“What do the forests bear?
Soil, water and pure air.”
– Song of Women of the Chipko Movement
The Chipko movement, now known worldwide, grew out of Gandhian nonviolent social action or satyagraha, “truth-force.” After Indian independence, Mira Behn and Sarala Behn, English women who had been close co-workers of Mahatma Gandhi, settled in different areas of the Himalayas. As they worked for village development they identified growing environmental problems. They were joined by Gandhian activists Sunderlal Bahuguna, Chandi Prasad Bhatt and others who in the 1960s formed the Uttarakhand region Sarvodaya movement or “upliftment of all,” applying the Gandhian principle of swadeshi or self-reliance. Concern became acute about the effects of commercial logging by outside contractors: landslides and soil erosion, severe flooding, loss of water resources, lack of wood and fodder for villagers’ use – and overall, destruction of local livelihoods, cultures and ecosystems.
“Chipko” means to “cling to” or “hug.” Organized resistance grew and the first vigil to guard the trees took place in 1971. In 1972 local poet Ganshyar Raturi wrote a poem that became famous:
Embrace the trees and
Save them from being felled
The property of our hills
Save them from being looted
A milestone was the mobilization of women in March 1974 by Gaura Devi, a woman elder who confronted gun-wielding loggers saying “Brothers! This forest is the source of our livelihood. If you destroy it, the mountain will come tumbling down onto our village. This forest nurtures us like a mother; you will only be able to use your axes on it if you shoot me first.” The Chipko movement is noted for extensive participation by women and women leaders such as Gaura Devi. Women advocate for forests as self-renewing life-support systems rather than economic “resources,” fusing their practical expertise with scientific knowledge. As Bahuguna said, “Ecology is permanent economy.” Chipko workers also began reforestation projects early on. The movement spread through the Himalayan region and then to other parts of India, adapting its methods to other cultural and ecological contexts.
The original Chipko action was done in 1730 by members of the Bishnoi, a spiritual tradition founded in the 16th century by Guru Jambheśvara. Their principles include not to cut green trees, to preserve the environment and to be merciful to all living beings. When the Maharaja of Jodhpur in Rajasthan sent men to take trees from Bishnoi land to build a new palace, Amrita Devi went to the spot, hugged the first tree and was beheaded. Before she died she said, “A chopped head is better than a felled tree.” People from surrounding villages came to join the protest and 363 villagers were killed. Hearing of the massacre, the king repented and promised never to take trees from that forest again.
Vandana Shiva, Staying Alive: Women Ecology and Development (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Zed Books, 1989), 67-82.
Vandana Shiva, Ecology and the Politics of Survival: Conflicts over Natural Resources in India (London: Sage Publication, 1991), Ch. 4.
Pankaj Jain, Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities: Sustenance and Sustainability (New York: Routledge, 2016), Ch. 4.
George A. James, “Ethical and Religious Dimensions of Chipko Resistance” in Hinduism and Ecology: The Intersection of Earth, Sky, and Water, eds. Christopher Key Chapple and Mary Evelyn Tucker (Cambridge, Mass.: Center for the Study of World Religions; Harvard University Press, 2000), 499–530.