“Hug the Trees!” Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Gaura Devi, and the Chipko Movement

by Mark Shepard

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.
M. K. Gandhi

Chandi Prasad, 1978; photo by Mark Shepard

At the time of my India visit, I knew next to nothing about the rapid destruction of forests in Third World countries, or about its costs in terms of firewood shortage, soil erosion, weather shifts, and famine. Still, I was at once intrigued when I heard about the Chipko Movement, mountain villagers stopping lumber companies from clear-cutting mountain slopes by issuing a call to “hug the trees.”

So, one fall morning in 1978. along with a Gandhian friend, a young engineer, I found myself on the bus out of Rishikesh, following the river Ganges toward its source. Before long we had left the crowded plains behind and were climbing into the Himalayas. Thick forest covered the mountain slopes, interrupted only occasionally by terraced fields reaching dramatically up the mountainsides. Our bus bumped along a winding road halfway between the river below and the peaks above, as it followed the river’s meandering around the sides of mountains.

This was the Uttarakhand—the name given to the Himalayas of Uttar Pradesh state, stretching along India’s border with Chinese-ruled Tibet. A major source of timber and water- power, this was a region of vast natural riches—in contrast to the poverty of the people living there.

Yet even the forest riches of the Indian state of Uttarakhand might have their limits. After an hour or two of the ride, the forests within sight of the road were becoming noticeably thinner. Still later we could see deep gashes running up the sides of the mountains. “Landslides,” my friend explained.

At some points the bus came upon debris piled up at the edges of the road; and several times the bus had to drive over debris not yet cleared away. The slopes were increasingly bare. It was completely dark when we spotted the lights of the small town of Gopeshwar, birthplace of the Chipko Movement. There we would hear that movement’s story from one of its founders, Chandi Prasad Bhatt.

Chandi Prasad was raised in Gopeshwar—a very small village, during his youth. Farmland was scarce in the overpopulated mountains, and so were jobs. Like most men of the mountain villages, Chandi Prasad was eventually forced to work in the plains, becoming a ticket clerk in Rishikesh for the bus company. He was deeply concerned over the plight of the mountain people, and he often walked through the mountains to talk to the villagers about their problems. Among the most important, of course, were the shortages in farmland and jobs. But added to these were oppressive government policies concerning the forests.

The villagers depended on the forests for firewood, fodder for their cattle, and wood for their houses and farm tools. But the government restricted huge areas of forest from their use, and auctioned off the trees to lumber companies and industries from the plains—a practice inherited with little change from the British colonialists. Because of these restrictions and an ever-growing population, the mountain women found themselves walking hours each day just to gather firewood and fodder.

In 1956, Chandi Prasad took hope when he heard a speech by the Gandhian leader Jayaprakash Narayan, who was on a tour of the area. Chandi Prasad and other young people launched themselves into Gandhian campaigns, organizing villages for economic development and fighting alcohol abuse throughout Uttarakhand.

Then, in 1962, a brief border war between India and China brought drastic change to Uttarakhand. Though the region had not itself been involved in the conflict, the Indian government wanted to secure more tightly all its territory bordering China. For Uttarakhand, this entailed a program of rapid economic development.

Road building began throughout the region. Lumbering operations escalated as the roads brought remote forests into easier reach. Towns grew as workers arrived from the plains.

The mountain people didn’t benefit much from this development, though they were meant to. Construction work was assigned to contractors from the plains, bringing with them skilled and semiskilled laborers. The mountain people themselves were hired only for jobs such as hauling rocks, and were paid next to nothing. Meanwhile, the increase in population and lumbering made it all the harder for the mountain women to find their firewood and fodder.

Chandi Prasad and other Gandhian workers decided to tackle the problem of job discrimination. They organized a labor cooperative, with 30 full-time and 700 part-time members, which bid for and won several contracts to build sections of road. On these jobs, the co-op was able to pay double the wages paid by outside contractors to their own workers. But the co-op soon found hurdles placed in its way. For instance, government assessors undervalued completed jobs, causing the co-op to lose money. It seemed the co-op’s practices and success had offended some people. The co-op was faced with the choice of either losing more money or greasing the palms of government officials. Instead, it decided to stop building roads.

