The Chipko movement, primarily a forest conservation movement, went on to become a rallying point for many future, environmental protests and movements all over the world and created a precedent for non-violent protest. It occurred at a time when there was hardly any environmental movement in the developing world, and its success meant that the world immediately took notice of this non-violent movement, which was to inspire in time many such eco-groups by helping to slow down the rapid deforestation, expose vested interests, increase ecological awareness, and demonstrate the viability of people power. Above all, it stirred up the existing civil society in India, which began to address the issues of tribal and marginalized people. Today, beyond the eco-socialism hue, it is being seen increasingly as an ecofeminism movement. Although many of its leaders were men, women were not only its backbone, but also its mainstay, because they were the ones most affected by the rampant deforestation, which led to a lack of firewood and fodder as well as water for drinking and irrigation. Over the years they also became primary stakeholders in a majority of the afforestation work that happened under the Chipko movement.
The chipko movement started almost 260 years ago in the early 18th century in Rajasthan. Amrita Devi with 84 Bishois villagers risked their lives to protect the forest trees from being felled on the order of the maharaja (king). The Chipko andolan is a movement that practisced the Gandhian methods of Satyagraha by both female and male activists who played pivotal roles including Gauri Devi Sudesha Devi Bachni Devi Chandiu Prasad Bhatt where some among the others. In India the forest cover started deteriorating at an alarming rate, resulting in hardships for those involved in labour-intensive fodder and firewood collection. This also led to a deterioration in the soil conditions, and erosion in the area. As water sources dried up in the hills, water shortages became widespread. Subsequently, communities gave up raising livestock, which added to the problems of malnutrition in the region. This crisis was heightened by the fact that forest conservation policies, like the Indian Forest Act, 1927, traditionally restricted the access of local communities to the forests, resulting in scarce farmlands in an over- populated and extremely poor area, despite all of its natural wealth.
Women’s participation in the movement can be traced to a remote hill town where a contractor in 1973 had been given the right by the state to fell 3000 of trees for a sporting goods store. The area already was dangerously denuded. When the woodcutters were scheduled to appear, the men were enticed away from the village leaving the women at home busy with household chores. As soon as the woodcutters appeared, the alarm was sounded and the village’s female leader, a widow in her 50s, collected twenty-seven women and rushed into the forest. The women pleaded with the woodcutter calling the forest their “maternal home,” and explaining the consequences of felling the trees. The woodcutters, shouting and abusing the women, threatened them with guns. The women in turn threatened to hug the earmarked trees and die with them And it worked! The unnerved laborers left, the contractor backed off. In 1974, women in a nearby area used the same tree hugging technique in order to protest the clearing of their forest lands. And in 1977, in another area, women tied a sacred threads around trees fated for death.....a symbolic gesture in Hindu custom confirming the bond of brother-sister relationships. They declared that their trees would be saved even if it cost them their lives.
As an organized effort, the Chipko movement has had some success. Sometimes it won moratoriums through government bans or court battles; sometimes it managed to replant trees in areas close to village homes. In 1987 Chipko was chosen for a “Right to Livelihood Award,” known as the “alternate Nobel” prize honour. The honour was rightly deserved for this small movement dominated by women which had became a national call to save forests.