“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” Chief Seattle.
Long before Al Gore began sharing the inconvenient truth about the environment, villagers in India understood it and were performing their own form of environmental activism. About 276 years ago, a group of villagers in India were protecting their forests from felling. The story begins with Amrita Devi, a woman with three daughters who belonged to the Bishnoi sect of Hinduism and lived within a forest in the desert state of Rajasthan. The Bishnois believe in living as one with nature and understand the importance of the forests around them. When the Maharajah (king) of Jodhpur needed lumber to burn lime for the construction of his new castle, he sent his men to the forest. Amrita Devi and her daughters gave up their lives to the cause of protecting the trees in that forest. They literally lay their lives in between the axes of the men and the trees. The news of the mother and daughters’ sacrifice reached other Bishnoi. Bishnoi from over 83 villages gathered to continue the fight begun by Amrita Devi. The protests continued until 363 Bishnoi were dead. On the news of this ultimate sacrifice, the Maharajah ordered the tree felling to halt and passed a decree to protect the forests and animals around the Bishnoi villages.
Fast-forward to April 1973 where the successful protest of the Bishnoi people inspired the name and work of another conservation effort in India, the Chipko (embrace) Movement. In the 1970s the villagers of Tehri and Chamoli, now in the state of Uttarakhand protested against the felling of their forests for the purpose of commerce and industry. The forests in the foothills of the Himalayas were critical to the villagers for food, fodder, fuel and soil stabilization. The villagers embraced the trees and put themselves between the trees and the axe-men just as the Bishnoi had done years before. The modern villagers didn’t have to sacrifice their lives, as did their Bishnoi counterparts, to achieve success.
The movement experienced a major victory in 1980 when the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, responded to the peaceful protests and approved a 15-year ban on felling trees in the forests of Uttar Pradesh. The Chipko movement spread throughout India in the 80s. In Uttara Kannada in the southern state of Karnataka, Chipko movement, locally known as Appiko Chaluvali, was successful in saving trees from felling. In 1983 in the Kalase-Kudergod forest, 150 women and 30 men stopped the axmen by hugging trees. Similar successes were achieved in the forests of Bengaon, Husre, and Nidgod. All these grass-root efforts to stop felling led to a policy change within the Indian government that was more focused on the requirements of people and ecological impact.
Where and how the Appiko Movement started ?
“After a visit to the beach, it’s hard to believe that we live in a material world.” Pam Shaw
Uttar Kannada is a heavily forested district in the state of Karnataka in the western part of the country. The district is unique in that it traverses five important terrestrial ecozones. From the west to the east there is the narrow coastal plain, the evergreen and moist deciduous forests of the Western Ghats, the dry deciduous forests and further east the scrublands, making it one of the important centres of biodiversity in the Western Ghats. People have traditionally been involved in agro forestry and have maintained unique multi-tiered spice orchards dominated by betel nut (Areca catechu).
The Western Ghats rise up behind the coastal belt of northern Karnataka in South India. The sunlight has a purity and density in this upland area that you can almost touch. It etches shadows on the dry dark earth. Here the meaning of ‘biodiversity’ is immediately visible – over 80 species of trees are easily identifiable, traditionally used for medicine, fodder, fruit, fuel and construction.
With the felling and commercialization of this natural forest, the Appiko movement rose: a popular people’s response against deforestation and the ruin of ancient livelihoods. At the same time the forest department was involved in clearing of natural ever green forest and plantation of monoculture of Teak and Eucalyptus. This destruction of tropical natural forests and the raising of monoculture plantations of Teak and Eucalyptus caused irreversible changes in the forest ecosystem. The destruction of mixed species denied people access to biomass for fodder, fertiliser, etc. The clear felling of natural forests has led to severe soil erosion and drying up of perennial water resources. Moved by the destruction of essential ecological processes, the youth of Salkani village in Sirsi launched a Chipko movement which was locally known as ‘Appiko Chaluvali’. They embraced the trees to be felled by contractors of the forest department. The protest within the forest continued for thirty eight days and finally the felling orders were withdrawn. The success of this agitation spread to other places and the movement has now been launched in eight areas covering the entire Sirsi forest division in Uttara Kannada and Shimoga districts. These areas included Mathghatta, Salkani, Balegadde, Husei, Nedgod, Kelgin Jaddi, Vanalli and Andagi, The rapid spread of the movement was based on evidence provided by villagers that the forest department was over-exploiting the forests. Appiko Andolan gave birth to a new awareness all over southern India.
Why the Movement arises?
“I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.” Elwyn Brooks White.
In 1950, Uttara Kannada district forest covered more than 81 percent of its geographical area. The government, declaring this forest district a “backward” area, then initiated the process of “development”. There major industries – a pulp and paper mill, a plywood factory and a chain of hydroelectric dams constructed to harness the rivers – sprouted in these areas. These industries have overexploited the forest resource, and the dams have submerged huge-forest and agricultural areas. The forest had shrunk to nearly 25 percent of the district’s area by 1980. The local population, especially the poorest groups, were displaced by the dams. The conversion of the natural mixed forests into teak and eucalyptus plantations dried up the water sources, directly affecting forest dwellers.
The steady come down of forest cover in the district is due to many reasons. The major causes have been many developmental projects like the paper industry, hydro projects and even a nuclear power plant. The West Coast paper mill has been responsible for the disappearance of a large chunk of forests. The mills have unfairly high subsidies and have been allowed to go on in spite of not having adequate effluent treatment facilities. They have even managed to get portions of the Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary denotified for the purpose of bamboo extraction and continue to press for more denotifications of the protected areas.
The Supa dam was built over the river Kali in 1976. Large tracts of forests were submerged in the reservoir. The townships that were created for the government employees and for the dam also resulted in further destruction There is a proposal for a similar project over the river Sharawati but it has met with stiff opposition from the local communities. The forest department too has played a major role in forest decimation, particularly with large-scale commercial forestry operations, which are among the largest in the state. In a nutshell, the three major p’s – paper, plywood and power – which were intended for the development of the people, have resulted in a fourth p: poverty. This ongoing “development” policy of exploiting the “resources – mainly forest and mineral resources in the Western Ghats for the benefit of the elite have deprived the poor of their self-supporting systems. This kind of indiscriminate destruction of the forests which had been relatively intact over centuries & loss of local economy to the hands of private contractors had provoked the local communities to protest against this. Thus the Appiko movement come on the ground.
Objective of the Movement
“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” Aldo Leopold
The Appiko Movement is trying to save the Western Ghats by spreading its roots all over southern India. The movement’s objectives can be classified into three major areas:- 1) First the Appiko Movement is struggling to save the remaining tropical forests in the Western Ghats. 2) Second, it is making a modest attempt to restore the greenery to denuded areas. 3) Third, it is striving to propagate the idea of rational utilization in order to reduce the pressure on forest resources. To save, to grow and to use rationally – popularly known in Kannada as Ubsu (“save”), Belesu (“grow”) and Balasu (“rational use”) – is movement’s popular slogan.The first area of priority for the Appiko Movement is the remaining tropical forests of Western Ghats. The area is so sensitive that to remove the forest cover will lead to a laterization process, converting the land into rocky mountains. Thus a renewable resources becomes a nonrenewable one. Once laterization sets in, it will take centuries for trees to grow on that land. Before we reach such an extreme point the Appiko Movement aims to save the remaining forests in the Western Ghats through organizing decentralized groups at the grassroots level to take direct action. All these objectives are implemented through locally established Parisara Samrakshna Kendras (environmental conservation centres).