In India there is an ancient legend about a girl, Amrita Devi, who died trying to protect the trees that surrounded her village. The story recounts a time when the local Maharajahs tree cutters arrived to cut the villagers trees for wood for his new fortress. Amrita, with others, jumped in front of the trees and hugged them. In some versions of the tale their dramatic efforts prevented the forests destruction; in others Amrita dies in her valiant attempt.
It is this tale that inspired the actions of a group of mostly rural women who in the 1970s launched similar spectacular protest movements in India. For rural women, saving the environment is crucial to their economic survival. As primary food, fuel, and water gatherers, women have strong interests in reversing deforestation, desertification, and water pollution. The women who eke out a living in the Himalayan foothills, using its forests as sources of food, fuel, and forage for their animals, face a particularly severe challenge. The Himalayas, a young range subject to erosion, need forests on this steep slopes to allow the absorption of water and prevent flooding. Disintegration of Himalayan forests started over a century ago. In the 1960s, Indias push for national economic development cleared even more trees to export the wood to earn foreign exchange.The hill soil washed away, causing landslides, floods and silting in the rivers below the hills. Crops and houses too were destroyed, and women had to trudge further and further for their fuel, fodder and water. All in all, it was the women who were the main victims of Indias deforestation policies.
Against these harmful deforestation policies a movement called Chipko was born. Chipko in Hindi means to cling, reflecting the protesters main technique of throwing their arms around the tree trunks designated to be cut, and refusing to move. Womens participation in the movement can be traced to a remote hill town where a contractor in 1973 had been given the right by the state to fell 3000 of trees for a sporting goods store. The area already was dangerously denuded. When the woodcutters were scheduled to appear, the men were enticed away from the village leaving the women at home busy with household chores. As soon as the woodcutters appeared, the alarm was sounded and the villages female leader, a widow in her 50s, collected twenty-seven women and rushed into the forest. The women pleaded with the woodcutter calling the forest their maternal home, and explaining the consequences of felling the trees. The woodcutters, shouting and abusing the women, threatened them with guns. The women in turn threatened to hug the earmarked trees and die with them And it worked! The unnerved laborers left, the contractor backed off. In 1974, women in a nearby area used the same tree hugging technique in order to protest the clearing of their forest lands. And in 1977, in another area, women tied a sacred threads around trees fated for death.....a symbolic gesture in Hindu custom confirming the bond of brother-sister relationships. They declared that their trees would be saved even if it cost them their lives.
In the 1980s the ideas of the Chipko movement spread, often by women talking about them at water places, on village paths, and in markets. Women decided they were not powerless; there were actions they could take and a movement which would support them. Songs and slogans were created.
As an organized effort, the Chipko movement has had some success. Sometimes it won moratoriums through government bans or court battles; sometimes it managed to replant trees in areas close to village homes. In 1987 Chipko was chosen for a Right to Livelihood Award, known as the alternate Nobel prize honor. The honor was rightly deserved for this small movement dominated by women which had became a national call to save forests.
To learn about Wangari Maathai who won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize
for founding a movement to save the trees in Kenya click here
Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
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Women in World History Curriculum