Embracing trees, saving forests - Women and the Chipko Movement in India

21/06/13

In her second blog on eco-feminist movements in India, Nisha Ghosh of Soroptimist International Pune Metro East (India) writes about the Chipko movement to protest against deforestation, in which a leading role was played by women.

Picture this: women standing around trees, hugging them. Their mantra a roughly translated verse that epitomizes their emotion and their commitment…

Soil is ours,
Water is ours,
ours are these forests.
Our forefathers raised them,
it’s we who must protect them.

This is a rural scene in the northern state of Uttarkhand in India, where the Chipko movement took birth. Chipko means to hug, to embrace in the local language.

It’s not a romantic gesture but a form of resistance against cutting of the trees. It is the collective protest that rural folk undertook in the ‘70s which was perhaps the beginning of what later was labelled eco-feminism. Based on the Gandhian principles of non-violence this was  a concerted way to halt the ravaging of the foothills of the Himalayas. The forests here are beautifully interlinked with their lives, their subsistence depends on the forest and its products. In the name of development forest contractors cut down acres of trees, and make a loot of the timber. The government has policies that can be twisted and ignored by powerful local politicians.

Several research scholars and environmentalist have delved into the Chipko movement, its success and its implications. Feminists brandish it as a success of collective women power and so it is. It is true that many of the pioneers were men like CP Bhatt and SL Bhauguna , but the women formed the backbone of the surge. This article is based on the some of the research work done.  

It was in 1974 that a group of women lead by Gaura Devi (pictured left)  in a district of Uttrakhand embraced trees to disallow contractors to cut the trees - by this they claimed the trees were their wealth over which they had traditional rights. If the trees were to be cut they would have to literally chop the women embracing it. This resistance bore fruit and despite hiccups, ten years later the movement had spread to the full range of Himalayan regions right from Kashmir to Arunachal in the far-east. Other eco-sensitive forest regions in the country took up this community based resistance, largely headed by women.

So why did the women become so aggressively participative in this resistance? The slow degradation of the hilly region, and the fall out of water shortage, of landsides, of lack of fodder and firewood - affected the women directly, being solely in charge of cultivation, livestock and children. They would be the first ones to bear the brunt of an environmental disaster waiting to happen. They believe in the traditional equilibrium and relationship of humans and forests which is to be nurtured. For them it was fighting for sheer survival.

With constant pressure and the movement gathering momentum the then Prime Minister banned tree-felling in the region for 15 years.

Adopting these radical but peaceful methods, the women had taken up leadership positions, forced themselves into decision making situations, in a heavily patriarchal society. Yes there were threats from the conservative elders, mostly male, but that did not deter the women. Their future was tied to the environment.

Over a period of time the women became aware of their potential as soldiers of the movement and went on to enhance their roles. As long as the Chipko Movement remains sensitive to this learning process the women will progress and grow in strength. 

In 2009, women in Himachal Pradesh state tied Rakhis (the thread sisters tie on the brothers wrist - pledging protection)  on the trees, as a gesture of protection and protest against the hydro dam being built across the river – which would drown acres of forests.

As one scholar, Shobita Jain, puts it - “The Chipko Movement can indeed be considered an important success story in the fight to secure women's rights, in the process of local community development through forestry and in environmental protection.”

Read Nisha's previous blog Sustainable Optimist, Planting a Better Future for Girls.

Image: Women of the Chipko Movement, source: WikiMedia Commons 

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