The workers formed a new organization, the Dasholi Gram Swarajya Sangh (Dasholi Society for Village Self-Rule). Dasholi being the administrative area around the central town of Gopeshwar. The aim of the Sangh was to start small industries using the resources of the forests. Its first project was a small workshop making farm tools for local use.

After a while, the workers decided to bid for trees from the local forests. Large lots of trees were sold by the state Forest Department through the “contractor system,” which awarded the trees to the highest bidder, with the purchase price going to the state government. Sometimes the Forest Department sold selected trees, marked for felling; at other times, it sold the rights to a marked area, which was then clear-cut. Normally the contracts went to large businesses from the plains, which took the trees to the plains for sale and for factory use.

With money borrowed from the community, the Sangh over time bid for and won four small contracts, selling some of the wood locally and the rest in the plains. Within a few years the number of full-time workers in the Sangh had increased from 30 to over 200.

But the big contractors seemed determined to halt the competition. They began to overbid on the contracts, while making up their losses by illegally cutting extra trees. Again the workers were forced to turn elsewhere.

The workers had better luck with a plan to buy and market herbs collected by mountain gatherers—herbs that were normally sold to plains traders, who made exaggerated profits on resale. The Sangh was able to pay much higher prices to the gatherers, and even drove up the prices paid by other traders.

Encouraged by this success, the Sangh next built a small processing plant to make resin and turpentine from pine sap—one of eight such processing plants being set up in the region with help from the federal government. But again the Sangh ran into discrimination, when the state Forest Department refused to allot adequate supplies of pinesap to the eight plants, or to allow the plants to buy the sap at the same price paid by a partly government owned producer in the plains.

In 1970, the workers encountered another consequence of official forest policy—this one more grim than any they had faced before.

Alakhnanda river valley; courtesy of Archit Ryan Photography; flicker.com

During that year’s monsoon rain, the Alakhnanda River rose 60 feet, flooding hundreds of square miles. The waters swept away hundreds of homes—including one entire village—as well as 30 passenger-laden buses and five major bridges. Almost 200 people died. When the waters reached the plains, over 100 miles downstream, they dropped silt that clogged nearly 100 miles of canal, halting irrigation and power production in the northern part of the state for six months before the residue could be cleared.

Workers from the Sangh mounted a relief operation for mountain villages marooned by the flood. During the operation, the workers tried to discover what had caused the flood, by talking to the villagers and making their own observations.

It became clear that this disaster was not strictly natural. The chief cause, the Sangh workers decided, was the commercial lumbering that had expanded so dramatically after the war with China. When mountain slopes were cleared of trees, rains washed away the topsoil, leaving the soil and rocks underneath to crumble and fall, in landslides. Much of the soil from the mountain slopes was deposited in the rivers below, raising the water level and forming temporary dams that could burst under pressure. At the same time, the bare slopes allowed much more rain to run off directly into the river. The end result was floods.

Forest Department officials allotted trees without regard to these effects, which they didn’t seem aware of. On top of that, contractors regularly bribed the forest rangers to let them take trees beyond their allotment. The Forest Department had a program of replanting cleared slopes, but it was inadequate; so bare slopes usually remained bare. Another cause contributing to floods was road building, which often resulted in landslides when proper construction methods were neglected.

The mountain people themselves were not blameless. They had bared many slopes while gathering firewood and fodder and while grazing their livestock, either not realizing or not caring much about the effects of their actions. Of course, they were forced to meet their survival needs from areas limited by the government—which became harder to do as the population grew. Besides that, the government policies made the villagers feel the forests did not belong to them—that the government merely allowed them to live there—which discouraged any sense of responsibility the villagers might have for preserving the forests.

The Sangh workers prepared a report of their findings and submitted it to the government. It brought no response. But the workers themselves had learned a lesson they would not forget: The same forest policy that denied them fair use of forest resources was gradually destroying their mountain home.

In October 1971, the Sangh workers held a demonstration in Gopeshwar to protest the policies of the Forest Department. They demanded that the department abolish the contractor system and instead award contracts to local cooperatives—to generate jobs for the mountain people while halting the contractors’ illegal felling practices. They also demanded an end to discrimination in the supply of pinesap, and enough access to the forests so that the mountain people could meet their needs.

