Why you should care
An attempt to save the trees of Reni, India, inspired an enduring term — and a movement.
A young girl was reportedly the first to see the loggers coming. It was March 26, 1973, and loggers sent by sporting goods manufacturer the Simon Company were heading for Gopeshwar forest near the tiny village of Reni in Uttarakhand, which was then part of Uttar Pradesh. The girl ran to tell Gaura Devi, a village elder, who summoned dozens of other women to do the only thing they could: place their bodies between the trees and the axes. They hugged the 300 ash trees tightly, telling the loggers that in order to get to the trees they’d have to go through human bodies first. The loggers opted to leave instead. But Devi and the other women remained vigilant.
When the lumbermen tried to go to another village to fell trees, the villagers, inspired by what had happened in Reni, did the same: They hugged the trees in a 24-hour vigil designed to keep them safe. This soon became known as the Chipko andolan, or Chipko movement, from the verb meaning “to stick to.” It’s a movement that would rapidly spread to other parts of India and inspire activism beyond the country, while honoring the world’s first-known tree huggers … also from India. In 1730, villagers from the Bishnoi community 480 miles southwest of Reni embraced trees sacred to their faith to save them after the local king ordered they be felled for the construction of a palace. The king’s soldiers beheaded more than 300 protesters, but the villagers refused to give in. Ultimately, the king apologized and withdrew his decree.
But while the term “tree huggers” has become derogatory slang for those who care more about the environment than practical concerns, the villagers of Reni hugged the trees to preserve their economy.
“More than for the environment, which is what this might look like, the women in Reni fought for their own rights,” says Gajendra Rautela, the executive secretary of Climate Himalaya, an Uttarakhand-based climate change and sustainable mountain development nonprofit. “When the government hired this company to fell trees, the villagers suddenly felt that they were taking away their main resource. This was a fight to not let the government take away their rights.”
In his book Gandhi Today: A Report on Mahatma Gandhi’s Successors, author Mark Shepard explains that those trees provided the villages with firewood, construction materials and even cattle feed. “But the government restricted huge areas of forest from their use,” he writes, “and then auctioned off the trees to lumber companies and industries from the plains — a practice inherited with little change from the British colonialists.”
That day in 1973, the government had tried to fool the villagers by asking them to gather at another village, Chamoli, to receive compensation for previously cut trees. That meant the village was deserted of its men. When the lumbermen arrived, “it was women who had to do something then,” Rautela says. “And they did.”
The movement came into its own with the 1964 formation of the Dasholi Society for Village Self-Rule (DGSS), which later helped to mobilize and expand the Chipko movement and advocate for the rights of villages to use forest resources. DGSS co-founder Chandi Prasad Bhatt, raised in a small village near Reni and deeply inspired by the Gandhian philosophy of self-sufficiency and self-sustenance, famously said: “Let them know we will not allow the felling of a single tree. When their men raise their axes, we will embrace the trees to protect them.”
“The movement became a precursor for so many movements around the world,” explains Sumaira Abdulali, an environmentalist and founder of Awaaz Foundation, a nonprofit that works against sand mining and noise pollution. Members of her group have buried themselves in sand, directly inspired by the Chipko movement. People in Japan in 2009 adopted a Chipko method for protesting the building of a tunnel near Mount Takao, hugging trees that would have been displaced by the 40-foot-wide hole. In 2017, in West Bengal in India, students protested the logging of about 4,000 trees by forming a human chain around them. And in the late 1990s, environmental activist Julia “Butterfly” Hill made headlines by sitting in an old-growth redwood tree for more than two years to prevent it being cut down. But that first protest action in Reni, says Abdulali, was special in part because it was led by women. “Both entities — women and environment — were ignored,” she says. “And hugging is an intimate act. Women took the reins in their hands.”
In 1980, the Chipko movement’s influence saw then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi enact a bill that banned the cutting of trees in the Himalayan areas for 15 years. But that wasn’t exactly what the villagers had been fighting for. While local, democratically elected governments had allocated the forests previously, says Rautela, the government’s announcement meant that forests were taken away from village communities to become federal property. “For four or five hundred years, forests belonged to the local villagers, and they took care of them,” she says. “Now those were taken away from them.”