Indigenous Environmental Activism in India

By Phoebe Yetley

One evening, during a late village meeting in Gopeshwar, India a villager argued, “A mother saves her child from the tiger by hugging the child to her breast, to take upon herself the wrath of the tiger,” as she presented an idea to embrace trees to protect them from being cut down. This action becomes the center of the Chipko Movement, Chipko translating to “hug” or “embrace”. As deforestation grew to a prominent source of revenue for India, it also creating life-threaten problems for the forest dwelling communities in the Himalayas. As a result the Chipko Movement of the 1970’s was born as an effort to end deforestation in the local communities’ forests. The Chipko Movement represented an indigenous community’s fight for two main changes: self-rule over their native lands, and advocating for their traditional lifestyle while operating an economy of use rather than profit in the forests. The unique elements within the Chipko Movement serve as a true example of self-determination by employing traditional indigenous strategies and by remaining independent of larger institutions assistance.

Along the northeastern boarder of India lies the state of Uttarakhand, home of the Valleys of Flowers and a portions of the Himalayas.It houses a diverse range of landscapes and environments. The northern part of the state is made up mostly of the mountain’s peaks and valleys, and the south is covered in dense forest. Among the trees is the district of Chamoli, the origins of the Chipko Movement. The district of Chamoli consists of many forest villages and groups of people with long histories of living within the Forests. These people, not recognized by the government as Scheduled Tribes, are socially accepted to be indigenous to the land. Under the Indian Constitution, Schedule Tribes and Areas are able to self-govern[i] ,but many Adivasi, the term for original dwellers of India, are not categorized as Schedule Tribes and therefore still under control of the Indian Government. The label indigenous, in India, refers to the Hindu population, which by government and social constructs, the Adivasi people are consider “backward Hindus” thus still falling under the definition of indigenous. But, as indigenous studies writer Amit Baviskar, points out the distinction made by adding the word “backwards” was a, “mischievous move, reminiscent of the colonial policy of divide and rule.” Adivasi people are still largely marginalized and systematically oppressed by national policies and laws, economic developments, and social designs of society[ii].

The forest policy of India since gaining independence in 1947 has shared a common theme that further imposes oppression onto the Adivasi people of India. Since the National Forest Policy Resolution of 1953 forest regulations have favored national interest over the forest-dependent communities’ livelihoods. Clearly stated in the Resolution, economic developments should not be halted or even slowed down if interfering with local communities lifestyles, “Village communities in the neighbourhood of a forest will naturally make greater use of   its products for the satisfaction of their domestic and agricultural needs. Such use,        however, should in no event be permitted at the cost of national interests. The accident of      a village being situated close to a forest does not prejudice the right of the country as a           whole to receive the benefits of a national asset[iii].”

The Government of India chose to advantage their profitable interests such as auctioning timber, building dams, and mining, instead of protecting the rights of the people who live among the forests. This left little space for native people of the land to have access or input to the natural resources of the forests. The regulations limited the forest communitys’ ability to survive by means traditional to their culture. For generations forest dwelling communities utilized the forest for fuel, fodder, timber, and even food in some cases to maintain life, all while sustaining the environment[iv]. The government’s policies restricted the land from natural use and encourage exploiting the forest’s resources to gain profit.  The policies were also imposing restrictions onto the land and communities of the forests without considering their perspectives or asking for their input. The Government of India? provided no opportunity for forest villagers to express their concerns. The Forest Policies of India? up to the 1970’s limited native forest communities’ ability to live a sustenance life from the forests, and enforced these restrictions without including forest dwellers opinions, all by promoting the nations interests over native people’s lives.  

On July 20th, 1970 a major flood of the Alakananda River took villagers by surprise, completely wiping out villages, sweeping away thirty buses and thirteen bridges in the area. This focusing event sparked a concern for the forest from the local people. Local community leaders investigated village member’s opinions on the cause of the flood  and their perception based on years of living in the forest. They came to the conclusions that deforestation was the main explanation. Later, environmental scientists found that the flattened land that remained after deforestation, especially on mountain sides, was susceptible to erosion which resulted in a pile-up of soil in the river. The excess sediment created a dam-like affect which eventually broke and caused massive flooding in the forests[v]. Although the native forest dwellers were not able to explain this situation, they were able to recognize the troubles of deforestation in their communities. The flood, and all the destruction it created, illuminated the issue to a level which motivated local resistance and the formulation of the Chipko Movement.

The following accounts are presented as told by Chandi Prasad Bhatt’s personal experience and interviews conducted by Mark Shepard with Bhatt and other local community members from Gopeshwar[vi]. The first Chipko event occurred shortly after the Alakananda River flood. In March 1973, news came to the villages that the Forest Department of India had allotted trees in the Mandal Forest to be cut down for a foreign company. At this time the damages of the flood were still present in villagers’ lives and news of more felling outraged the forest communities. After many village meetings, the method of protesting was agreed upon; the members of the Chipko Movement would cling to the trees, hugging them, in hopes of stopping anyone attempting to cut them down. When the time came, the local people of Gopeshwar and members of nearby native communities marched to the marked trees with drums and song. They reached the allotted trees and embraced each one, not letting go until the men contracted to cut them down retreated back to town. The Forest Department attempted to make a compromise, offering the protesters a tree, and then upped the offer to a couple trees if the contractors could continue with the planned arrangement. The offer was declined, and the first Chipko event was successful.