Over the next year, the Sangh workers pressed their demands through a press campaign and talks with high officials. None of this seemed to bear fruit. In late 1972, more rallies and marches were held, but these too failed to bring results. The thoughts of the Sangh workers turned toward direct action.

Meanwhile, the Sangh received a fresh blow: The Forest Department turned down the Sangh’s annual request for ash trees for its farm tools workshop. The department then allotted some of the same ash trees to the Simon Company, a sporting goods manufacturer from the plains. Tennis rackets took priority over plows!

In March 1973, two Simon Company agents arrived in Gopeshwar to supervise the cutting of the trees. Told there was no hotel, they applied for lodging at the guest rooms of—the Dasholi Gram Swarajya Sangh!

When the agents told the Sangh workers who they were and what their business was in town, the workers were stunned. But they quickly remembered their traditional hospitality and helped the visitors settle into their rooms. Then they rushed off to tell Chandi Prasad.

The news hit Chandi Prasad hard. He declared, “Let them know we will not allow the felling of a single tree. When their men raise their axes, we will embrace the trees to protect them.”

A few days later, a public meeting was held in the courtyard of the Sangh compound to discuss the situation. A number of ideas were advanced: barring entrance to the forest, stopping the truck from hauling away trees by lying in front of it, cutting the trees ahead of time, or even burning them.

Finally, Chandi Prasad said, “Our aim is not to destroy the trees but to preserve them. When the men go to cut them, why don’t we cling to the trees, and dare them to let their axes fall on our backs?” (Chipko means “hug,” or “cling to.”) As he described it, he locked his hands together in a posture of embrace.

The people were at first stunned by the novelty of the idea. Then they began to shout their agreement: Yes, they would hug the trees! They drew up a resolution announcing their plan, to be sent to government officials. The Simon Company agents, who had been allowed into the meeting, watched in consternation.

Several weeks later, the Sangh workers learned that the trees were marked and were about to be felled. On the appointed day, Sangh workers and others marched in procession out of Gopeshwar toward nearby Mandal forest, where the marked trees stood. Accompanied by the beat of drums, they sang traditional songs voicing their concern for their natural home. When they reached the village of Mandal, just below the forest, a rally of about 100 people was held.

The lumbermen were already in the forest waiting for their employers. The Simon Company agents had collected their final permit from officials in Gopeshwar and were on their way to the forest. But when they reached Mandal village, they were so unnerved to see the animated crowd, they abandoned their plans and withdrew, leaving the trees!

Following this, Forest Department officials tried to bargain with the Sangh workers: The Sangh could have one ash tree if it allowed the Simon Company its full quota. The Sangh refused.

The officials raised the offer to two ash trees; then three; then five. Finally, the offer reached ten trees—the Sangh’s original request.

But the Sangh workers were unwilling to allow the Simon Company its quota at any price. The issue was no longer only whether the Sangh would get trees for its farm tools workshop. At issue now was an entire government forest policy more concerned about outside businesses than about the people who lived among the forests. The allotment of trees to the Simon Company was a glaring symbol of that policy’s injustice. Finally, the government gave in. The Simon Company’s permit was canceled, and the trees were assigned to the Sangh instead.

Soon after, the government also announced it was ending the discrimination in pinesap supplies. But that same month, the Sangh workers learned that the Simon Company had been allotted a new set of ash trees, in the Phata forest, in another part of the same district.

Chandi Prasad and another worker rushed to the Phata area to tell the villagers about the Simon Company’s plans and about the new Chipko Movement. The villagers formed an action committee and set up a continuous watch over the approach to the forest. Simon Company agents had already reached the area, and they watched these preparations. After a few days, they once again retreated from the scene.

But the company wasn’t ready to give up the trees, and its permit was good for six months.

In December, more Simon Company employees arrived in Phata with a new strategy. They visited all the villages in the area, threatening the villagers with harsh treatment by the law if they tried to stop the trees from being felled. They also claimed that the Chipko leaders were only interested in bribes from the company.

The Simon Company agents were invited to present their viewpoint at a rally called by Chipko leaders. With Chandi Prasad sitting by, the agents tried to intimidate the mountain people with threats and insults. But it was no use. The villagers declared they would protect the trees.

