The modern Chipko Movement of hugging trees to stop them being felled began on 26 March 1974 in the Garhwal Himalayas of India. Chipko (meaning “to cling”) was a movement sparked by Gaura Devi—a middle-aged local widow and single mother, who was born into a traditional tribal family in Laata village. Hearing of the Indian government’s authorisation to level the area’s forests, she sprang into action.
The region in which Gaura Devi lived was poor, and the nearby valley’s community forests were of great significance to the local people, and were often referred to as gods. Upon hearing of the government’s plans, the villagers initially staged protests, but found themselves ignored. Then on 26 March a young tribal girl spotted some forest officials and labourers moving into the forests. She ran back to the village, which was empty of men that day as they were all in nearby Chamoli. Heroically, without worry or fear, Gaura Devi led 27 of her fellow female villagers on a march into the woods, where they confronted the group of men.
At first the women were verbally abused, and even threatened with a gun, but they stood their ground. They formed circles around the trees to stop them being felled, and eventually the forest officials and the labourers abandoned their plans and left them alone.
There are many precursors to Gaura Devi’s actions. There was a bloody incident in the Indian village of Khejarli in 1731, when 363 Bishnois—led by one Amrita Devi—lost their lives trying to protect the community’s sacred green Khejri trees. They kept hugging them, even as they were attacked with the loggers’ axes. According to popular legend, Amrita explained, “It is still a small price to pay if at the cost of my head the tree is saved.” Another influence was Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent resistance to achieve one’s goals.
The brave actions of the women of Laata village left a lasting legacy in the Chipko Movement of ecological activists. Gaura Devi inspired hundreds of similar tree-hugging protests throughout India, and eventually these coalesced into a national movement. By the 1980s it had an influence on official government policy, and the state Forest Department started to operate under people-sensitive policies that put a stop to the open felling of trees across the subcontinent, from the Vindhyas Mountains to the Western Ghats.