Soon after, news came that the same contracting company as before would be attempting to cut trees down in the Phata Forest. Leaders of the Chipko Movement visited and educated villagers near the Phata Forest about the resistance and unique methods of protest. The day before the contractors planned to enter the forest, a nearby town announced they were showing a movie tomorrow night for all forest villagers to come watch. This was a rare and special occasion, so the night of many villagers headed into town to attend the movie. That same night the workers headed into the forest. Villagers soon found out that lumbermen had entered the forest and realized they had been tricked. As quickly as possible, Chipko protesters marched into the woods. Upon arrival a few trees had fallen, but protester managed to protect the remaining trees and chase away the lumbermen without taking their fallen timber with them. A week later, the contractors permit expired and they no longer had access to the Phata Forest. The second main event in the Chipko Movement continued the success.

After months of no deforestation, the Forest Department held an auction in January of 1974, selling 2,500 trees from the Reni Forest. Villagers near the Reni Forest were soon greeted by leaders of the Chipko movement and educated on the Chipko protest strategies. The government, again, attempted to deceive the villagers by luring them into town at the same time the lumbermen were going into the forest. This time, the government announced they would be paying men for their service from a war that occurred fourteen years earlier. Because of the long awaited payment and desperate need for the money, men traveled into town[vii]. This time, an unexpected twist changed the path of the Chipko Movement. With the men detained in town, women and children undaunted by the workers marched into the woods. As they hugged the trees in protest, the trees remained standing. After the initial success, nearby communities organized a continuous watch at the site of the trees and multiple rallies throughout the time the contract allowed cutting. Eventually the contract expired and the women of Reni were successful in saving the trees. This specific protest at the Reni Forest highlighted the efforts of women villagers in the Chipko Movement.

The protests continued through the Garhwal hill region and remained successful. After the Reni Forest protests, in 1975 women of Gopeshwar protested the felling of oak trees near their village and were successful. Two year later in 1977 through 1978 women in Chacharidhar used Chipko strategies to save 10,000 trees. Also in 1978 women of Bhyundar Village, settled in the Valley of Flowers, resisted the cutting of trees that was planned to help build a Badrinath Temple[viii]. Soon just the threat of Chipko strategies was enough to stop auctions and marking of trees. The women from Damargarh Village stopped an auction of trees in 1978 by preparing Chipko protests, and similarly on November 23, 1979 the members of the Chipko Movement stopped possible felling of trees by simply warning the Forest Department they would protest[ix].

Stopping the felling of these trees stood for more than protecting a couple hundred trees, even more than preventing another flood, the Chipko Movement was an indigenous communities’ fight for the ability to govern the lands native to their culture and maintain their traditional lifestyle of sustenance from the forests. The Chipko protesters wanted the government to understand that native people, especially the women, should have an important input in the decisions made about the forests. Chandi Prasad, a prominent leader in the Chipko Movement stated, “The main goal of our movement,” he said, “is not saving trees, but the judicious use of trees.”[x] The native communities believed local control was beneficial in preserving the forests, and that the forest villagers should be recognized as rightful protectors of the forest. A woman in a remote village of Chamoli, Dungri-Paitoli, asked the forest administrators, “When we undertake all the work related to the forests why was our opinion not taken when it was decided to auction these forests?”[xi] She spoke from an indigenous perspective, but also from a women’s perspective. Many women in these forest communities were the primary farmers and gathers in the forests, therefore they understood the forest best.  The Chipko Movement sought self-rule for not only the native villagers of the forests, but also for the inclusion of women’s input during decision making about the resources and land traditional to their societies.

The second major demand the Chipko protests represented is the right to live consistently to the indigenous community’s traditions. The forest policies in place during the Chipko Movement restricted native people to live with the forests as older generations had once done; the policies instead aimed towards profit. The government promoted can be called a term scholar Stefano Varase has coined a, “culture of economy of profit,” which is starkly in contrast to a “culture of economy of use,” the latter resembling more closely the indigenous’ communities system of sustenance with the forest[xii] Varase uses these terms to describe indigenous cultures in Latin America, but they can be applied to the Adivasi forest communities in contrast with the Indian Government as well.  The forest villages fought for their right to an economy of use which would maintain the lifestyle and traditions of their culture. This can easily be misperceived as hypocrisy, as some native people advocated for the right to cut trees themselves. But the essential difference is between the concepts of profit and use.  Local people were claiming a right to life; they fought to use the forest for food, water, and shelter. Whereas other companies’ and the Forest Department purposes were merely chasing monetary gains, they sought profit from the timber. In addition, an economy of use encourages a reciprocal relationship with the environment which promotes sustainability and conservation of the natural resources. The Chipko protests were an expression of a local concern for the right to their livelihood, not to hoard the profits of the forests.