As the rally ended, word spread that the government was showing a movie that night in a nearby town. A movie is a special treat for the mountain people; so, that evening, many of the villagers and Chipko workers went into town to see it. But when they arrived, they found out the film van hadn’t come, and the movie had been canceled. They were then stuck in town for the night, since the mountain buses didn’t run so late.

When they returned next morning, they were alarmed to hear that men with axes and saws had been seen heading toward the forest.

The Chipko leaders quickly organized a procession, which marched toward the forest to the beat of drums. When the villagers reached the forest, they found that the lumbermen had run away—but had left behind five felled ash trees.

The villagers were dismayed to see the fallen trees. But they soon resolved that the Simon Company would not remove the trees from the forest. A round-the-clock vigil was set up.

A few days later, Simon Company employees tried once more to remove the trees, but retreated when they came upon the Chipko people. After a week’s vigilance by the villagers, the Simon Company’s permit expired. The company had failed to obtain a single tree.

Though the Chipko workers were elated by this victory, there was a much greater challenge to come. A few months earlier, the Sangh workers had had a fresh reminder of the lessons of the Alakhnanda flood. Disastrous flooding had struck the Mandakini, another major river of the region.

Experts and policymakers in the plains were starting to notice that floods from the Himalayas were becoming steadily worse, and some even saw the connection between human actions and these “natural” disasters. But this awareness failed to reach the people managing the forests. The Forest Department knew only how to allot trees according to principles unchanged for a century—principles that protected the forests from the mountain people, not from the administrators.

The Chipko people knew this, but still they were shocked by what came next. Just months after the Mandakini flood, the Forest Department announced an auction of almost 2,500 trees in the Reni forest—a forest overlooking the Alakhnanda River. The lessons of that river’s previous flood had been completely ignored.

Chandi Prasad quickly set out for the villages in the Reni area.

In one village, a gathering he spoke to faced the mountain where the forest was to be cut, its peak already ravaged by tree-felling and landslides. Chandi Prasad reminded the villagers of the flood of 1970. He asked if there wouldn’t be more landslides and worse floods once the remaining forests on the mountain were cut down. The villagers nodded agreement. But one of them rose and said they themselves had just marked those trees for the Forest Department.

Chandi Prasad was dismayed. “In that case,” he told them, “you might as well have cut the trees yourselves.”

The villagers protested: The government had paid them to do it. How could they refuse?

Chandi Prasad said, “And if the government paid you to cut down the trees, would you do that too?”

There was a silence. Then one of the villagers said, “No, we would not cut down the trees. But how can we stop others?”

To their amazement, Chandi Prasad explained that they could save the forest by hugging the trees. After more talk the villagers agreed. And so did villagers in other places Chandi Prasad visited. After he left the area, two of his colleagues living there continued to spread the message of Chipko.

The auction was scheduled for the beginning of January in Dehra Dun, a city in the plains. Chandi Prasad went to Dehra Dun shortly before the auction. First he contacted Forest Department officials. He told them about the danger of landslides and floods from cutting the forest, and he pleaded with them to cancel the auction. The officials ignored him.

Chandi Prasad next appealed to the contractors’ agents gathering in the city. He warned them that the winning contractor would have to face the resistance of the Chipko Movement. The agents refused to take him seriously. They had heard about Chipko, but it was one thing to protect a few ash trees, and another to save a whole forest!

The only people who gave Chandi Prasad a sympathetic hearing were a group of students, who proposed to disrupt the auction. But Chandi Prasad couldn’t approve such methods. So the students instead printed leaflets and posted them around the auction hall. On the morning of the auction, Chandi Prasad stood at the door of the auction hall and pointed to a posted leaflet as the contractors’ agents entered the hall. But their response was the same as before.

At the end of the auction, Chandi Prasad told an employee of the winning contractor that his company would face the Chipko Movement at Reni. Then he returned to Gopeshwar.

Over the next few months, gatherings and rallies were held throughout the Reni area to prepare the people for what was to come.

In mid-March, the first group of contractors’ laborers arrived in a town close by the Reni forest to wait for a final permit to enter the area. The villagers and Chipko workers waited tensely for the confrontation.

