The Chipko Movement: A Nonviolent Philosophy of Harmonious Existence

by Chandi Prasad Bhatt

Editor’s Preface: This previously unpublished paper, from the War Resisters’ International archive, was presented at the Nonviolence and Social Empowerment conference held in Orissa, India, February 2001. Further biographical information, acknowledgments, and archival reference can be found at the end. See also Mark Shepard’s article about Bhatt and Chipko, posted here at this link. JG

Photograph of Bhatt courtesy

Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of self-governance (swaraj) aimed to create an egalitarian society. To achieve it, a committed group of people established Dasholi Gram Swarajya Mandal (Society for Village Self-Rule; DGSM) at Gopeshwar, northern India, in 1964. Since the objective was to develop a self sustaining nonviolent society, training was offered in village industries, agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry, harvesting forest produce, utilizing mineral resources, employment in various construction activities, educating and awakening people for forest protection, husbanding of natural resources, etc. Gradually, DGSM become a symbol of village self-reliance. However, everything changed in 1970 when a massive flood hit the Alaknanda river basin, devastating the normal life and destroying the property. The flood was unprecedented in the history of the region, and was described by the government as a natural calamity. But the relief workers of DGSM refused to accept this, as they had witnessed the destruction of the forests between 1950-1970 in the watersheds from where the flood originated. While undertaking the relief operation in the flood-affected watersheds, DGSM volunteers concluded that the flood was more man-made than claimed.

Despite the floods of 1970 due to the despoliation of the forests, in 1973 Simon Company, a sporting goods manufacturer in Allahabad, was given the rights to fell ash trees (used for cricket bats and such) from the Mandal forest near Gopeshwar. The local people in the region were using ash for making horse yoke harnesses, a traditional agricultural implement. Giving away the rights to the ash struck at the very core of their living. Claiming these trees as their birthright, they decided to protect them from commercial exploitation and asserted the need to respect the traditional right of forests to protection.

This all happened during a time when the memory of 1970′s flood was fresh in all our minds. A question we were asking was whether we could allow the 1970 flood to recur or whether we could take steps to prevent a future tragedy. If we wanted to save the people and the terrain, we had to prevent any further ecocide of our forest. The allotment of the ash to Simon Company triggered our response and set the ball rolling. A meeting was called by the DGSM, which members of different political parties attended. Suggestions were put forth, and finally, DGSM’s nonviolent proposal was adopted, that people would hug the trees (chipko) earmarked for felling and ask the lumbermen to ax us first before axing the trees. With this philosophy of nonviolent direct resistance, the very first direct action was launched in Mandal forest near Gopeshwar in 1973.


Mandal forest was the starting point of our nonviolent resistance towards commercial exploitation of the forests in the entire Himalayan region. Local people armed only with traditional musical instruments marched to the felling sites demanding protection of the trees. This was unprecedented in the history of the region, and caught the Simon Company’s contractor by surprise. Seeing the massive turnout, the contractor was forced to retreat, only to try to win the contract for felling ash in an adjacent forest region of Mandakini Valley. Once again they were confronted with a nonviolent people’s protest. DGSM volunteers now expanded their activities to any and all potential lumbering sites in order to educate and warn the people about the possible threat, educating them through the example of Mandal Chipko.

The turning point was in 1974, when tree rights in the nearby Reni forest were auctioned off. Chipko workers, local peoples and students got involved in the movement. They were demonstrating against the arrival of lumbermen in the sensitive Rishi water reserve near Reni village. This protest finally resulted in a victory. The men of the area were absent that day as they had gone to Chamoli to collect the money owed to them as compensation for their land. Even the Chipko representatives were not there as they had also been called to Gopeshwar for consultation with the forest department. Only the women remained in the village, 27 frail bodies against a lot of professional lumberjacks. Not caring for the odds against them, they rushed to the felling site and clung to the marked trees while angry lumbermen threatened them with glistening axes. They remained the whole day in the forest, against all odds.

Next day, their number increased as the men and women of about one dozen area villages reached the site to join them. The agitation continued nonviolently for a month while messages and news was spread by the beating of drums and the singing of Chipko songs. This was a decisive blow to the contractors, who were slow in realizing that they were not going to be able to cut down the trees because women otherwise confined to household work had organized. This was solely because it was the women of the region who were the worst hit by the steady decline of the forests. It had added to their misery by making it more difficult to collect fuel and fodder for their domestic needs. The Chipko vigil continued until finally in 1977 the Reni Chipko committee (appointed by the Uttar Pradesh state government in May 1974) recommended a total ban on logging in the area.

