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The Forest, The Farm and Feminine Power

Jul 15, 2012

Vandana Shiva, a renowned environmentalist and activist, in an excerpt from her memoir, published in 'Making A Difference: Memoirs From The Women’s Movement In India’ (Women Unlimited), describes how Chipko movement changed her life.

Vandana Shiva is a world renowned environmental thinker and activist. A leader in the International Forum on Globalisation (IFG) along with Ralph Nader and Jeremy Rifkin, and of the Slow Food movement, Shiva was awarded the Alternative Nobel Prize (the Right Livelihood Award) in 1993, and the prestigious Sydney Peace Prize in 2010. Director of Navadanya and of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resource Policy, and a tireless crusader for farmers’, peasants’ and women’s rights, she is the author and editor of a score of influential books. In this excerpt, she recalls how the Chipko movement changed her life.

In 1972, women in a high-altitude village, Reni, blocked logging operations by wrapping their arms around the trees, giving birth to the Chipko (literally, to cling) movement. The name was given to the movement by Ghanshyam Raturi (Shailani) who composed folk songs, which were sung by every child, woman and man in Garhwal.

Nineteen seventy-two witnessed the most widespread protests against commercial exploitation of Himalayan forests by outside contractors, in Uttarkashi on December 12, and in Gopeshwar on December 15. It was during these two protest meetings that Raturi (Shailini) composed his famous poem describing the method of embracing the trees to save them from being felled:

vandana-shiva_wfs.jpgEmbrace the trees and
Save them from being felled;
The property of our hills,
Save it from being looted.

In 1973, the tempo of the movement in Uttarkashi and Gopeshwar reached new heights. Raturi and Chandi Prasad Bhatt were the main organisers; while a meeting of the Sarvodaya Mandal was in progress in Gopeshwar in April 1973, the first popular action to chase away the contractors erupted spontaneously in the region, when villagers demonstrated against the felling of ash trees in Mandal forest.

Bahuguna immediately asked his colleagues to proceed on foot to Chamoli district, following the axe-men and encouraging people to oppose them wherever they went. Later, in December 1973, there was a militant non-violent demonstration in Uttarkashi in which thousands of people participated in March 1974, twenty-seven women under the leadership of Goura Devi saved a large number of trees from a contractor’s axe in Reni, following which the government was forced to abolish the private contract system of felling. This was the first major achievement of the movement and marks the end of one phase.

During the next five years, Chipko resistance spread to various parts of the Garhwal Himalaya. It is important to note that it was no longer the old demand for the supply of forest products to local small industries, but a new one for ecological control of forest resource extraction to ensure a supply of water and fodder, that was being aired. Among the numerous examples of Chipko’s successes throughout the Garhwal Himalaya in later years, are those in the Adwani, Amarsar and Badiyargarh forests.

The Adwani forests were scheduled to be felled in the first week of December 1977. Large groups of women led by Bachhni Devi came forward to save the trees. (Interestingly, Bachhni Devi was the wife of the local village head, who was himself a contractor.) Chipko activist Dhoom Singh Negi, supported the women’s struggle by undertaking a fast in the forest; women tied sacred threads to the trees, symbolising their vow of protection. Between December 13-20 a large number of women from fifteen villages guarded the forests, while discourses from ancient texts on the role of forests in Indian life continued non-stop. It was here in Adwani that the ecological slogan: “What do the forests bear? Soil, water and pure air” was born.

The axe-men withdrew only to return on February 1, 1978 with two truckloads of armed police. The plan was to encircle the forests with the help of the police in order to keep the people out during the felling operation. Even before the police reached the area, volunteers of the movement entered the forests and explained their case to the forest labourers who had been brought in from distant places. By the time the contractors arrived each tree was being embraced by three volunteers. The police, seeing the level of awareness among the people, hastily withdrew before nightfall.

In March 1978, a new auction was planned in Narendranagar. A large popular demonstration was organised against it and the police arrested twenty-three Chipko volunteers, including women. In December 1978, a massive felling programme was planned by the public sector Uttar Pradesh Forest Department Corporation in the Badiyargarh region. The local people immediately informed Bahuguna who began a fast unto death at the felling site in January 1979. On the eleventh day of his fast he was arrested in the middle of the night; this only served to strengthen the commitment of the people.

Ghanshyam Raturi and a priest, Khima Shastri, led the movement as thousands of men and women from neighbouring villages joined them in the Badiyargarh forests. The people guarded the trees for eleven days, after which the contractors finally withdrew Bahuguna was released from jail on January 31, 1979.

The cumulative impact of sustained grassroots struggles to protect for forests resulted in a rethinking of forest management on the hill areas. The Chipko demand for declaring the Himalayan forests as ‘protection’ forests instead of ‘production’ forests for commercial exploitation, was recognised at the highest policy making level. The then prime minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, after a meeting with Bahuguna, recommended a fifteen-year ban on commercial green felling in the Himalayan forests of Uttar Pradesh.

The moratorium on green felling gave the Chipko movement breathing time to expand its base, and Bahuguna undertook a 4,780 km long, arduous march from Kashmir to Kohima, contacting villagers along the long Himalayan range and spreading the message of Chipko. At the same time, activists found it opportune to take the movement to other mountain regions in the country.

I decided in 1974 that while pursuing my PhD in quantum theory, I would volunteer with Chipko every vacation. And that is what I did.

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