The Chipko Movement

(1987, India)

...for its dedication to the conservation, restoration and ecologically-sound use of India's natural resources.

About

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. As these forests have been increasingly felled for commerce and industry, Indian villagers have sought to protect their livelihoods through the Gandhian method of satyagraha or non-violence resistance. In the 1970s and 1980s this resistance to the destruction of forests spread throughout India and became organised and known as the Chipko Movement.

Contact Details

Save Himalaya Movement
Ganga Himalaya Kutti
Tehri, Pin-249001
Uttarakhand
INDIA

Biography

The first Chipko action took place spontaneously in 1973 and over the next five years spread to many districts of the Himalaya in Uttar Pradesh. The name of the movement came from a word meaning 'embrace': the villagers hugged the trees and thus saved them by putting their bodies in the way of the contractors' axes. The Chipko protests in Uttar Pradesh achieved a major victory in 1980 with a 15-year ban on green felling in the Himalayan forests of that State by order of India's then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. A similar ban was later also implemented in the states Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh. (In 2005, the ban was still in place regarding felling for commercial purposes except for Himachal Pradesh where it had been lifted again in 2004 despite Chipko's protests.)

The movement spread to Himachal Pradesh in the north, Karnataka in the south, Rajasthan in the west, Bihar in the east and to the Vindhyans in central India. In addition to the ban in Uttar Pradesh, the movement succeeded in halting clear felling in the Western Ghats and the Vindhyas, as well as generating pressure for a natural resources policy more sensitive to people's needs and environmental factors.

The Chipko Movement was the result of hundreds of decentralised and locally autonomous initiatives. Its leaders and activists have primarily been village women, acting to save their means of subsistence and their communities. Men have been involved, too, however, and some of them have given wider leadership to the movement. One of the most prominent leaders has been Sunderlal Bahuguna, a Gandhian activist and philosopher, whose appeal to Mrs Gandhi resulted in the green-felling ban and whose 5,000-kilometre trans-Himalayan foot march in 1981-83 was crucial in spreading the Chipko message.

In the late 1980s, Bahuguna joined the campaign that already for many years had been opposing construction of a proposed Himalayan dam on the river near his birthplace of Tehri. In 1989 he began the first of a series of hunger strikes to draw political attention to the dangers posed by the dam and in due course the Chipko Movement gave birth to the Save Himalaya Movement.

Bahuguna ended a 45-day fast in 1995 when the Indian government promised a review of the Tehri dam project. But the promise was not kept and the following year he committed himself to another fast, only broken after 74 days when the Prime Minister gave a personal undertaking to conduct a thorough review, largely on Bahuguna's terms. The veteran environmentalist, then in his 70th year, told the Prime Minister that the Himalayan glaciers were receding at an alarming rate. If this was not checked, the glacier feeding the Ganges would disappear within 100 years.

In the new millennium, Bahuguna has continued to warn about water scarcity and to campaign for the protection of the forests. He has proposed to the Prime Minister a Himalayan policy in which the mountain slopes would be covered with trees giving food (nuts, edible seeds, oil seeds, flowering trees for honey and seasonal fruits), fodder, fuel and timber, leaf fertiliser and fibre trees. Each family should be given land to grow 2000 trees and a subsidy to rear these trees.

In 2009, Bahuguna was honoured with Padma Vibhushan, India's second highest civilian award.

Speeches

Acceptance Speech by Sunderlal Bahuguna

December 9th, 1987

We feel honoured to have been invited to receive this prestigious Award "intended for projects which are corner-stones of a new world which we can enjoy living in". This Award is being presented in a city where Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore - one of the great Indians-  was honoured with the presentation of the Nobel Prize 74 years ago. He was the one who had reminded India and the World of the deep significance of the message of our 'Aranya' or forest culture. This culture was born and nurtured in the forests where sages and seers - the teachers of society - led a life of austerity and penance with their disciples. They pondered over the problems of humankind and, with their knowledge and wisdom, provided thoughtful guidance to society. The surrounding forests filled them with high ideals and, ultimately, with a new vision of life which held that:

  • There was life in all nature's creation - human beings, birds, beasts and insects, trees and plants, rivers and mountains; and
  • All life should be respected and human beings should particularly have a worshipful attitude towards life. Lord Krishna identified himself with the Himalaya, River Ganges and the fichus tree, when he said:
  • Austerity, should be practiced.
The Chipko movement, in its present form, appeared on the Indian scene in the beginning of 1973 when, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and Acharya Vinoba Bhave' s Sarvodaya movement, the villagers demonstrated against the felling of ash trees by a sports goods company with the warning that they would bear the brunt of the axes if the trees were felled. But the roots of the movement lie in the message of our culture, which flows in the hearts of the people. When India came into contact with the Western civilization during the British rule, the leaders of our society harked back upon their own cultural heritage rather than adopt the former. They searched for solutions to their problems. New ideas were born. This was the beginning of a renaissance pioneered by Raja Ram Mohan Roy. There was no dearth of Indians in all walks of life - scientists, such as Jagdish Chandra Bose, who proved that trees were living beings and had feelings like human beings: and Mahatma Gandhi, the embodiment of India's renaissance, who saw life in its totality and proffered the practical vision of an ideal society. He was not a theoretician, but a practical man, who said, "My life is my message".