Chipko was also to spread into Bhyundar valley (the lower part of the celebrated Valley of Flowers). Despite heavy snowfall, the local women saved the trees. In 1980, another village called Dungri-Pantuli in the Chamoli district joined the Chipko movement. The government, with the cooperation of the village men, was planning to fell trees in the vicinity of the village to make orchard nurseries. This would have deprived the women of available fuel and animal fodder, and motivated the women to stand up against their men-folk and disobey the government order. They put up a brave and determined resistance, demanding to know why the government officials had not consulted them about the lumbering. It was, after all, their responsibility to fetch the fuel and fodder from the forests. Hence any decision pertaining to the forests should have the consent of the women. Enlisting the hill women in the struggle was a major victory for the Chipko movement.


The movement’s strategy and tactics evolved through consultation and dialogue with people hailing from various walks of life and political backgrounds. There were divergent views about how to prevent deforestation, from obstructing trucks heading towards the forest, to cutting down trees that the protesters marked in advance and that could be felled as part of good husbandry.

Most importantly, the DGSM ideology that we would not opt for any means with any component of violence was adopted. And an idea was put forward, in which it was suggested that we would hug the trees and ask the lumbermen to cut us first. This appeared quixotic, and at that time many people looked on it as a kind of passive resistance, which might not work at all. However, those who were not very sure about nonviolent protest could not anticipate the traditional mindset of the hill people. Basically, the hill people are a peace-loving community, with strong determination forged by their daily struggle for survival in a rugged terrain.

During the course of the movement, government officials were kept at bay. However, as the movement gained momentum, it gained sympathy from various people both from the region and outside. Institutes such as the Gandhi Peace Foundation supported us, and the wire service coverage meant that we gained attention nationally and internationally. The reports in various newspapers and magazines created enormous support for the movement and buoyed the morale of the activists. The reporting was mainly focused on the demands of the Chipko movement, its approach and the role of the local people.


Chipko was basically an informal conglomeration of local people and DGSM volunteers. The idea was to create local leadership so that it could be self-sustaining. Nevertheless, DGSM, which was spreading the movement, was present at all the scenes of action, but it was always kept in mind that local leadership should take the front seat. Especially after 1974, there was also overwhelming participation by women. Since it was an entirely new activity for them, DGSM remained present wherever possible during direct actions, to make sure that every opportunity was given to the women to express their potential and exert their leadership. Chipko did not have any official funding from any source. DGSM had some funds from its Khadi and Village Industry Commission (KVIC), used mostly for travel expenses. The local people supported everything else. Hence it did not require any significant, outside financial support.

Ends and Outcomes

To summarize then: our goal was to prevent commercial exploitation of the region’s forests, and safeguard the traditional rights to the forests in the lower Himalayan river basin. DGSM had realized after the 1970′s Alaknanda flood that in order to protect the terrain and people from future calamities, it was important to preserve the forests as green defense zones. Since DGSM was clear that the task was monumental and a small organization like DGSM could not do it alone, it was essential that the local people, and especially the women, namely those worse affected should be made partners in any nonviolent action undertaken. This was achieved through regular meetings, discussions, and demonstrations and the objectives were largely achieved.  The government of Uttar Pradesh put a complete ban on commercial forest felling. Although this definitely gave us a sense of accomplishment, it was partial because the Himalayas continue to need vigilance. The terrain has been mercilessly denuded for at least the last century. The wounds are severe. And so, the movement decided that the popular awakening should be pooled towards rejuvenating denuded Himalayan slopes.

For over 30 years we have been conducting eco-development and environmental conservation camps in the Upper Alaknanda basin. This is the second phase of the Chipko movement from protection to conservation and rejuvenation of the degraded forest cover. This was a difficult task. In the beginning, it looked quixotic to talk about re-greening barren lands. The initial phase encountered much inertia. But the patience and persistence of DGSM volunteers, originally trained by our Chipko movement, paid off. Villages were selected on the basis of the perceived threat caused by depleted forest resources. Gradually the eco-development camps became the platforms from which to develop a closer rapport, exchange views and ideas and evolve strategies for redressing various developmental issues.

Today these camps have become the symbol of holistic development. In many watersheds the denuded forest cover has been reclaimed; production has risen and lost prosperity is gradually being restored. Indeed, due to their success, the number of eco-development camps has increased and spread over many parts of the region. There has been an overwhelming participation by the local people, and especially by women. However, we also feel that the task of organizing is an endless task considering the terrain dynamics and mounting population pressure. DGSM is currently pooling its energy and resources to keep a close watch on the forests of the region.


The Chipko movement, which began with the saving of the forest from commercial exploitation, became a symbol of the fight against social injustice, improper developmental planning, and flawed environmental policies. Rural hill people who were mere spectators of the government policies have become a voice to reckon with. They now question developmental planning, if it is found not to be in tune with the environmental conditions of the terrain. In every village there is now a village organization formed by youth and women. These organizations have realized their collective potential in shaping the destiny of their villages.