The Chipko Movement is particularly successful not only because of their accomplishment in saving the trees from falling, but also because of the techniques utilized during the movement which displayed a true sense of self-determination. The Chipko Movement sets its success apart from other indigenous accomplishments by the utilization of native inspired protest techniques and its independence from inherently colonizing institutions. These elements display the indigenous communities’ self-determination: the right to be included in the political, economic, and social developments of their community.

The protesters employed a unique method of resistance as they embraced trees. This strategy originated in the indigenous community’s values. As shown when the mother suggests protecting the trees as if they were her children, the forest dwelling communities invented their techniques of hugging the trees with influences from their culture’s relationship with the forest. Adivasi forest communities claim to a special culture that some scholars describe as ecologically wise[xiii]. These communities regard the environment in a unique perspective which spread into their methods of protesting. Hugging trees formulated within the communities own ideas and not only that, but was also successful. The importance of this is that indigenous communities’ values were able to determine the political, economic, and social developments of the forests, not the government.

The second way the Chipko Movement displayed self-determination is by its lack of support from non-indigenous institutions. The Chipko Movement was lead and carried out by the indigenous people of the forests. The protests were held by the native communities, and the success came from their own efforts. Rather than navigating change through the colonial power that was the Indian Government, the native forest dwellers sought change utilizing their own system: a system of hugging. This aspect of the Chipko Movement reinforces the accomplishments possible and ability of indigenous communities through self- determination.

After a decade of Chipko Movement efforts the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 was created which banned all use of forest land without permission for the national government[xiv]. This not only proved the success of the movement, but also ignited the development of policies to further support the native villages in the forest[xv] The Forest Conservation Act was a direct result of the Chipko protesters efforts to stop deforestation and demonstrated the volume of power forest communities could have. The Chipko Movement protesters fought for the right to self-govern the resources and land and live traditionally from the forests. The Forest Department and other powerful logging companies were challenged by ordinary forest dwellers and lost. It was the results of the Chipko Movement that proved the voiceless villagers now had a voice.



[i] Although given self-governing abilities from the constitution indigenous peoples are still susceptible to colonial subordination. Also in the constitution is president’s power over the Schedule Tribes, including the ability to change boundaries, or cease the existence of the schedule areas. The Government of India Constitution. 

[ii] Adivasi, although considered Hindu, are also categorized under the lowest caste in the caste system, barely making it on the caste system at all. They are still stereotyped as being primitive or behind; and women are largely seen as promiscuous and often abused by non-Adivasi men. Amita Baviskar. “Adivasi Encounters with Hindu Nationalism in MP”, Economic and Political Weekly, Novemeber 26, 2005.

[iii] Archana Vaidya, A History of Forest Regulations, InfoChange:India, August 2011,

[iv] Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Chipko Adolan: Forest Conservation Based on People’s Power, Environment and Urbanization, Vol 2, No. 1, April 1990.

[v] Narsh Rana, Sunil Singh, Y.P. Sundriyalb, Navin Jurhal, Recent and Past Floods in the Alkananda Valley: Causes and Consequences, Current Science, Vol 105, No. 9, Novemeber 10, 2013. 

[vi] Mark Shepard, Hug the Trees!, Excerpted and adapted from the book Gandhi Today: A Report on Mahatma Gandhi’s Successors, Simple Productions, Arcata, California, 1987.

[vii] Adivasi men and low caste men did not get paid for the service due to long effects of political oppression.

[viii] This event is specifically significant because the timber that was planned to be cut was going to a high caste Hindu temple. The Adivasi challenged not only the government, but the social order in India during this protest and still succeeded.

[ix] Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Chipko Adolan

[x] “Chipko Movement”, TED Case Studies,

[xi] Bhatt, Chipko Adolan

[xii] Stefan Varase created these terms to describe the indigenous cultures of Latin America. Culture of economy of profit refers to a system that encouraged exploitation of the environment and natural resources and is primarily concerned with production. A culture of economy of use refers to a culture that respects nature’s limits and is based on reciprocity. The concepts are applicable to the Adivasi’s cultures and the Indian Government’s culture.

[xiii] Amita Baviskar, Adivasis Encounters with Hindu Nationalism in MP.

[xiv] Archana Vaidya, A History of Forest Regulations.

[xv] Shortly after the 1980 Act, in 1985 the Forest Department relocated from the Ministry of Agriculture to the Ministry of Environments and Forests, which shortly after implemented in 1988 a new Forest Policy which finally admitted that local forest communities had a stake in the decision making and encouraged community participation. Vaidya, A History of Forest Regulations.

Nice use of Chicago Style. You’re still of on some of the details, but you seem to have the hang of how it works.