As we prepare for the People’s Climate March on September 21 here in NYC, I am thinking about some of the brave women who have fought valiantly for the Earth, like the heroines of the Chipko (“tree-hugging”) movement in India.
In 1730, Amrita Devi watched men with axes enter her village with an order from the Maharajah — to cut down trees needed to build his new palace.
The trees were the villagers’ source of life, the only green in an otherwise barren landscape. The forest shielded the people from the desert, protected their fragile water supply, provided fodder for the cows and twigs for the fire. What’s more, the trees and animals were sacred and not to be harmed, according to the rules of their Hindu sect.
Amrita Devi tried to reason with the men, but they had their orders. They entered the forest with axes raised. Amrita Devi boldly walked past the bewildered men and stretched her thin arms around a tree saying, “If a tree is saved, even at the cost of one’s head, it is worth it.”
What is the life of a peasant woman to men who are bound to obey the orders of a Maharajah? Amrita Devi was beheaded protecting the trees. When her three daughters stepped up to take her place, they, too, were beheaded. It is said that 363 villagers were killed that day, trying to save the sacred trees that were essential to their lives.
When the Maharajah heard about the massacre, he was appalled at the loss of life. As the story is told, he declared a permanent injunction against felling the trees or killing the wildlife in the area of the massacre and exempted the villages of that region from land taxes. Today, the Bishnoi villages of Jodhpur are a tourist attraction, green and beautiful, filled with animals and birds, in an otherwise desolate region. Amrita Devi is honored as one of the world’s first eco-warriors.
Chipko Movement Reborn in the 1970s
In modern times, developers descended on the forests of the Himalayas seeking short-term profit. Deforestation led to environmental disasters. In monsoon season, landslides and floods devastated the regions where trees once secured the land.
One day in March, 1974, when the men of Reni were away, laborers with axes and guns showed up with government permits to fell the trees. A little girl saw them and raced to get Gaura Devi (photo) who quickly alerted 27 other women. Together, they marched to the forest and confronted the men.
Gaura Devi (1925-1991) was unschooled, but wise. She said, “Brothers, this forest is like our mother. You will have to shoot me before you can cut it down.” The men laughed.
Dodging obscenities and threats, the women stood between the men and the trees until the workers, frustrated and exhausted, backed down. It took months of vigilance and protest, but, using Gandhian nonviolence, the people, with women in the lead, saved their trees.
The rural Chipko movement has been an inspiration to ecology activists around the globe. In 2008, twig sculptures of the tree-hugging women created by Klub Gaja, a Polish environmentalist group, greeted delegates at the entrance to the UN’s climate change conference in Poznan, Poland.
How can I, a woman living in 21st century NYC, understand this story? If I’m thirsty, I turn the tap, and clear, drinkable water comes out. If I want to cook my dinner, I turn another knob and a small, controllable ring of fire appears on my stovetop. I can’t imagine using 85% of my time walking to get water or firewood.
But then, I remember what is happening to the water in Detroit, the rainforest in Brazil, the mountaintops in West Virginia. I’d better understand. See you at the People’s Climate March on the 21st!
To Go Deeper
“The Original Tree Huggers: Let Us Not Forget Their Sacrifice on Earth Day” by Rucha Chitnis, April 22, 2013, from Women’s Earth Alliance (An excellent article, with information from Amrita Devi’s day to current history)
“Lessons from the Mountains” by C.S. Lakshmi in The Hindu, May 21, 2000
Aani and the Tree Huggers by Jeannine Atkins (award-winning children’s book about the 1970s Chipko movement)
The Legend of Gaura Devi: The Eco-Warrior of India by Aditya Pundir, Parth Joshi, and Bhavna Pundir (available only on Kindle)
Anand, Anita. “Saving Trees, Saving Lives: Third World Women and the Issue of Survival” in Reclaim the Earth: Women Speak Out for Life on Earth, Leonie Caldecott and Stephanie Leland, Eds. London: The Women’s Press, 1983
The Original Conservationists: Bishnois of Rajasthan (5:30 mins.)
Chipko Movement (1:30 cartoon for children)
A Day in History, Chipko Movement (of 1974) 2 mins.
The Oldest Tree Huggers (5:47 mins.)
Photo: Student members of the National Green Corps commemorate the Chipko movement on the UN’s International Biological Diversity Day in June, 2012
Illustration of Amrita Devi by Jillian Gilliland.