A week later, government officials made a surprise announcement: Compensation for land taken over for military purposes after the China war would be paid out in Chamoli, a town some distance from Reni. The morning after the announcement, the Reni men rushed to Chamoli to collect their money. After all, they had been pressing for payment for fourteen years! Meanwhile, Chandi Prasad—who had not heard about the announcement—was being held up in Gopeshwar by a visit from a high-level Forest Department official, who had developed a sudden interest in the Dasholi Gram Swarajya Sangh.

That morning, the contractors’ men, along with forest officials and a company agent, climbed onto a rented bus and were driven from the town toward Reni forest. Shutters were drawn over the bus windows so no one could see in—though the departure of the village men had left most of the valley deserted. The bus stopped short of the village of Reni, and the men took a roundabout path to avoid the village. But a little girl spotted the men marching toward the forest and ran to tell Gaura Devi, an elderly leader of the village women. Gaura Devi rushed around the village, calling the other women away from their cooking. Within minutes, about 30 women and children were hurrying toward the forest.

They soon caught up with the men, who had made camp and were preparing lunch. The women pleaded with them not to cut down the forest and explained what it would mean to the village if they did. They asked the men to return to the village after finishing their meal and wait to talk to the village men.

Some of the men seemed ready to respond to the women’s pleas; but others had been drinking. The drunk ones tried to take liberties with the women, or cursed at them for trying to interfere with their work. One of the drunks came staggering toward the women with a gun. Gaura Devi stood in front of him, bared her breast, and said, “This forest is like our mother. You will have to shoot me before you can cut it down.”

At this, the sober men decided they had best leave. They started back down the path out of the forest, while the women kept up their appeal to the drunken ones. Meanwhile, the women spotted a new batch of laborers moving up the path with bags of rations. Some of the women ran to meet them and pleaded with them to go back. The laborers agreed to leave the ration bags where they were and to leave the forest once they had finished the meal prepared for them. They were soon on their way back.

Finally, the drunken men began to sober up and realized there were very few of them left in the forest. They too started back, with the women helping to carry their tools, some distance behind. At one spot in the path, there was a concrete slab bridging a gap left by a previous landslide. After passing over the slab, the women used the laborers’ tools to dislodge it and send it crashing down the slope, cutting off access to the forest.

All night the women sat by the severed end of the path, holding vigil over the forest above and the men huddling by their ration bags below.

The next morning the village men and Chipko workers arrived by bus. They had already learned about the government’s deceit and then about the women’s surprise victory. Chandi Prasad assured the frightened company men and forest officials that the villagers meant them no harm but only wanted to protect their forest. The women told the village men their story; but, at this point, they didn’t mention the drunkenness of some of the men, or about the gun. After all, they didn’t want the offenders to lose their jobs.

Over the next month, rallies were held at the site, and a constant watch was kept over the forest. Meanwhile, the mountain women’s story caught the attention of the Indian public and created an outcry for the protection of the Reni forest. The government responded to all this with official protests to the Chipko workers and public denunciations of the movement.

But finally Chandi Prasad was called to the state capital to meet with the chief minister. The chief minister agreed to set up a committee of experts to investigate the situation. When this was announced, the contractor withdrew his men from Reni to wait for the committee’s decision.

The committee took over two years to finish its report—but its findings were even better than the Chipko workers had at first hoped they might be. The committee said that the Reni forest was a “sensitive area,” and that no trees should be cut—not only in the Reni forest but also in a larger section of the Alakhnanda watershed that included Reni. On the basis of the report, the government put a ten-year ban on all tree-felling in an area of over 450 square miles.

The victory at Reni was followed by other successes. In 1977, the Chipko workers learned that forests were being auctioned in an area next to the one protected by the government ban. They asked the Forest Department to send representatives along with Chipko workers to inspect the region. They also warned the department that a Chipko campaign would be launched if the department failed to take account of what it found there.

Following the investigation, another 100 square miles were added to the protected area.

In 1978, Forest Department officials reversed the order of events: They informed Chandi Prasad that they wanted to auction trees in two forests in other parts of the district. They asked him to inspect the forests and tell them if their plans were all right. At the time of my visit in 1974, it looked likely that this would lead to protection for another 40 square miles of forest.

