The Chipko Andolan: From Village Protests to Global Climate Movement

By Sonia Mehta

When Greta Thunberg began to challenge world leaders at only 15 years old, she probably had no idea so many would join her climate strike movement. We learnt from Greta’s actions that when we come together, we can ignite real change.

Another movement that did this was the Chipko movement, also called Chipko Andolan. It was a series of nonviolent, ecological movements started by rural villagers, particularly women, in India in the 1970s. 

Aimed at protecting trees and forests slated for government-backed logging, the movement originated in the Himalayan region of Uttar Pradesh (later Uttarakhand) in 1973 and quickly spread throughout the Indian Himalayas. 

The Hindi word chipko means “to hug” or “to cling to” and reflects the demonstrator’s primary tactic of embracing the trees to impede the loggers.

The Chipko movement was a non-violent agitation in 1973 that was aimed at the protection and conservation of trees, but, perhaps, it is best remembered for the collective mobilisation of women from the Bishnoi community for the cause of preserving forests, which also brought about a change in attitude regarding their status in society.

With the conclusion of the Sino-Indian border conflict in 1963, the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh experienced growth in development, especially in the rural Himalayan regions. The interior roads built for the conflict attracted many foreign-based logging companies that sought access to the region’s vast forest resource. 

Although the rural communities depended heavily on the forests for subsistence—both directly, for food and fuel, and indirectly, for services such as water purification and soil stabilisation—government policy prevented the villagers from managing the lands and denied them access to the lumber.

With huge trees falling and deforestation taking place in the hills, the trees were becoming few and far. The village women, who rely mainly on the forest resources for sustenance, found it difficult to spend enormous time and energy in collecting the necessary fodder and fuel. 

Ultimately the reckless deforestation had denuded much of the forest cover, resulting in the devastating Alaknanda River floods of July 1970, when a major landslide blocked the river and affected an area starting from HanumanChatti. 

The floods completely wiped out villages, sweeping away thirty buses and thirteen bridges in the area and locals were very concerned about the forest.

Local community leaders investigated village member’s opinions on the cause of the flood and their perception based on years of living in the forest.

They came to the conclusion that deforestation was the main explanation. As a result, the Chipko Movement of the 1970s was born as an effort to end deforestation in the local community forests. 

It represented an indigenous community’s fight for two main changes: self-rule over their native lands, and advocating for their traditional lifestyle while operating an economy of use rather than profit in the forests. 

The unique elements within the Chipko Movement serve as a true example of self-determination by employing traditional indigenous strategies and by remaining independent of assistance from larger institutions.

The method of protesting was agreed upon and methodically planned via the local communities; the members of the Chipko Movement would cling to the trees, hugging them, in hopes of preventing them from being chopped down. 

When the time came, the local people of Gopeshwar and members of nearby native communities marched to the marked trees with drums and song. They reached the allotted trees and embraced each one, not letting go until the men contracted to cut them down retreated back to town. 

The Forest Department attempted to make a compromise, offering the protesters a tree, and then upped the offer to a couple of trees if the contractors could continue with the planned arrangement. The offer was declined, and the first Chipko event was successful.

Soon after, news came that the same contracting company would be attempting to cut trees down in the Phata Forest. Leaders of the Chipko Movement visited and educated villagers near the Phata Forest about the resistance and unique methods of protest.

One of Chipko’s most salient features was the mass participation of the female community. As one of the first protests ignited in Reni, women had to take the lead. With the men detained in town, women and children undaunted by the workers marched into the woods. 

As they hugged the trees in protest, the trees remained standing. After the initial success, nearby communities organised a continuous watch at the site of the trees and multiple rallies throughout the time the contract allowed cutting. 

Eventually, the contract expired and the women of Reni were successful in saving the trees. This specific protest at the Reni Forest highlighted the efforts of women villagers in the Chipko Movement.

After the Reni Forest protests, women of Gopeshwar began protesting the falling of oak trees near their village in 1975 and were successful. Two years later in 1977 through to 1978, women in Chacharidhar used Chipko strategies to save 10,000 trees. Also, in 1978 women of Bhyundar Village, settled in the Valley of Flowers, resisted the cutting of trees that was planned to help build a Badrinath Temple. 

Soon just the threat of Chipko strategies was enough to stop auctions and the marking of trees. The women from Damargarh Village stopped an auction of trees in 1978 by preparing Chipko protests, and similarly on November 23, 1979, the members of the Chipko Movement stopped trees falling by simply warning the Forest Department they would protest.

Stopping the trees falling stood for more than protecting a couple hundred trees, even more than preventing another flood, the Chipko Movement was an indigenous communities’ fight for the ability to govern the lands native to their culture and maintain their traditional lifestyle of sustenance from the forests. 

The Chipko protesters wanted the government to understand that native people, especially the women, should have an important input in the decisions made about the forests.

Chandi Prasad, a prominent leader in the Chipko Movement stated: “The main goal of our movement is not saving trees, but the judicious use of trees.” The native communities believed local control was beneficial in preserving the forests, and that the forest villagers should be recognised as rightful protectors of the forest. 

After a decade of Chipko Movement efforts, the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 was created which banned all use of forest land without permission from the national government. This not only proved the success of the movement but also ignited the development of policies to further support the native villages in the forest.

The Forest Conservation Act was a direct result of the Chipko protesters’ efforts to stop deforestation and demonstrated the power forest communities could have. The Chipko Movement protesters fought for the right to self-govern the resources and land and live traditionally from the forests.

The Forest Department and other powerful logging companies were challenged by ordinary forest dwellers and lost. It was the results of the Chipko Movement that proved the voiceless villagers now had a voice. If we are to learn anything from the Chipko Movement, it is that we have a voice and the power to stop our planet from being destroyed. If we work together, we can accomplish real, ever-lasting change. This is something we desperately need to do and a save the planet strategy we can all easily adopt.

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