Currently, there are innumerable village women organizations (Mahila Mangal Dais or MMD). These women’s collectives are an outcome of the Chipko movement, which encouraged and trained them to realize their hidden strengths and immense potential. If we were to view the current demographic profile of the hills, we would see that the majority of men are away in the mega-cities supporting the family back in the hills. It is therefore, pertinent that the major responsibility of running the village household lies with the women. Since they had to suffer the forest ecocide in the past, they realized the significance of the Chipko movement spearheaded by DGSM, but DGSM also realized that the large, available and directly affected population of women was a force to be reckoned with. The activities of DGSM could motivate the women to address and redress the natural resource and village rejuvenation program.

DGSM believed in making a people’s program where initiators and implementers are the rural people, especially women of the region. In the process, DGSM and other agencies act as support organizations. Women of the region have now been empowered so much so that in many villages they are managing the village and Panchayat forests, including taking part in various village developmental programs. After 30 years of hard work the results are there for all to see, such as an increase in fodder and fuel yield, saving time for other household work. They now keep high milk yield cows, which not only supply nutrition but also bring in hard cash. The camps also helped in evolving interactive developmental issues such as schools, roads, and basic healthcare.

Nevertheless, in every Gandhian constructive program there are always difficulties especially from vested interest groups within the village and outside. Hurdles are best tackled, however difficult, by open debate of the merits of each new program. For instance, when decisions are to be made about a direct action, DGSM consults the people involved and solicits their consent. Chipko’s informal structure makes a collective approach easier. There are no hierarchies.

Chipko Movement Demands and Achievements

The Chipko movement has seven main demands, many of them successfully achieved, which are:

  • A detailed geological, ecological and botanical survey of the hills should be carried out before there is any heavy construction or implementation of any government scheme.
  • All deforestation in the sensitive watersheds must be banned and there should be large-scale reforestation.
  • The trees must not be used for building purposes unless it is ascertained that this does not affect the eco-system adversely. In such areas, the forest conservation system ought to aim at protecting the forests and the water resources, as well as contribute to balancing climatic conditions.
  • The contract system should be immediately stopped and rural organizations and labor co-operatives should be established to replace them. The local hill people must be actively involved and consulted in any work related to the forests. Such organization and individuals should be provided with relevant training and guidelines.
  • The daily needs of the regional forest dwellers should be evaluated and they should accordingly be given reasonable rights over the forest resources. Forests must be surveyed properly in order to know their exact condition as well as to evaluate the rights of the natives.
  • A local work force should be employed in local industrial ventures based on the regional forest resources. Assistance might be provided to enable the local work force to obtain sufficient raw materials, financial backing, and technical knowledge.
  • The denuded hills must be aggressively reforested. Local labor must be involved and encouraged to take up agro-forestry. Efforts should be made to foster love and affection among the local people towards the trees and plants.

These demands are not hollow; they have achieved results such as the following:

(a) Commercial deforestation is completely banned not only in the Alaknanda basin from where the Chipko movement was started, but also in the central Himalayas. This ban continues till today (2001).
(b) A recent satellite remote sensing study conducted by the Space Applications Center in Ahmedabad shows that the forest cover lost to commercial felling between 1959-1969 has nearly all been restored in the sensitive reservoir region of the Upper Alaknanda river. This could only have been achieved due to the dedication and participation of the local people.
(c) In February 1980, the Uttar Pradesh forest department sent directives to revise its working plans with a view to harmonize them with the notion of the “sensitivity” of these areas. Though their definition of sensitivity is at variance with ours, it at least showed a realization of the ecology of the Himalaya region.
(d) In 1975, the Alaknanda Soil Conservation Division of the Uttar Pradesh forest department was established and charged with the task of rejuvenating barren Himalayan slopes. The Civil Soyam Forest Division was also formed for the entire Central Himalaya, and an upper Ganges river project was also established with the objective of protecting the main river body and the smaller tributaries against soil erosion and landslides.

If the Chipko movement began because of the need for survival of indigenous village people, it quickly became the voice of these same people who were now planning and executing the very programs that would address their needs. By pooling their collective energy they have helped to protect the land from further calamity.

Reference: IISG/WRI Archive Box 928: Folder 4. We are grateful to WRI/London and their director Christine Schweitzer for their cooperation in our WRI project.

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: The manuscript from which this transcript was taken states that it is “translated from the Hindi” but does not specify the translator. We have also edited it for grammar, punctuation, etc.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Chandi Prasad Bhatt (b.1934) is an Indian environmentalist and social activist, who founded Dasholi Gram Swarajya Sangh (Society for Village Self-Rule/DGSS), which later became the mother organization of the Chipko Movement. For his pioneering, nonviolence work he has been given the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 1982, and the Padma Bhushan prize in 2005. Along with Vandana Shiva, Bhaat is considered one of India’s foremost environmentalists, and was the recipient of the Gandhi Peace Prize in 2013.

“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