Chipko's triumphs extend beyond the forest

A look at the achievements and failures of a movement that began spontaneously in the Garhwal region two decades ago to protect trees from human rapacity.

By Jayanta Bandyopadhyay
Published: Friday 30 April 1993

Woman power: Community solidar TWENTY years ago, the people of the remote Garhwal village of Mandal decided to resist commercial felling of the trees on which they depended for their basic needs. Their resistance soon spread to other parts of Garhwal and Kumaon, where local pressures on the area's limited grazing resources had reduced them to near unsustainability. The resistance, later dubbed Chipko, is an excellent example of a local survival economy seeking to protect itself against the increasing biomass demands of a non-local market economy.

Chipko and those associated with it have influenced environmental activism both domestically and abroad. What began as a spontaneous reaction of a rural community has provided a model for other forest-based environmental movements and inspired the global movement for alternative lifestyles.

Despite being known the world over as an environmentalist movement, Chipko's most important contribution is in the area of social and development activism. After the nation became disenchanted with people-based politics and Mahatma Gandhi was reduced to photographs on the wall, Chipko gave Gandhian social action a new image. In the 1960s, Chipko integrated the anti-liquor movement; in the '70s, it started the forest-protection movement, and in the '80s, it spearheaded the movement against big dams. In these ways, Chipko brought to the fore basic questions concerning the dependency of the hill areas on accepted growth-based development models. In the '90s, Chipko's concentration shifted to the debate on sustainable development.

The most talked about influence of Chipko is its approach to forests and forest policies. By highlighting the threats to the sustainability of the Himalayan forests, Chipko encouraged and strengthened local institutions to undertake forest protection and utilisation. Appiko Chaluralli was set up in the Western Ghats in Karnataka and even in remote communities in Nepal and Bhutan, local initiatives have begun in forest management.

If the Himalayan forests survive by the turn of the century, much of the credit should go to Chipko. In an era when the media has become the message, Chipko's image has often been artificially dramatised, even at international gatherings.

Ironically enough, Chipko's lasting impact is not noise at international meetings, but in the enhancement of the strength of the thousands of people of Garhwal, and especially the women, strong, invisible, marginalised, overworked and unpaid. After two decades, they are the real, living impact of Chipko.

---Jayanto Bandopadhaya is with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Kathmandu.

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