Despite the fact that environmental movements may be primarily associated with activism in the ‘West’, they have a long and rich history in South Asia. It has been 50 years now since the foundation of the ecofeminist Chipko Andolan in India – a movement of women who hugged trees in resistance to tree felling
The Chipko movement (also known as Chipko Andolan) traces its beginnings to March 27, 1973, when the villagers of Mandal, a hamlet located in the upper part of Alaknanda Valley of the Himalayas in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, prevented a group of lumbermen from cutting down ash trees by shielding the trees with their own bodies. It was carried out mainly by women.
By hugging the trees, the Indian women imitated the people from the neighbouring villages, who were also fighting for the protection of the local ecosystems. These events sparked a series of other grassroots initiatives in India, which aimed at ensuring that control over forests, fields and water was in the hands of local communities.
The Bishnoi protest
According to the economist D. D. Tewari, the Chipko movement has proven to be the most efficient ecological movement which involves tree-hugging in modern history. In 1987 this movement was honoured with the Right Livelihood Award (also known as ‘the alternative Nobel Prize’) – ‘for its dedication to the conservation, restoration and ecologically-sound use of India’s natural resources’.
However, the Chipko movement was scarcely the first environmental upsurge in India during which people were willing to put themselves in danger in order to protect trees.
The roots of the Chipko movement date back to 1730, when Amrita Devi led the villagers of the northern Indian village Khejadli against the soldiers of the Maharaja of the Kingdom of Marwar. The troops were supposed to cut down local trees. 363 members of the Bishnoi community were killed while shielding the trees with their own bodies. Knowledge about the massacre led the Maharaja to issue a decree, which prohibited tree felling in the local area, as well as left two unforgettable legacies: the value of collective protest and the importance of women in local resistance.
What is left from the Chipko movement today? Ramachandra Guha, Indian historian, environmentalist and writer is convinced that the activist legacy of the tree-hugging women has been partly squandered.
‘Given the country’s population densities and the fragility of tropical ecologies, India had erred in following the energy-intensive, capital-intensive, resource-intensive model of economic development pioneered by the West’ – Guha argues. ‘When the country got its freedom from British rule in 1947, it should have instead adopted a more bottom-up, community-oriented, and environmentally-responsible pattern of development’. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, and nowadays, India is leading the rankings regarding the bad state of air and water.
However, climate movements in India are relentlessly striving to turn the tide and save its ecosystems. Especially noteworthy are the young women who are engaged in the fight against the fast fashion industry, such as the activists of “Fashion Revolution India”. We can only hope that the legacy of the Chipko and Bishnoi movements will turn out to be fruitful in the future.
Translated by Urszula Jocz.