Indians embrace trees (Chipko) to stop logging activity, 1971-1974

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Timing
Time Period:  
October
1971
to
April
1974
Location and Goals
Country: 
India
Location City/State/Province: 
Uttar Pradesh
Location Description: 
State in northern India
Goals: 
Protection and conservation of forests, judicious and equitable use of trees by villagers, protection of ancient village forest rights, cessation of granting more favorable forest contracts to outside companies
 

After the Indo-Chinese border conflict ended in 1963, access to the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, a region encompassing eight different districts in the Himalayas, was greatly expanded. The money for this expansion, including highway building, generally came from logging companies that wanted access to the vast timber forests in this area of the country. Poor forest management led to increased erosion, depleted water resources, lower agricultural yields and greater flooding. Additionally, most government policy prevented residents from accessing these valuable resources and managing them for themselves as they had done for generations before. Access was allocated through a system of auctions, permits, and quotas to large, often foreign-based, companies that rarely employed locals and shipped the wood out of the state. In 1970, heavy monsoons led to flooding of three major rivers in the region and more than 100 square kilometers of land was submerged and 200 people lost their lives. A foundation for civil engagement and activism had been born through the work of Gandhian disciples Mirabehn and Saral Devi who worked with villagers in the Himalayas to educate them on the connection between the monoculture logging industry and increased flooding. Mirabehn and Saral Devi especially worked with women's organizations that were growing in influence in the 1950s to the 1970s against colonial legacies and alcoholism.

The Dasholi Gram Swarajya Mandal (DGSM) was an important organization in the fight against logging in Uttar Pradesh. Started in 1964 by Chandi Prasad Bhatt, DGSM was a cooperative organization that wanted to establish small industries that employed villagers and made use of local resources. DGSM was inspired by Gandhian principles of nonviolence and the idea of Sarvodaya, meaning equality and self-determination for all citizens. One of DGSM's businesses was a resin and turpentine operation that was located in and used ash trees from the Chamoli district. Because of the growing understanding of the role of logging in causing the great floods of the 1970s, DGSM began to act as a central location for organizing opposition to large-scale logging. In October 1971, DGSM organized a demonstration in Chamoli at which protesters called for a revoking of permits granted to logging companies as well as an end to the sale of alcohol (alcoholism was another ill that plagued the state). Numerous public meetings and rallies were held over the course of the year as communities began to organize against logging.

At the end of 1972, the Forest Department denied DGSM's request for access to a small allotment of ash trees for their facility. Instead, the Simons Company, an out-of-state sporting goods company, was granted access to a much larger allotment of trees so that they could produce cricket bats and tennis rackets to be sold hundreds of miles away. In response, DGSM held public meetings to discuss the best form of action against the Forest Department's decision. At one of these meetings, the strategy of "embracing" the trees to protect them was born. Essentially, the residents wanted to use their bodies to physically prevent axemen from cutting down the trees. Villagers may have been inspired by the mythical story of Amrita Devi who died while trying to save a tree that loggers were cutting down in order to build a new palace. Thus, the "Chipko" (which means "to embrace" or "to hug") campaign began.

Upon hearing of the protesters' plans, the state government sought a compromise between the villagers and the company, eager to reap the economic benefits. Five, and then eventually ten, trees were offered to DGSM but the villagers refused to allow any logging activity by the Simons Company. On March 24, 1973, when the Simons Company axemen showed up in Mandal to fell their allotted trees, they were met by hundreds of villagers and DGSM members who blocked their paths and prevented them from entering the forests. They used slogans and songs, marking the first confrontation that would be repeated in numerous other villagers as the Chipko movement expanded. One of their oft-repeated chants was "Let us protect and plant the trees/Go awaken the villages/And drive away the axemen". Eventually the Forest Department canceled the Simons Company's contract and awarded the allotment to DGSM.

Despite the victory for DGSM, the campaign did not end here because the Forest Department granted the Simons Company access to ash trees in the Phata forest, only 80 kilometers away from Mandal. Bhatt, the founder of DGSM, traveled to villages in Phata and explained the tactics that had been successful in Chamoli. Sunderlal Bahuguna, an Indian eco-activist, also completed a foot march to spread the message of the Chipko campaign and encourage action by villagers. At the same time, the Simons Company traveled from city to city, threatening villagers with arrest and proclaiming their economic rights to the forests. In May 1973, a meeting of the Uttarkhand Sarvodaya Mandal was held, during which villagers spoke of the need to regain control of local resources and their rights to be involved in the management and administration of the forests. At a meeting in December 1973, villagers pledged to use the tree-hugging tactics to protect the Phata forests. Although the Simons Company felled five trees (and there are some mentions of deceptive tactics that the company used to draw the villagers away from their guarding of the forests), the lumbermen were unable to remove these trees because of a constant multi-day vigil that was held by villagers.

Bahuguna and Bhatt continued to spread the message of the Chipko campaign across the state to protect the Himalayan forests. While protests had been taking place in Phata at the end of 1973, the Forest Department released a list of forests that were to be auctioned in 1974. A forest near the village of Reni was included, which greatly angered villagers and DGSM members who knew that its location in the watershed of one of the primary rivers in the 1970 flood made it an important site to keep well-forested. Bhatt rallied villagers, especially women, and even tried to speak to forest officials, explaining the direct action villagers would take if the logging were allowed. Despite Bhatt's efforts, including a public speech in January 1974 at the site of the auction, and the efforts of college students who distributed pamphlets and posted signs condemning the Forest Department, the auction was held.

Numerous rallies were held over the next two months. In March 1974, a mass demonstration with processions, music, slogans and speeches was held to promote the Chipko tactics and educate villagers. Once again the government and the logging companies tried to deceive villagers by calling the men away for meetings with officials in other parts of the state and by sending the lumbermen on secondary roads. A young girl saw the approaching axemen and Guara Devi, head of the local women's club, was able to organize twenty-six women and children to protect the Reni forests with their bodies. They pleaded with the axemen and after four days, the women convinced them to leave the site without touching any of the trees.

With these three successes, the Chipko campaign grew into the Chipko movement, spreading throughout India. Using nonviolent action and people power, villagers were able to prevent numerous companies from felling any trees in the region. The committee declared the Reni forest a sensitive area, and in 1980, a 15-year-long ban on all logging in Uttar Pradesh was passed.

Research Notes
Influences: 
Since 1930, protesters have fought against logging practices in the Uttarkhand mountains. Although some campaigns became violent, most actionists were inspired by the Gandhian struggles for independence and thus strove for nonviolent action and protest. (1)

This campaign began the Chipko movement throughout India. (2)

Sources: 
Bandyopadhyay, J. and Shiva, V. “Chipko: Rekindling India’s Forest Culture.” The Ecologist, 1987.

Routledge, Paul. Terrains of Resistance: Nonviolent Social Movements and the Contestations of Place in India. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1993.

Shepard, Mark. "Hug the Trees! Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Gaura Devi and the Chipko Movement". From Gandhi Today: A Report on Mahatma Gandhi’s Successors, Washington, D.C.: Seven Locks Press, 1987. http://www.markshep.com/nonviolence/GT_Chipko.html

Weber, Thomas. Hugging the Trees: The Story of the Chipko Movement. New York: Penguin Books, 1989.

Additional Notes: 
The original Chipko campaign, started in the 1970s, has grown into the Chipko Movement, which encompasses hundreds of small and local campaigns to prevent logging and promote sound forest management.  The campaigns all share  the unique method of hugging trees and using human bodies, often women, to prevent lumbermen from accessing the timber.
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Nathalie Schils, 05/08/2011