For its dedication to the conservation, restoration and ecologically-sound use of India's natural resources.
The Chipko Movement is a non-violent resistance aiming to protect India’s forests. The movement began in the 1970s in response to the increasing destruction of forests for commerce and industry. When government-controlled exploitation of natural resources started to increasingly threaten the livelihoods of Indian villagers, they sought to stop the destruction using Mahatma Gandhi’s method of satyagraha or non-violent resistance. Soon, it began to spread throughout the country, becoming an organised campaign known as the Chipko Movement.
The movement got its name from protesters literally hugging trees to protect them from loggers. A particular feature of the resistance is that it’s been led mainly by women from rural areas, who heavily rely on forests for their livelihoods. To spread their messages to a largely rural population, Chipko activists have often used folk songs. The movement was able to spread throughout India while staying largely local and organised autonomously.
As the Chipko Movement grew, some influential leaders emerged from its ranks, bringing their message to the national stage. The most well-known of them was Sunderlal Bahuguna (1927-2021). His work, rooted deeply in the Chipko message, had a tremendous impact on India’s environmental policies, including the preservation of forests and other natural resources in the Himalayan region.
The Chipko Movement is a non-violent resistance movement aiming to protect India’s forests. When government-controlled exploitation of natural resources started to threaten the livelihoods of Indian villagers, the movement sought to stop the destruction using Mahatma Gandhi’s method of Satyagraha or non-violent resistance. The movement, which got its name from protesters hugging trees (the Hindi word “chipko” means “to hug”), has had a tremendous impact on India’s environmental policies, including the preservation of forests and other natural resources in the Himalayan region.
The movement begins
India’s forests have long been among the country’s most essential resources, ensuring the livelihoods of forest-dwelling and rural communities while also maintaining ecological balance. Under British colonial rule, laws were introduced - known as the Indian Forest Acts of 1878 and 1927 - to allow the government to manage natural resources. These laws gave the state the right to exclusively control the use of certain areas, which had an overwhelmingly negative impact on communities that had traditionally relied on forests for their survival.
The Chipko Movement started as a way for rural communities to take back control over the use of forests. Inspired by Gandhian methods, the first non-violent demonstration took place spontaneously in the Himalayan region in 1973. The demonstrators hugged trees to save them from being cut down, giving the movement the name “chipko,” which is Hindi for “to embrace” or “to hug.” Soon, demonstrations began to spread all over India.
Women lead the way
The Chipko Movement was the result of hundreds of decentralised and locally autonomous initiatives. As men often left their homes in the mountains to look for work in other regions, the movement’s leaders and activists have primarily been village women, acting to save their means of subsistence and their communities.
Another particular feature of the movement has been the way its messages have spread. People living in remote areas often didn’t have access to newspapers or other types of mass media. Hence, the movement adopted the method of spreading its message through folk songs and marches.
People are heard
As demonstrations began to spread to all parts of India, pressure grew on the government to adopt policies more sensitive to people’s needs and environmental factors. The Chipko protests in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh achieved a major victory in 1980 with a 15-year ban on green felling in the Himalayan forests enacted by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. A similar ban was later also implemented in the state of Uttaranchal and the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.
The movement also spread to Karnataka in the south, Rajasthan in the west, Bihar in the east and to the Vindhyas in central India. The protests succeeded in halting clear felling also in the Western Ghats and the Vindhyas, as they generated pressure for a more responsible and inclusive natural resources policy in India.
A leader emerges: Sunderlal Bahuguna
While the Chipko Movement had been largely decentralised, some leaders have emerged who amplified and carried the message forward on the national and global stage. One of the most prominent has been Sunderlal Bahuguna. Born on January 9, 1927, Bahuguna is a Gandhian activist and philosopher. He passed away on May 21, 2021, at the age of 94.
Bahuguna, who had originally been planning to go into politics, was inspired by his wife Vimla to become an activist in remote rural areas. He started by challenging the caste system. In the 1960s, he walked across many areas to spread knowledge around the evils of the caste system, and during these walks, he became aware of the environmental problems from deforestation in the Himalayas. In 1972, he began to mobilise for a non-violent protest against the massive felling of trees, laying the foundation for the Chipko Movement. In 1973 and 1975, he went on long foot marches in Uttarakhand.
His 5,000-kilometre trans-Himalayan foot march from 1981-1983 from Kashmir to Kohima was crucial to spreading the Chipko message. Bahuguna was also instrumental in Prime Minister Gandhi’s decision to enact the 1980 green-felling ban.
In the late 1980s, Bahuguna joined a campaign opposing the proposed construction of a 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 went on a 45-day hunger strike in 1995, which he ended only when the Indian government promised to review the Tehri dam project. However, the promise was not kept, and the following year, Bahuguna committed himself to another hunger strike. This time, he broke the fast after 74 days when the prime minister made a personal promise to conduct a thorough review, largely on Bahuguna’s terms.
The veteran environmental campaigner, who was 70 at the time, also warned 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, he said.
In the new millennium, Bahuguna continued to warn about water scarcity and campaign for the protection of the forests. He proposed a Himalayan policy in which the mountain slopes would be covered with trees providing food, fodder, fuel and timber. The policy would also entail giving each family land to grow 2,000 trees and a subsidy to rear these trees.
In 2009, Bahuguna was honoured with Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian award.
He was engaged with the struggle of rural people until his passing, including voicing support for the farmers’ protests in India, which started in late 2020. He died in 2021 from complications of Covid-19.
The Chipko Movement, which is a leading example of how to keep Gandhi’s legacy of non-violent resistance alive, successfully influenced India’s policy on the protection of forests. 1993 Right Livelihood Award Laureate Vandana Shiva cited Chipko as a major inspiration for her work on the conservation of indigenous seeds. "Chipko shook our policy-makers out of their slumber that allowed them to think of forests as timber mines, and woke them to the ecological functions of the forests in the catchments of our rivers," Shiva has said.
To this day, people in India, especially the youth, do Chipko demonstrations to protect trees and forests.