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June/July 2004
Got Trees? The Original Tree-huggers
By Amy Laughlin

“What do the forests bear? Soil, water, and pure air.” While this may seem like an appropriate bumper sticker slogan, this phrase is the motto for the Chipko movement, an assembly of indigenous peoples in India fighting for their forests. By embracing the Gandhian method of satyagraha nonviolent resistance, the movement has prevented the destruction of thousands of trees since April 1973.

The word “Chipko” appropriately translates to “embrace” or “hug,” as the Chipko’s main nonviolent action is to cling to trees in an attempt to ward off tree-cutters. For them, tree hugging is serious business and a way to ensure their very survival.

The Chipko movement originated in the Uttarakhand region in northern India in the early ‘70s when the government began restricting areas of forest and auctioning them off to lumber companies. Natives who lived in the mountainous and hilly regions of Uttar Pradesh were losing the trees which provided them with food, fuel, fodder for cattle, and stabilized their soil and water sources. In an effort to protect their natural resources, the peoples of Uttar Pradesh split into many small, decentralized groups and followed axe men and tree-cutters to their prospective sites, demonstrated against the removal of the trees, and finished by hugging the trees. Their peaceful demonstrating reached its zenith in 1980, when India’s then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, implemented a 15-year ban on tree felling in India.

The movement has since spread to nearly all mountainous regions of India and can almost be considered the “sibling” of another, older environmental movement: the Bishnois. This western India-based religion is a sect of environmentally-aware followers who preserve plants, trees, and protect wildlife in an effort to uphold their sacred traditions.

The Bishnois originated in the 15th century in a village near Jodhpur. A local man, Jambhoji, adopted a philosophy that states “nothing—human or not—deserves to be killed.” Thus, he and his followers embarked on a new lifestyle that included a ban on killing animals and the felling of trees.

The story of Amriti Devi perfectly symbolizes all that the Bishnois look to achieve. She and 362 other Bishnois were sawed to death when they hugged trees in an effort to stop loggers from leveling a forest in 1730. This act of sacrificing oneself is not uncommon in the Bishnois way of life. They fiercely protect their environment by any means, whether it is by not hunting, waiting to use trees until they are dead or have fallen down, or by sharing their crops with hungry animals.

Before offering loggers her head, Amriti Devi is said to have uttered: “Sar Santey Rookh Rahe To Bhi Sasto Jaan,” which roughly translates to “If a tree is saved from felling even at the cost of one’s head, it’s worth it.” This credo is a reflection of the commitment and environmental awareness practiced by the Bishnois.

Both the Chipko and Bishnois movements are still in existence. Jodhpur is still the central area for many practicing Bishnois and a thriving community of very happy animals. The Chipko movement has grown to include concerned students and youth in the areas surrounding the original region of Uttar Pradesh (now Uttaranchal) and is still the original group of “tree huggers.”

Amy Laughlin is a journalism student and former
Satya intern.


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