Katherine Goldsmith once dubbed environmental activist Sunderlal Bahuguna ‘a gentle warrior’, in an exploration of his decades-long quest for environmental justice — perhaps most notably via the Chipko movement. Recently, Sunderlal Bahuguna passed away aged 94 after contracting COVID-19 — but his legacy endures, as does the Chipko movement he was such an integral part of.
Chipko — or, “to hug”, in Hindi — was a nonviolent protest movement with a particularly noticeable female involvement. As summarised by Brittanica, it was started “by rural villagers, particularly women, in India in the 1970s, aimed at protecting trees and forests slated for government-backed logging. The movement originated in the Himalayan region of Uttarakhand (then part of Uttar Pradesh) in 1973 and quickly spread throughout the Indian Himalayas.” Their principal means of protest was to hug trees to forestall the activities of loggers — hence the name ‘chipko.’
But to blanket-summarise the Chipko movement as simply ‘tree-huggers’ is a misnomer, as a Down to Earth article from 1993 pointed out. “Chipko…today evokes romantic images of poor, village women in the hills of northern India determinedly hugging trees to prevent them from being cut down by the very axes of forest contractors that also threatened their lives,” the article outlines. “But Chipko’s multifaceted identity has resulted in it meaning different things to different people.
“For some, it is an extraordinary conservation movement of the poor; for others, it is a local people’s movement to regain control of their natural resources, snatched away first by a colonial power and then by the free government of India, and, finally, it is a movement of women trying to save their environment with a message to loggers: “Our bodies before our trees”. In fact, as a women’s movement, it inspired eco-feminism in India and, to some extent, throughout the world.”
Over the years, the movement saw involvement in a variety of protests aimed at conservation. To hear Down to Earth tell it, “Chipko’s first battle took place in early 1973 in Chamoli district, when the villagers of Mandal, led by Bhatt and the Dasholi Gram Swarajya Mandal (DGSM), prevented the Allahabad-based sports goods company, Symonds, from felling fourteen ash trees. This act took place on April 24 and, in December, the villagers again stopped Symonds agents from felling in the Phata-Rampur forests, about 60 km from Gopeshwar.” In the years following, the movement embarked on numerous protests and achieved success — notably, in Uttar Pradesh in 1980, when efforts led to a fifteen-year moratorium on green feeling in the Himalayan forests. Similar prohibitions followed in Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh, whilst the spread of the movement to states and territories leading to moratoriums on clear felling in the Vindhyas and the Western Ghats.
The movement’s significance cannot be understated. That it was women-led saw a shot in the arm for eco-feminism in India — and whilst the discourse surrounding ecofeminism is undeniably complex, it cannot be denied that the Chipko movement was influential in the international growth of ecofeminist movements. To quote Feminism India
“Environmental damage is a feminist issue and so is climate change- both of which are one of the most urgent social issues worldwide today. By exploring the sustainable relationship between the environment and women, the fight for environmental protection needs to have more and more women at its helm. But for it to be truly intersectional, we have to not just focus on the relationship women and nature have with each other but also on the relationship that women have with each other in a society. For example, indigenous women who live in close proximity to nature have to suffer a lot in the face of environmental degradation. We especially need to empower and support communities that have a close relationship with the environment if we want to protect the said environment from further degradation.”
For the Chipko movement, the loss of Sunderlal Bahuguna is a major blow. An espouser of Gandhian principles, Bahuguna forewent a career in politics to pursue activism and, over the course of his life, participated often in peaceful protest including that which led to the green felling ban in 1980, the Save Himalaya movement, melting glaciers, water scarcity, and protests against the Tehri dam. He often went on hunger strikes in pursuit of his cause, particularly the Tehri dam which eventually cajoled the Government into two reviews of the project. It was the Tehri dam Bahuguna’s wife and fellow activist Vimla once described as “[appearing] that God is subjecting us to the toughest and most difficult challenge of our life.”
Among Sunderlal Bahuguna’s most notable acts were his marches. Whilst raising awareness of caste injustice in the 1960s during travels on foot, he witnessed firsthand the degradation of the Himalayas which precipitated his devotion to environmental justice. From 1981 to 1983, he walked 5,000 kilometres across the Himalayas to spread awareness of Chipko’s message.
The legacy of the Chipko movement and Sunderlal Bahuguna himself is manifold. It cannot be stressed enough that the issues they sought to address are as present as ever — deforestation in particular. As reported last year by Health Issues India, “India has lost copious amounts of green space to deforestation in recent decades. Between 2001 and 2018 alone, India lost more than 1.625 million hectares of tree cover. In the same timeframe, northeast India alone accounted for more than seventy percent of the country’s overall tree loss.” The consequences are far-reaching, leaving India exposed to various vector-borne diseases as vectors’ migratory patterns change, fuelling floods, adding to food scarcity, and crippling biodiversity. Meanwhile, forest cover targets are being missed with land lost in service of economic development, urbanisation, commercial logging, agriculture, mining, and population growth.
The death of Sunderlal Bahuguna marks the passing of an environmentalist stalwart. To commemorate his legacy, and that of the movement he was a core part of, is most appropriately realised through an acknowledgement of the ongoing ecological crisis we are living through and actionable targets to mitigate the damage, halt the degradation of our environment, and move towards a greener future. If the life of Sunderlal Bahuguna teaches anything, it is that it can be done. Such is the legacy of the movement today.
“The environmental damage wrought by deforestation in the Himalayas is not in question. But the lessons continue to be ignored,” writes The Times of India. “Bahuguna, who was noted for his aphorisms, observed “ecology is permanent economy”. The increasing incidence of extreme climate events is extracting an escalating economic cost. Development versus environment is a false argument. They are intertwined. As the global movement towards leaving behind this false binary gains momentum, India needs to revisit the lessons of the Chipko movement….Chipko had an impact because the environmental home truths overwhelmed political differences. Progress in the fight against climate change needs the same spirit.”
As we made pledges and pacts, sign accords and treaties, we must not do this as simple window dressing but as a foundation for real, meaningful change — one that is inclusive, ambitious, and ultimately life- and planet-saving.