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Silent revolution


Photo: Pandurang Hedge

The seeds of Chipko – popularly known as the ‘tree huggers’ – were sown in the early 1980s in northern India and the forests of the Himalayas. For three years Sunderlal Bahuguna and other activists, with the support of the village people, undertook a 4,800-kilometre walk, or Padyatra, from Kashmir to Kohima on the border with Burma, spreading their message.

In 2005 a similar but smaller Padyatra was organized on the banks of the Sharvaty River in the Western Ghats, southern India. The reasons for this stemmed from the decision by the British Government’s Department for International Development (DfID) to give $40 million official aid to conserve the tropical forests of Karnataka.

The Western Ghats Forestry Project caused controversy from the start. It handed more power to the state-controlled forest department, and was seen as ‘anti-people’. A campaign in India and Britain led to the concept of ‘participation’. Oxfam UK and some local NGOs got involved in running a parallel project, lending legitimacy to the whole process.

The result was the enhanced commercialization of forests in monoculture plantations, destroying the biodiversity of the tropical forest. The project denied forest access to indigenous communities and in several cases displaced those who were growing food crops. Oxfam and the other NGOs proved to be more concerned with the agenda of DfID than with questioning the basic assumptions behind the project. It was all too reminiscent of the colonial mindset.

At this point the Chipko-Appiko (‘Appiko’ is a Kannada word for ‘hug the trees’) Movement took up the campaign, organizing people who were adversely affected. It led the struggle to expose the claims of DfID in the local media. But the NGOs refused to join, as this would have threatened their financial security. Though the staff were sympathetic, as an institution Oxfam’s hands were tied. It kept silent.

The solidarity of few groups in Britain (Corner House, Survival International) brought pressure on DfID to recognize the reality on the ground. Surprisingly, it conducted an independent study that confirmed that elements of the project were indeed anti-people and anti-ecology.

Then the Japanese stepped in with much larger funding. The local state bureaucracy made exactly the same mistakes. Every effort to deal with the Japan Bank for International Co-operation (JBIC) yielded few results. Criticisms by Chipko-Appiko had very little effect. The Bank is not interested in responding to on-the-ground realities. There is more money for NGOs, but their work is like a cog in the machine, with a narrow perspective and without the courage to address the larger adverse impacts.

The trend of co-opting NGOs and scuttling dissent has become the norm throughout developing countries, even if there are exceptions. To make campaigns effective it is important to link grassroots work with social movements. International NGOs and campaign groups must be willing to support such grassroots campaigns and work in solidarity with them.

The Chipko-Appiko Movement is a living example of this approach. It works with very little money, all raised from its supporters and local people.

Sudesha Behen, the hill women of the Himalayas, say: ‘It is the contribution of each household, a fistful of grain, that supports Chipko actions.’ A fistful of grain might seem trivial – hardly an answer to the millions spent by international agencies to ‘uplift’ the poor. But these Chipko women have brought greenery back to the barren hills of the Himalayas. A silent revolution has been funded locally by women in the villages. They have regenerated biodiversity across thousands of hectares of forest. The silent work of the village women is the product of a social movement with its base among common people.

Chipko is a living example of Gandhi’s legacy of non-violent struggle and volunteer work. Its spread across India indicates a strong current of grassroots groups following a different path from the NGOs.

The people are the sponsors, swimming against the tide. They commit themselves to a lifetime’s work with social movements, sacrificing the lure of consumer culture. They are steering a different path that is difficult, but more satisfying. The basic question is: will the legacy of Gandhi survive the test of globalization?

Pandurang Hegde is an activist with Chipko-Appiko and has three decades of experience with the NGO sector in India. E-mail