We in the Himalaya were fortunate to have with us Gandhiji's two English disciples, Mire Behn (Madelene Slade) and Sarala Behn (Katherine Mary Heilemann) after his passing away. These two daughters of Gandhi nurtured a family of devoted, dedicated and selfless workers who accepted the challenge of working for a society free from want and misery. But the Himalaya and the holy Ganges that reared us like children, had become furious, as it were, to the extent that like an angry father the Himalaya pelted stones upon us and the Ganges washed away the earths, homes and fields in the fertile plains. Landslides in the hills and floods in the plains had become a regular feature in our country. The hill villages, which only a century ago were most prosperous, had become the haunts of poverty and the life of the people, especially of its womenfolk, has become intolerable. Like Zambho Ji, a cowherd Saint of Rajasthan in the 15th century, whose 363 followers, later in 1730 led by a lady Amrita Devi, sacrificed their lives to save the trees, we realized that this was the consequence of man's thoughtlessness and cruel behavior towards Nature. We should have been saving every standing green tree in the Himalaya that served as a sentry to save us from landslides. But this realization did not come to us all of a sudden. It must be admitted that to begin with Chipko was an economic movement and we looked upon forests as a source of employment through tree-felling and providing raw material for industries. The long sufferings of hill women have guided the activists to reach new heights in their movement, when these persevering mothers of the future generations dictated that forests were their maternal homes, which provided water, food, fodder and fuel. Both the trees and the mothers teach that to live and also to be ready to die for the sake of others proves to be the real fountain of bliss. Thus came the famous slogan:

"What do the forests bear? 
soil, water and pure air;
soil, water and pure air 
are the basis of life."

This slogan gave wings to Chipko to fly, not only over the Indian horizon, but to distant lands. It was Richard St. Barbe Baker - the world famous 'Man of the Trees' - who at the age of  88 visited our Himalayan villages to bless the movement and give it scientific support at a time when the activists were branded as enemies of science, democracy and development.

The story of the initial success of the Chipko movement is a story of long arid patient suffering by the hill women, the messengers of the movement, who traversed difficult terrain and the youth and children who actively participated in it. The message was spread through folk songs and religious discourses. Long foot-marches were undertaken, the longest of which traversed 4870 km from Kashmir to Kohirna across the Himalaya from the West to East.

By 1979 the movement was ale to make an impact on all the major political parties. They included for the first time protection of the environment as a priority concern in their election manifestoes. It was the Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, who took the lead and ordered a moratorium on felling of green trees for commercial purposes in an area of about 40,00C sq. km. in the U.P. Himalaya. The Indian Science Congress in its 1981 resolution gave wholehearted support to the Chipko movement.

The movement is active in many parts of India, especially in its hilly and forested regions. While the tribal women of Gandhmardan in Orissa and Bastar in Central India are struggling against the destruction of their natural forests; the youth and women in Nahin-Barkot and Thano in the Himalayan foothills have obstructed the entry of limestone miners for the last fifteen months, because they had destroyed the villagers' forest and water sources and created a desert in the valley. In south India, where Chipko appeared under the name of 'Appio', pioneered by the youthful Pandurang Hedge ant his young colleagues, the movement is active in the States of Karnataka and Kerala. They will not allow their remaining forests to be exploited to feed plywood and pulp factories, nor will they allow the plantation of soil-depleting and water-consuming tree species, such as eucalyptus, to be planted.

Chipko has caught the imagination of groups in other countries concerned with the environment and we have shared experiences and even joined, such groups in Switzerland, West Germany, France, Austria, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, U.K., Canada, USA, Mexico, Malaysia and Indonesia. Seven women delegates of environmental organisations in Pakistan visited Chipko villages this year and met our women activists, besides groups of students of United Nations University from many countries.

