Building on our Successes:

Revisiting Chipko Andolan

Saturday 6 December 2003, by Vinod RAINA

Andolan is the common term for a movement in India. The well-known Chipko Andolan literally means ’Hug the Trees Movement’, which originated from an incident in a remote village high up in the Himalayas in 1972. The bare facts of the incident are that there was a dispute between the local villagers and a logging contractor who had been allowed to fell trees in a forest close to the village.

On the particular day, there was a meeting with the related government officials in their office away from the village, for which most of the men had gone. In the meanwhile, the contractor’s workers appeared in the forest to cut the trees while the men folk were absent. Undeterred, the women of the Reni village reached the forest quickly and clasped the tree trunks thus preventing the workers from putting their axes and saws to the trees.

Thus thwarted, the workers had to withdraw and the incident spread like wildfire across communities and media, forcing the government, to whom the forest belongs, to negotiate with the community, mostly women. The women began setting up their committees, as a partnership between the community and the government, in regions where larger issues about eco-friendly development were being articulated. In spite of the usual ups and downs, the movement continues today as a major environmental movement and has inspired a large number of people in the country and the World.
The underlying elements of this movement are sometimes not well understood by people, particularly by the elites in India, and in the western world. There is a tendency to cite it as an example in the same breath as, say, Sierra Club and such; referring to it as a shining example of environmental conservation.

In essence, conservation is at best an underlying element in the action of the women. What they were articulating more strongly was their ’right to use’. The issue therefore may be characterized as a competition regarding the rights of use; in this case the competition was between the state approved contractors and the community. It is not as if the women were fighting so that the trees remained untouched. In fact it is they themselves who had a need for these trees, as a source of firewood for their hearths and for the leaves as fodder.

In comparison, the contractor was going to clear-fell them for the timber, in this case for manufacturing sports goods. The women were articulating the question: ’whose use is primary? Theirs for cooking food or of a distant sports goods factory?’. Inherent in this competition to control a natural resource is the conservation of a replenishable resource. Specifically the method of use was being called into question, and not use vs. non-use. The contractor would have clear-felled the trees, destroying them forever. The communities traditionally lop the branches and pluck the leaves, allowing the resource to replenish over time.
Though in a different context, the anti-dam movements in India and other countries of Asia articulate similar concerns regarding the contending rights of the community and the Government in decisions affecting the common property resources that provide subsistence to the local populations. Beginning with the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA, Save the Narmada Movement), the anti-dam movements have spearheaded the environmental movements to the centre stage, through their radical redefinition of development itself.

The success of the NBA in forcing the World Bank to withdraw its financial support to the dams on the Narmada River has reverberated throughout the World, and largely contributed to the setting of the World Commission on Dams that gave its persuasive report in 2000. Largely due to the efforts of the NBA, hundreds of movements resisting in the area of natural resources and environment are allied today under the banner of National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM).
Chipko therefore provided a blueprint for future movements, both in its articulation of the tensions between the state and the communities over the right to natural resources, and in its newer forms of mass action and organizational forms, the most noticeable being the gender aspect inherent in its action.

Vinod Raina

The author has worked at the grassroots for over thirty years in education, literacy, environment and development. He is one of the founders of the People’s Science Movement in India. a member of the India Organising Committee, and the International Council of the WSF.

The author has worked at the grassroots for over thirty years in education, literacy, environment and development. He is one of the founders of the People’s Science Movement in India, and a member of the India Organising Committee, and the International Council of the WSF.

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