(Originally posted 3/7/17 on Read With The Gringa)
The gringa proudly considers herself a treehugger. As a female treehugger, I can count myself among legendary treehugging heroes. Have you ever heard about the the Chipko movement? It is a group of women from India who have been protecting the forests of their native country from deforestation since the 1970s. They link their efforts to an ancient Indian legend about a courageous young girl named Amrita Devi. First, the gringa will tell the dear readers the legend and then you’ll find out about the Chipkos.
Long, long ago, before there was Internet, a Maharajah sent his tree cutters to chop down the trees surrounding a small village. He must have needed lots of furniture, houdahs (saddles for elephants), and firewood. Amrita knew that her family, including her old, beloved grandmother, would die from hunger and cold if they had no firewood. She rushed out and wrapped her arms around a tree, refusing to let the woodcutters chop it down.
Now, here is where the story really gets interesting. If you have a person like the gringa telling the story, you hear a fantastic ending where Amrita prevails, saves the forest and is rewarded by the Maharaja for her bravery, wisdom and loyalty to family. However, if the caveman gets to butt in and tell the ending, he will say that Amrita got her head chopped off by the woodcutters axe when they went ahead and felled the tree. But, she became a martyr and her village revolted and refused to let any more trees get cut down, setting aside a lovely little grove in her honor where her body and head were buried. The dear reader can pick their own ending.
As for the Chipko, regardless of the ending of the story, they are still inspired by Amrita’s story. In the 1970s these rural village gals made their own brave stand and took their place in history and created a lasting legacy. You see, in the 1960s India was blazing a trail of economic development that meant massive deforestation that the government called progress. Although burgeoning city and industrial growth may have been welcomed by many, for those whose lives were wrapped up in the harmony of life in the forests, subsisting on the crops they planted and the natural resources that surrounded them, such progress was devastating.
For rural communities progress meant crops were ruined, homes torn down, erosion destroyed farmland and flooding ensued. Basically, as centuries-old Himalayan forests were cut down, the culture and and environment supported by these forests disentegrated. Many of these villagers pushed further up mountainsides looking for fuel, water, clearings to plant crops, and materials to construct new homes.
Finally, like most strong women, many of these matriarchs had had enough. They began engaging in “Chipko”. This is a Hindi word which means “to cling to”. The Chipkos would literally hug trees, refusing to let go so they could be chopped down. The official origins of this method of protest is recorded in a 1973 incident. A contractor had been dispatched to bring down 3,000 trees that were allotted for construction of a sporting goods store. Much of the surrounding area was already barren from prior deforestation efforts.
When the woodcutters arrived, women began sounding the alarm throughout the village. The gal who was considered their leader was a widow in her 50s. She mustered 27 other women to her side and they rushed out to face off with the woodcutters. At first their brave leader tried to plead with the contractor. Then she attempted to reason with him and educate him on the consequences of deforestation. The response was insult and abuse from the contractor and his crew.
The women channeled their inner Amritas and flung their arms around the trees and vowed to die before letting go. The men were so taken aback by their actions they surrendered their efforts and returned to the sporting goods jobsite empty-handed. So much for sneakers for everyone!
As the movement proved effective, it grew. New ideas were also integrated into the Chipko’s practices. A cultural practice that symbolized brother-sister relationships was put to good use, tying sacred threads around trees marked with the wood-choppers symbol for its future fate. Crewmen would understand those threads as meaning Chipkos were willing to die on behalf of that tree.
In 1987 the Chipko movement was honored with what might be considered by many a recognition as meaningful as a Nobel Peace Prize. For being a small women’s movement with the purpose of saving trees, the women were given the “Right to Livelihood Award” honoring the many moratoriums and battles won to save a precious natural resource.
The gringa will close with a Chipko folk song:
The contractor says, “You foolish women, do you know what these forest bear?Resin, timber, and therefore foreign exchange!”
The women answer, “Yes, we know. What do these forests bear?Soil, water, and pure air. Soil, water, and pure air.”
Source & Image Credit: Women In World History
Video Credit: DD News