• The Gender Security Project

The Chipko Movement: Women at the Helm of Environmental Peacebuilding

By Kirthi Jayakumar

There is no single “right” way of managing natural resources. Traditions, customs, laws, and policies manage and regulate natural resources (Castro and Nielsen 2003). Among various agents engaged in natural resource management, indigenous people contribute significantly (Chunhabunyatip et al. 2018). Indigenous resource management involves “different ways of conceiving of resources and differing interests in the kinds of rules they are interested in creating with respect to utilizing and managing these resources” (Bergstrøm 2005: 302). However, indigenous efforts toward environmental peacebuilding have seldom been given their due.

A powerful indigenous-women-led environmental peacebuilding initiative was the Chipko Movement in India in the 1970s.

Image Source: By NA, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92028860

The Chipko Movement

Conflicts over forest resources are “a product of the opposing demands on these resources” (Shiva and Bandhopadhyay 1986: 133). The run up to the Chipko movement of the 1970s saw aggressive policies that enabled access to forest areas for particular groups at the cost of the environment and the right to access of indigenous populations that depended on the forests they inhabited for their livelihood. Indigenous mechanisms managed forests as common resources, using strict but informal approaches to control exploitation while guaranteeing sustainability (Shiva and Bandhopadhyay 1986; Moench and Bandopadhyay 1985). Colonization impinged on these systems, affecting indigenous forest management by making changes in land tenure through the introduction of a landlord-tenant system while simultaneously engaging in the large-scale felling of natural forests to aid in the construction of the railways and in shipbuilding for the British Royal Navy (Shiva and Bandhopadhyay 1986). The exercise of traditional rights was originally deprived, only to be reintroduced as “concessions and privileges” after several years of struggle (Bandopadhyay 1984).

The forest policies crafted under colonial rule continued to operate after India attained independence (Ives and Pitt 1986). They were pursued “with even greater ruthlessness…in the name of national interest and economic growth” (Shiva and Bandhopadhyay 1986: 136). A “contractor system” was followed, where large stretches of forest land were commodified and auctioned to contractors from urban India (Haigh 1988). They cleared out large swathes of forests. This led to the loss of livelihood of tribal communities and they began to be employed in menial tasks such as hauling rocks and clearing roadways, earning poor salaries.

Repetitive deforestation resulted in a devastating landslide and flood of the Alaknanda River, a key waterbody in the region, in 1970. This was only the beginning of several landslides and floods (Haigh 1988).

The tribal communities in the region began to organize in protest the structural violence that manifested in the government’s forest policies. In 1972, the Forest Department turned down their request for ten trees for their farm tools but granted permission for 300 trees to a sports-goods company. The citizens found that they had no find support from the administrative authorities and took to driving the labourers out of the way with song, dance, and protest. The contract was cancelled, and the tribal people regained rights over their trees (Ives and Pitt 1986). This happened a second time, when the tribal community resorted to creating a vigil group to watch over the trees (Shiva and Bandhopadhyay 1986). The lumbermen retreated after felling five trees. The focus had changed: it was no longer about tree-logging for commercial purposes, but about governmental policy that operated as structural violence against the environment (Haigh 1988).

The third time was a flashpoint. The government had announced an auction of the trees to divert the tribal community to a fictional compensation payment site. When the men left the village to collect the compensation, lumbermen began moving into the forest to cut down trees. Men were lured away so that the fighting population was drawn out of the village (Shiva and Bandhopadhyay 1986). However, rounding up several women from the village, the head of the women’s association in the village marched up to the trees and hugged them, refusing to let go. The women were verbally abused, threatened with guns, and harassed, but they did not budge and kept vigil through the night. News reached the Chief Minister of the State, who set up a committee to investigate the matter (Haigh 1988). Eventually, they ruled in favour of the tribal community (Pitt 1988). The movement was known as “Chipko,” a Hindi word that means “to stick.”

Lessons in Indigenous Resource Management and Peacebuilding

Chunhabunyatip et al. (2018) found that granting indigenous people property rights can contribute to the conservation of natural resources. They noted that indigenous approaches to natural resource management can offer insights for the formulation natural resources management policies in such a way that they benefit natural resources and the communities relying on them. Attesting to this finding, Appiah-Opoku (1999) and Atkinson and Bourrat (2011) affirmed that several similar methods have been effective and successful in natural resource management. The Chipko Movement was not only successful as a form of natural resource management but also as a means of peacebuilding in the following ways.

Emphasis on peaceful means: The basis of the Chipko Movement lies in the principle of satyagraha (Shiva and Bandhopadhyay 1986), or non-violent resistance. Forest satyagrahas have existed in India since the 1930s, protesting colonial appropriation of forest resources and were suppressed by the British with gunfire and violence (Shiva and Bandhopadhyay 1986). The Chipko Movement succeeded by responding to structural and direct violence through non-violence, proving to make a case for the effectiveness of using peaceful means.

Addressing the Root-Cause: A peacebuilding initiative must identify the root causes of conflict and to address them (Lambourne 2000). The Chipko movement was not the product of “resentment against the further encroachment on the people’s access to forest resources” (Shiva 1986: 140) but was rather a response to the alarming rate at which the environment was being destroyed. Indigenous claims to land and natural resources rest on their “historical claim to places and the resources” attached to them (Bergstrøm 2005: 302). As a result, thousands of years of indigenous natural resource management came to be mined to augment the coffers of the government.

Once self-sufficient, the community had to source food from beyond their villages. The denudation of the soil resulted in the loss of fertility, and natural disasters began to occur frequently. The government prioritized the economic value of the forest by viewing it as a mere source of timber, considering the destruction of non-commercial forms of biomass as mere collateral damage (Shiva and Bandhopadhyay 1986). In response, the Chipko movement did not ask for rights to forestland or for a share of the profits that emerged from its exploitation but sought to “expose the social and ecological costs of growth-oriented forest management” (Shiva and Bandhopadhyay 1986: 140).

Conflict Transformation: The Chipko Movement also served the dual purpose of conflict transformation, given the peaceful nature of the movement and its successful subversion of an oppressive structure (Agarwal 1984). By standing up to oppressive structures, the success of the Chipko movement manifested in changing the very structure that oppressed the environment. A fifteen-year ban was imposed on all forms of commercial exploitation of forests along the mountainous regions of the nation paving the way for the dedicated preservation of natural resources.

A cautionary note

On the face of it, the Chipko Movement had all the trappings of an ideal approach: mass support, community-driven, grassroots based, and engaging with direct and structural violence for change. However, it is important to acknowledge that it received tremendous coverage and attention and most discourses speaking of its success tend to be linked to its popularity than its actual achievements (Reddy and Ratna 1997), which effectively wound up excluding indigenous rights.

It has been argued that more than an approach to natural resource management for conservation, the Chipko movement initially was a movement for the survival of the local poor (Rao 1994), and it was only around the 1970s that it began to include an agenda around conservation. The “private face” of the Chipko movement was a peasant movement, while its “public profile” was that of an environmental movement (Guha 1989: 178). With time, the former was prioritized over the latter culminating in the complete exclusion of the private face, thus ignoring its very purpose. The “local people’s “true” desire to develop the local economy by using the forest’s resources was denied by the movement’s achievement of a total ban on commercial logging” (Ishizaka 2013). This is a significant lesson. Peacebuilding should strive to be inclusive of all interests without defeating those of some.


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