpine areas of the highest mountain range in the world. This is also the land of the original tree huggers, the brave women of the Chipko Movement.

In India, as here in B.C., the forests have been under assault for a long time. The Chipko Movement is a decades old initiative of the people to address the serious problems of deforestation and corporate control. Chipko means 'to stick' or 'to hug' in Hindi.

Although the first recorded use of tree hugging to protect forests in India was in 1730, the movement took its modern form in the 1970's. At that time the state of Uttarakhand was experiencing heavy logging pressure from outside corporations after new roads made previously remote forests accessible. 

The people that lived in, or near the forests were suffering the consequences of the greedy industrial practices. The women, who were closest to the forest resources, suffered the most when they began to disappear.

Villagers had to walk farther to gather fire wood and fodder for their livestock. Water sources were drying up affecting availability of water for drinking and irrigation. Erosion on deforested areas during the monsoon was scaring the land and creating devastating floods. 

All the profit from the deforestation was taken away, rather than benefiting the local economy. The people were increasingly dissatisfied with commercial logging and government forest policy.

Artwork by Notnarayan
1973 saw the first confrontation over the looming ecological disaster. Tired of inaction on the part of the government, the women of the Chipko Movement decided to protest the destruction of their forest directly. 100 activists banged drums and shouted slogans where the logging activity was taking place. The loggers retreated, and eventually their contract was canceled and given to the villagers.

More protests took place in different areas. Where the people were threatened and ignored the protesters embraced the trees to protect them from being cut. They would often maintain their vigils for days at a time before the loggers retreated.

When news of the growing movement reached the state capital a commission was called which eventually ruled in favour of the Chipko activists and the people most affected by the environmental collapse. For them it was an issue of life or death.

In 1980 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's government banned the cutting of trees in the Himalayan regions for 15 years to allow forests to recover.

The Chipko Movement is still going strong as a major socio-ecological movement, and has served as a model for similar groups across the world. The movement has been successful in returning forests to community control for the sustainable benefit of local communities. 

Fortunately they did not have to sacrifice their lives for the trees as did the 363 slain tree huggers in the original 1730 Chipko protest.

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