You would have heard it repeated at village meetings, seen it written on banners, heard it chanted on marches : “Trees mean water, water means bread and bread means life.” This was one of the mantras of the one and two and fifty people who eventually became thousands of defenders, and tenders of the forested watershed of the Ganges (Ganga), and other great rivers of India. Villagers who lived on the hill sides and valleys of India’s Himalaya mountain watershed long sensed that the goodness of spring, creek and river waters. These waters on which they depended were themselves dependent on the well being of the forests. But by the 1950‘s, the life giving waters and forests were much in jeopardy. However, organized opposition to further degradation of these woods and fragile waters were also appearing. “Trees mean water, water means bread and bread means life.”
The important achievements of the emerging Chipko ( Hugging the trees) movement in helping protect the forests of the Himalaya watershed had many dramatic moments. Yet, underlying them were years of undramatic and seemingly insignificant and fruitless work. Like other movements of social and ecological transformation, there was much groundwork done before any visible flowering forth. In this case, followers of Mohatma Gandhi were instrumental. In the 1950s leading up to the galvanization of a Chipko movement was the spread of idealist community workers to numerous mountainside villages, nurturing education and community . There were also the Gandhian ashrams or spiritual retreat and education centres. Common to both initiatives was the respect and encouragement given to all. Not least were the “untouchables”, the poor, under-educated and the more-secure being encouraged to help build vital village democracy and society.
What began locally, became regional and then a national movement, took its first dramatic leap in confrontative opposition to the cutting down of local forests. Forests were being sold by distant government agencies to the benefit of distant economies. Of course public relations spoke of shared national interest. Aside from a few short lived local jobs and benefits, the local communities received little from what they understood to be their ancestral forests. Traditionally, the ancient forests were a key source of food, fodder for livestock, fuel , fertilizer, and fibre for cloth based crafts. The forests were understood to be the base of a modest, but livable forest economy. Over time, it was increasingly realized that true sustainability meant selective harvesting and re-planting with indigenous broad-leafed trees (eg. ash and oak). Replacing indigenous mixed forests with their associated ecology with plantation monocultures of eucalypts or chir-pine were soon recognized to be of little benefit and of large cost to the life bringing environment. Another Chipko mantra, “What do forests bear? Soil, water and pure air.”
After endless appeals to protect forests from mass cutting,the government were beginning to honour the idea, but in practice, continued ignoring it. So local communities began more dramatic actions. In 1977, when another round of government auctioning of tracts of forest were begun, a group of village women broke through security to disrupt the auction. They were arrested, and jailed for fifteen days in Tehri jail.
Months later, contractors came to cut the trees they’d “legally” purchased at auction. The women and other villagers were prepared for the loggers arrival. Many were resolved to put themselves between the axes and saws and the trees. February 1, 1977 was the first mass “tree hugging” action. Whenever loggers approached a tree, a group of villagers were there to hold the large tree in their embrace. Over several days only a few trees were cut. The protesters used no force against either the loggers, nor the police who were soon called in. On the final day, one hundred armed police were ordered in. As the villagers, young and old hugged their trees, the words of Gandhi were shouted back and forth through the forest: “No matter what the attack on us, our hands will not rise in violence” ; and “The policemen are our brothers, our fight is not with them.” The police moved among the trees wrapped and ribboned with humans large and small. Before the police were police, before the loggers were loggers, they were “neighbours” (from far away) given to see what their kindred were peaceably desperate to protect. Seeing, really seeing that, the police left. Soon, they were followed by the loggers. On that day, in that way, the Avani forest was saved. Likewise, several forests were protected until the government itself cancelled the contracts.
The government itself was becoming increasingly conflicted on the matter. In 1977, amid ongoing economic pressure to sell off forests for international dollars, the Indian government added two ecologically important constitutional amendments. Imperatives every constitution would benefit from. These further added to the widening sense that the Chipko movements were being a most “loyal opposition” in the broad interest of the whole nation. Article 48A: The state shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country. Article 51A : It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and to have a compassion for living creatures.
What Chipko activists had repeatedly claimed was increasingly being acknowledged by government to be true. The de-forestation of the Himalayan watersheds underlay the devastating flooding of the great agrarian plains. Floods with their devastation of topsoil, rivers and irrigation could be much diminished by protecting remaining forests. Further, the government must institute massive tree planting of broad leafed trees. Unless broad leafed trees were used, the rich and deep humus necessary for healthy soil creatures would not be nurtured. Then the soil lacked the depth and qualities to sponge up the monsoon rains and slowly release them, fresh and clear into the creeks, rivers and aquifers.Such insights were increasingly integrated into government policies and some practices. And so at last in the late 1970s and 80s, there was a convergence of ecological vision, ecological political activism and a degree of government receptivity in matters of forest protection and thoughtful re-planting. Yet ongoing pressure from businesses and government administrators passing off narrow self-interest as national interest persisted and required ongoing creative encounters.
One of the early actions of one group of village women setting out to stop an army of loggers was to enter the forest ahead of them. Around each living tree, the women tied a silk thread bracelet. When the axman raised his ax, he would see there a recognized declaration of a sister’s love for a brother. Her declared brother was in this case a wondrous life giving tree. The axman was required to decide whether or not he would demean and destroy that declaration. Inseparable from the silk tree bracelets was the vital religious ritual that underlay them. These like the love embrace of trees drew upon the resonant myths, symbols and ritual practices that still fused the unconscious, if not the conscious religious-cultural practices and teachings important to many. These symbolic actions, embodiments of ecological vision and values, pre-supposed the chipko activists able to draw upon “dangerous memories” and a resilient hope for a loving bond threaded throughout all creatures and creation.
For further information:
Talking Water Project|Bob Haverluck (2013)