We in India and in other tropical countries have suffered heavily on account of deforestation and commercial forestry. In a vain attempt to constantly increase income, we have bargained, with the fertility of our soils. We are now facing the worst drought of the Century. Chipko stands for the eternal truth that soil and water are the two basic capitals of humankind. Natural forests are the mothers of the rivers and the factories for manufacturing soil. No material development or permanent prosperity is possible till we increase these two basic capitals. This is the underlying idea of chipko's slogan: "ecology is permanent economy". We advocate austerity in the use of forests and specially wood-products and alternatives for what are essential. We support afforestation with local species which are good for the conservation of soil and water while supplying food, fodder, fuel, fertilizer and fibre for ensuring self-sufficiency in the basic needs of our people from the surroundings. All living beings need pure air, clean water, nutritious food and comfortable shelter for their survival. Human beings, of course, need clothes too. All these should be easily and freely available in an ideal society, and it is forests that can supply these.

We do not view pollution and deforestation in isolation. These are closely connected with the two major world problems of war and poverty, which threaten the survival of all forms of life. The solution lies in tackling these problems together. The root cause of these basic problems confronting mankind seems to lie in the concept of development given by a materialistic civilization in which development has become synonymous with affluence. It has promoted human greed and, in a vain attempt to satisfy our greed, we have become butcher of Nature. We have sacrificed peace and happiness in our quest to achieve material prosperity. True development is reflected in a state of permanent peace, happiness and fulfillment in the lives of individuals and the society. This can be achieved. The Buddha found more than 2,500 years ago that desires are the root cause of all miseries. He differentiated between needs and desires. Our needs should be fulfilled, but - we should not run after desires. Mahatma Gandhi, the practical social revolutionary of this century, very aptly conveyed this idea in these brief words:

The Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's needs, but not for anybody' s greed".

We are most gratified that this too is the motto of the Right Livelihood Award, and we feel even more strengthened in our resolve to continue our march towards that goal by the honour of receiving this Award. Our movement is supported by small donations and sometimes by contributions in the form of handfuls of rice. This is the basis of our strength. Chipko is a movement launched by several independent and decentralized groups, with local leadership. The only common factor is the message of India's culture and its non-violent methods which bind us. We have sought the opinion of all the groups on how the Award money can best be utilized to further the cause for which the Chipko movement stands in keeping with its ideals.

We have nothing to offer except our anguish over the continuing worldwide onslaught on Nature, and an intense urge to change this state of affairs in which the cruelty of human greed over nature has created a state of perversion we call 'vikriti'. The symptoms of this are war, pollution and poverty. But this can be changed into culture or 'sanskriti' by the sublimation of Nature, which science has facilitated. Conversion of a perverted society into a cultural society needs the joint efforts of humanitarian scientists, social activists and compassionate men of letters. These three represent knowledge or 'gyan', action or 'karma' and devotion or 'bhakti', which is a way to achieve the noble objective of peace, happiness and fulfillment for all living beings. We realise that such groups will be in a microscopic minority, but as Arnold Tyonbee concluded after his study of world history this microscopic minority will change the fate of humankind. We invite all people who share our concerns to join us to swell this minority until its voice becomes loud enough to be heard.

With these words we feel deeply honoured and privileged to accept the Right Livelihood Award in all humility considering Chipko's small efforts and the enormous magnitude of a problem of global dimensions.

Interviews

FAQ about the Chipko Movement

asked in 2005

1. Why are the Chipko-activists primarily village women?

Women bear the main burden of looking after the family and raising the cattle. The Hill region is deficit in food production and the majority of young men - the working force - have to go to the plains to earn money and send to the families.

2. How can India save the Himalaya region?

By clothing all the slopes by planting trees giving food, fodder, fuel and timber, leaf fertilizer and fibre. This will give permanent employment to the whole population and will become the source of permanent blooming.

3. How do you use the mass media to spread your message?

People live in remote areas, where newspapers do not reach, nor have they radios and televisions. So we adopted the method of spreading the message through folk songs. I also write articles on the issue of water and forests-environment in Hindi papers and thus make a national appeal.

4. How can your people survive in the hills?

By preventing young people going down to the plains and compelling the government to lift water on the hill tops, planting trees on all hill slopes and generating electricity from energy stream instead of building big dams like Tehri and flooding the fertile valleys. I have been sitting near the dam site for the last 15 years in protest.

5. You are an old man of 78. How can your mission continue after you have gone? 

We should have life workers to save the Himalaya. These workers should have three qualities - dedication, devotion and determination. For their maintenance Himalayan people serving outside should contribute one days salary in a month. I have not yet succeeded in creating a life workers' fund but shall continue my efforts.

6. What effect has the RLA had on your work?

I kept the money in fixed deposits and the workers are supported by its interest.

Links

Contact

Right Livelihood Award Foundation

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