Uttarakhand flooding, 2013; courtesy livemint.com; PTI

Since 1975, the Chipko workers have been not only protecting forest slopes, but restoring bare ones as well. By 1981, over a million trees had been planted through their efforts. Besides the local and immediate benefits, this reforestation has been helping to determine what trees and planting techniques might work best in the region as a whole. The Chipko workers have also tried to develop methods of forest farming, both to conserve the forests and to create employment. In all these efforts, they have paid special attention to involving the mountain villagers themselves in the care of the trees. At the time of my visit, the Chipko Movement had sprouted branches in most of the districts of the Uttarakhand, and it seemed likely to spread to other regions as well. Conditions like those in the Uttarakhand were found throughout the Himalayas, both in India and in neighboring countries.

“We hope that movements like ours will slow the deterioration of the mountains and let people know the need to change cutting policies,” Chandi Prasad told me. But he believed it would take a massive reforestation effort—funded and coordinated by the national government over decades—to save the Indian Himalayas as a home and source of forest resources.

Such an effort was vital not only to the mountain people but also to those in the plains. India had a critical shortage of trees nationwide and relied on the Himalayan forests as a permanent source of wood and wood products. Also, floods in the plains, fed by waters from the Himalayas, were becoming more and more severe. (Shortly before my arrival in India, Bihar and surrounding areas were hit by the worst flood in India’s recorded history—thousands of people killed, a million homes destroyed, and millions of acres of farmland covered with sand. The waters came from the Himalayas.)

These issues were vital—yet, as Chandi Prasad stressed to me, Chipko was more than an ecology movement. “The main goal of our movement,” he said, “is not saving trees, but the judicious use of trees.” In a general sense, the Chipko Movement stood for the basic right of a community to control and benefit from the resources of its own home. Although three decades had passed since India had been a colony, the Uttarakhand was still treated as one.

So the Chipko Movement continued to press for a complete remaking of forest policy. Besides the protection of sensitive mountain slopes, it demanded that the resources of the mountain forests benefit the mountain people, by providing jobs and supplying survival needs. What’s more, it insisted that the mountain people be given an active role in managing their own forests. Not that the movement wanted to reserve all benefits of the forests for the mountain people. “We respect the needs of people in the plains for the products of our forests,” Chandi Prasad said. But the Chipko people believed that even those needs could be better met if those who lived among the forests and cared for them managed the forests. Outside control of the Uttarakhand’s resources had led to their irresponsible use and gradual destruction. In the end, the issues of ecology and community right to resources were closely intertwined.

There was yet one more element to the Chipko Movement that Chandi Prasad wanted to point out: a concern over the basic direction of modern society, over its relentless drive toward progress at any price. “Our movement goes beyond the erosion of the land, to the erosion of human values,” he said. “The center of all this is humankind. If we are not in a good relationship with the environment, the environment will be destroyed, and we will lose our ground. But if you halt the erosion of humankind, humankind will halt the erosion of the soil.”

Further Reading:

KUNWAR, S. S. (ed.) Hugging the Himalayas: The Chipko Experience, Gopeshwar (Uttar Pradesh, India): Dasholi Gram Swarajya Mandal, 1982. A collection of pieces by various writers.

MISHRA, Anupam and Satyendra Tripathi, The Chipko Movement, New Delhi: People’s Action/Gandhi Peace Foundation, 1978.

SHEPARD, Mark, Gandhi Today: A Report on Mahatma Gandhi’s Successors, Arcata, California: Simple Productions, 1987, reprinted, Washington, D.C.: Seven Locks Press, 1987.

WEBER, Thomas, Hugging the Trees: The Story of the Chipko Movement, New Delhi: Viking Penguin, 1988.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mark Shepard describes himself as having been among other things “a journalist specializing in Mahatma Gandhi, the Gandhi movement, nonviolence, peacemaking, simple living, and utopian societies; a musician on flute, drums, and other instruments; and a would-be professional poet”. He is the author of Gandhi Today; Mahatma Gandhi and his Myths, and The Community of the Ark, besides which he is also the author of children’s books. His website can be consulted for excerpts from his books and further biographical information. A shorter version of this article also appeared in Co-evolution Quarterly, Fall 1981.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi