During a recent meeting with a prominent Indian Australian businessman and educator, in which we were discussing environmental education projects in India, I was introduced for the first time to the “Chipko movement”.
Until that point, I had been unaware that in the early 18th century, and more recently in the 1970’s, “an organized resistance to the destruction of forests spread throughout India and came to be known as the Chipko movement. The name of the movement comes from the word ’embrace’, as the villagers hugged the trees, and prevented the contractors’ from felling them.” The Chipko movement originated in the Garhwal Himalayas of Uttarakhand in northern India (later spreading throughout India) and was inspired by Gandhi’s philosophy of Satyagraha.
Our brief discussion during that meeting got me thinking about the evolution of environmental education and activism in India. Given my goal of working in the environmental sector in India, I felt that I should understand more about how the Chipko movement had shaped both Indian and global environmentalism.
The forests of India are a critical resource for the subsistence of rural people throughout the country, especially in hill and mountain areas, both because of their direct provision of food, fuel and fodder and because of their role in stabilising soil and water resources.
Historically, as these forests were felled for commerce and industry, Indian village women sought to protect their subsistence livelihoods and communities. These decentralised and locally autonomous actions together made up the Chipko movement.
However, the movement wasn’t led solely by women. One of the key Chipko leaders was Sunderlal Bahuguna, a male Gandhian philosopher and environmentalist.
Bahuguna’s 5 000km trans-Himalaya march, travelling from village to village, gathered support for the movement. A subsequent meeting with the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is credited with Ms. Gandhi’s 15-year ban on the felling of green trees.
The Chipko movement wouldn’t seem out of place alongside many of today’s cause-driven social movements, despite the fact that its growth and success were driven by a 5000km long awareness raising march, rather than more instantaneously through social media. Some things are certainly much faster these days, but are they necessarily more effective?
The following video describes the history of the Chipko movement in more detail and how it spread from the Himalayan regions of North India to the Western Ghats in South India.
Chipko became a point of reference for many future environmental protests all over the world and the term “tree hugger” entered the Western vernacular as a term used to describe environmentalists.
For me, learning about the Chipko movement reinforces how critical it is to examine and learn from both our past successes and failures and to use this information to direct our future actions. This is particularly pertinent for me at the moment, as I am looking to contribute to a part of the world that I am quite new to and whose complexities I still don’t fully comprehend.