Embrace the trees and
Save them from being felled;
The property of our hills,
Save them from being looted
- Ghanasyam Raturi, the Chipko poet


Ryan Redmond
Christa McAuliffe Regional Charter Public School, Framingham, MA

Dams are the "temples of modern India."

- Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of independent India



ACTIVITY THREE: Understanding the history of Chipko

Mohandas Gandhi's notion and practice of satyagraha, the philosophy of nonviolent resistance and action aimed at getting at truth, has been instrumental in fueling the Chipko movement.


The Chipko movement, which began in 1972 in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and quickly spread west into the middle Himalayan region, is a movement of nonviolent direct action. Its purpose was, and is, to prevent the destruction of forests and to protect the environment, livelihood and ways of life for the rural villagers of the region.

By the time the movement began, this region of India was undergoing a series of changes, all surrounding development activities, which "caused depletion of the forests, erosion of the soil, drying up of water resources, preemption of the firewood, the fodder, and building materials, and cooptation or destruction of much of the viable agricultural land and pasture" (Berreman, 1989, 243).

By development activities what is meant is primarily road building. Following the 1963 Indo-Chinese border conflict, the Indian government began to build road networks criss-crossing the Himalaya (Berreman, 1989, 242). Just as the interstate highway system in the United States owes its origins to the Federal Highway Act of 1956 and the need for military mobilization, so too were many roads built in India with homeland defense in mind.

Road construction itself created many environmental changes just as did a whole host of accompanying developments. With better transportation came easier access to forest and mineral resources. "[C]ontractors, corporations and other entrepeneurs from the distant cities of the plains" were not too far behind the road construction teams (Berreman, 1989, 242).

Gandhian sarvodaya workers, who had been working in the area since the 1960's, led by Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Sunderlal Bahuguna, set the wheel into motion in 1972 when, seriously concerned about environmental degradation and the livelihood of villagers, they confronted both government forestry workers and private contractors. The hugged trees to prevent them from being cut. Sarvodaya, a term coined, in this context, by Gandhian activist Vinoba Bhave to refer to the struggle to uplift all, even the poor and destitute masses (Berreman, 1989).

At the same time, even though I've used the term "movement" above, which suggests a certain high level of uniformity and organization, environmentalist Anil Agarwal reminds us, in an article in India Today, that "The Chipko movement itself was never an organised protest. It was largely a series of discrete protests by separate Himalayan villages like Reni, Gopeshwar and Dungari-Paitoli." Despite its amorphousness, it has indeed, at various points in time, achieved a certain level of greater organization, namely under the leadership of people like Chandi Prasad Bhatt.

That said, Berreman informs us that the movement, as unified as it may have been at times, has also split apart along ideological lines. He writes that Bhatt and Sunderlal Bahuguna, the two major leaders, differ significantly in their approaches. Bhatt has become more pragmatic, is interested in the ecologically sound use of forests, including sawmills, and has viewed the Forest Department as a potential ally. To him, it is the Government of India which makes bad policy not necessarily employees of the Forest Department. Bahuguna, on the other hand, has been more of a hard liner. He has not wanted to negotiate with forestry officials, believing that they have done the most harm, has viewed the struggle in seemingly more symbolic terms and, unlike Bhatt, makes a point of courting global support and spreading his position at international conferences (Berreman, 248-249, 1989). Note: Of course, I've used Berreman's informative, but now rather dated, article on the subject. To get a more complete picture, it is necessary to consult more contemporary writing on the topic.

All told, investigation of this ideological split would provide brilliant access to looking at differing methods of conflict resolution and nonviolent direct action.

Map indicating the location of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where Chipko originated.

I. Read the following articles:

TED Case Study: Chipko

This somewhat dry case study is published on American University's Trade and Environment Database (TED) and while some of the writing is poorly edited, it provides a decent introduction and overview of the Chipko movement.

"Hug the Trees!" Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Gauri Devi, and the Chipko Movement

This article, written by Mark Shepard, provides a nice rich, descriptive narrative about the origins of the Chipko movement. Shepard is a self described "Gandhian journalist and 'alternative lifestylist,'" which is important in assessing his own perspective and biases.

Chipko Movement, India

This article comes from a website documenting the We the Peoples: 50 Communities Awards. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, a non-government organization calledFriends of the United Nations conducted a program during with these awards were presented. These awards were presented to citizens' initiatives which present solutions to difficult problems. The Chipko movement was a recipient of one of these awards.

"Working Together" by Usha Jesudasan

This article appeared in the Indian newspaper The Hindu on June 14, 2003.

"Mine, Not Yours" by Kanchi Kohli

This article also appeared in The Hindu, but on March 28, 2004.

Photo of Chipko "tree huggers" from A field guide for project design and implementation - Women in community forestry published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome 1989.

II. Discuss the articles:

The following questions are to be answered in small group discussions after reading the articles.

TED Case Study Questions

1. What does the word Chipko mean?
2. When did the movement begin?
3. The TED Case Study suggests that the purpose of the movement been to "prevent commercial timber harvesting." What does this mean?
4. According to the TED Case Study, what happened in 1878 in India?
5. The protestors and members of Chikpo have largely been women and children. Why?
6. What do the rural dwelling villagers rely on the forests for?

"Hug the Trees!" Questions

1. What does Shepard mean when he writes of "oppressive government policies concerning the forests?"
2. According to Shepard, how to Chandi Prasad - who was whom? - address the problem of job discrimination?
3. What is the Dasholi Gram Swarajya Sangh and why was it created?
4. Shepard writes, " In October 1971, the Sangh workers held a demonstration in Gopeshwar to protest the policies of the Forest Department." What was the purpose of the demonstration? What policies were in question?

"Chipko Movement, India" Questions

1. In what regions of India has this Chipko movement taken place?
2. What is satyagraha, nonviolent resistance?

"Working Together" Questions

1. What does the word solidarity mean?
2. Jesudasan writes that "throughout history it is small powerful groups that have changed the course of history." What examples does she give for this claim? Explain them.

"Mine, Not Yours" Questions

1. At the beginning of the article appears these words: "'Paharh ki haddi tootegi, desh ki dharti doobegi.' (If the backbone of the hills breaks, the plains below will be submerged)." What does this saying mean? How does the message fit into the Chipko movement?

IV. Other Resources for more extensive research:

"Chipko: A Movement to Save the Himalayan Environment and People" by Gerald Berreman (from Carla M. Borden, ed. Contemporary Indian Tradition. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989)

This article provides a much richer, more comprehensive look at Chipko. of particular interest is Berreman's explication of the schism between two of the movement's primary founders.

Ecology and the Politics of Survival: Conflicts Over Natural Resources in India by Vandana Shiva

The ecologist and activist Shiva, in this book (the entirety of which is available online), delves into a series of case studies, both water conflicts and forest conflicts in India. There is a section specific to Chipko, but there is also a wealth of contextual and complementary information.

The Nanda Devi Campaign

This website, which is the home to a network of community leaders, activists and scholars from the region and from other parts of the world, offers a wealth of information. That said, it most definitely is an organization with an agenda and should be read about as such.

Civil Disobedience

This is the full text of Henry David Thoreau's 1849 essay.

The Chipko Movement, Chandi Prasad Bhatt

This brief history of the Chipko Movement is interesting, but to understand its tone, one must keep inmind that Bhatt, one of the leaders of the movement, is the author.




This site was created by Ryan Redmond at the NEH Summer Institute "Cultures and Religions of the Himalayan Region," held at the College of the Holy Cross, Summer 2006