In the late 1960s, the 70s and the 80s, photographs of tribal and forest-dwelling women of the Garhwal Himalayas, encircling and hugging trees to prevent their planned felling, went around the world, influencing conservation movements everywhere.
Sudesha Devi was among the leaders of this movement. A young woman, married and with children, she stepped beyond her daily routine of hard physical labour and broke stifling social conventions to become a leader. In Uttarakhand's agrarian economy, women were the most directly affected by environmental degradation and deforestation. The Chipko movement was propelled forward by ordinary women like Sudesha. As her story tells us, womens collectives that mobilised at very local levels around issues such as domestic violence and alcoholism, formed the backbone of the mobilisation around ecological issues.
In this episode of the podcast, we learn about Sudesha's life from Sunandita Mehrotra. In 2013, as a young researcher in the Garhwal Himalayas, she spent several days walking with the now seventy-year-old Sudesha Devi as she tended to her cattle and the farm. Today, Sunandita runs Artreach India to transform the lives of children, young people and women from marginalised communities across India, through art and creative education.
Often romanticised as a movement for the conservation of forests, the truth about Chipko's origins and intentions is somewhat more complex. For many in the movement, conserving forests and protecting trees was only important if it could also support local livelihoods.
Sunderlal Bahuguna is the environmentalist and Gandhian who for many from the mainstream of Indian politics, represented the leadership of the Chipko movement. In 2013, Profressor George James of the University of North Texas published Ecology is Permanent Economy: the Activism and Environmental Philosophy of Sunderlal Bahuguna. On this episode, you can also listen to excerpts from interviews where Bahuguna explains to Professor James, the movement's intertwining threads of local economics and ecological conservation.
Professor Haripriya Rangan of the University of Melbourne's Australia India Institute has studied how the people of the Garhwal region of the Indian Himalayas perceived forests and their own forest-dependant livelihoods. What she found and wrote about in Of Myths and Movements: Rewriting Chipko into Indian History, was a region that people were leaving in search of a livelihood. Dr. Sharachchandra Lele, a Distinguished Fellow in Environmental Policy & Governance at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, helped me understand the Chipko movement as part of the tapestry of social movements that opposed the state takeover of forests and continued to resist the state's control over them.
Jungli Beej, the blog the Sunandita maintained during her period of research in Uttarakhand
A clip from Sudesha, a 1983 documentary film by Deepa Dhanraj for Faust Films
Prof. Haripriya Rangan's work on forests and regional change
Haripriya Rangan, Of Myths and Movements: Rewriting Chipko into Indian History
Dr. Sharachchandra Lele, "Understanding Current Forest Policy Debates through Multiple Lenses: The Case of India", Ecology, Economy and Society
Sunderlal Bahuguna in conversation with Dr. George A. James