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Chapter 7 Embracing the Trees There is perhaps no cause with which the name of Sunderlal Bahuguna has been more widely associated than that of the Chipko Movement, the grassroots environmental movement that from 1973 began to receive international attention. During the time of their conversations, Indira Gandhi referred to him as Chipko Bahuguna to distinguish him from H. N. Bahuguna the then chief minister of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. It was in the glow of the Chipko Movement that Bahuguna became an internationally recognized environmental activist traveling with the chipko message to Europe, to Africa, and to the United States. In some writings he is referred to as the founder of the movement or as its leader. Sunderlal flatly denies both of these claims. Against the opinion of some researchers, he holds that Chipko was and remains largely a movement of forest women. He refers to his own role in the movement as a messenger of the movement, a person who supports the concerns of the movement and who has carried its message first to the villages, and second to the larger public arena. To understand the nature of his role in this movement it is appropriate to reconstruct some of the background of the movement and some of the critical events that brought the movement to national and international attention. In doing so, I acknowledge the very significant contribution of a number of specialists who have offered thorough discussions of the context and development of the Chipko Movement. In writing this and the following two chapters I am dependent in particular upon the research of Ramachandra Guha and Thomas Weber, whose monographs covering the Chipko Movement I recommend, and upon a number of other scholars who have given specific accounts of particular developments and specific events within the larger movement.1 My purpose is not to add to these very thorough studies but 81 82 Ecology is Permanent Economy to ­ discuss B­ ahuguna’s own understanding of this movement, his activities in the context of this movement, the background of these activities in the influences on his early life, and the significance of these activities in the light of Bahuguna’s own philosophy of nature. To do this effectively it is necessary to understand a little of the geographic and cultural context in which this movement took place. In his study of ecological change and peasant resistance in the Himalayas, Ramachandra Guha begins with an insightful discussion of the people of Garhwal, and of their economy and culture as it appeared largely before colonial expansion into the region. Several of his observations are germane to the present subject. In the first place, he points out that, along the river valleys, cultivation of wheat, rice, and millet was limited by the steepness of the land and by the difficulty of irrigation. Yet he notes that throughout the nineteenth century, two or sometimes three harvests produced a surplus of grain sufficient for export to Tibet in the north and to the plains in the south. With their usual six-month supply of grain stock and their diet supplemented by fish, fruit, vegetables, and meat, Guha finds strong support for the claim of Henry Ramsay, commissioner of the region, from 1856 to 1884, that the hill cultivators were “probably better off than any peasantry in India.”2 He comments that European travelers to the region were frequently given to lyrical descriptions of peasant life in the mountain villages, comparing them to those of England and Ireland. Guha observes, second, that the land-tenure system that the British inherited differed significantly from that of the plains. He notes the observation of G. W. Traill, the first commissioner of the region, that in at least three-quarters of the villages the actual proprietors were the cultivators of the land.3 In Tehri Garhwal the holding of land was by hereditary rights. It could be gifted to religious endowments or leased to tenants. But, according to Guha, there were few large landowners. Rather, “the agrarian system was dominated by peasants cultivating their holdings with the help of family labor.”4 The texture of colonialism in the hills, according to Guha, differed significantly from its more characteristic features on the plains. “The absence of a class of ‘feudal’ intermediaries,” he says, “further reinforces the image of an independent peasantry firmly in command of its resources.” Comparing these hills to the stratified villages of the IndoGangetic plain, he finds it much closer to the...


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