Almost nowhere on earth is recent
forest denudation resulting in disasters comparable to those in the
Himalayas, chiefly at 5,000 to 14,000 feet above sea level. Geologically
relatively recent, the massive upthrust which created Mount Everest and
other peaks, also shaped precipitous ridges where soil is held precariously
by forest cover. In the now 75,956 villages spread across the 2,000-mile
long Indian-Himalayan frontier, earning a livelihood is becoming
increasingly hazardous. Overgrazing by sheep, goats and cattle speeds
erosion when the snows melt. Construction of roads for defense purposes and
to reach hallowed shrines, opens forests for logging in a wood-short land,
and replaces "fear of the tiger with fear of landslides."
CHANDI PRASAD BHATT became increasingly aware of the threat of
indiscriminate tree felling after July 20, 1970 when a cloudburst over his
home district of Chamoli suddenly raised the water level of the Alaknanda
River more than 60 feet. Some 400 square miles were flooded as roads and
bridges washed away and Gauna Lake, formerly 330 feet deep, filled with
debris. Also blocked were canals irrigating nearly one million acres in
western Uttar Pradesh. Since then ever more houses, livestock and people
have been lost to floods. In August 1978 the largest landslide of the
century—over two miles long—blocked the Bhagirathi River. Reservoirs behind
the great hydroelectric schemes that are the prime energy hope of the
subcontinent, are rapidly silting up.
BHATT in 1964 had instituted the Dasholi Gram Swarajya Mandal (Society for
Village Self-Rule) to organize fellow villagers in Gopeshwar for employment
near their homes in forest-based industries—making wooden implements from
ash trees and gathering and marketing herbs for aryuvedic medicine-and to
combat vice and exploitation. Curtailment of the villagers' legitimate
rights to trees and forest products in favor of outside commercial interests
enabled BHATT in 1973 to mobilize the forest-wise society members and
villagers into the collective Chipko Andolan (Hug the Trees Movement) to
force revision of forest policies dating from 1917. Women, who regularly
walk three to five miles to the forest to gather and carry home fuel and
fodder on their backs, took the lead. True to the movement's non-violent
philosophy, these women embraced the trees to restrict their felling.
Establishment of "eco-development camps" brought villagers together to
discuss their needs within the context of the ecological balance of the
forest. Stabilizing slopes by building rock retaining walls, the campers
planted trees started in their own village nurseries. While less than
one-third of the trees set out by government foresters survived, up to 88
percent of the villager-planted trees grew.
BHATT and his society colleagues have been helped by sympathetic scientists,
officials and college students. Yet theirs is essentially an indigenous
movement of mountain villagers, and Chipko Andolan has become an instrument
of action and education for members, officials and outsiders, in the
realities of effective resource conservation.
Although BHATT has attended meetings in lowland India and abroad as a
spokesman for Chipko, he has remained a man of his community. Now 48, he,
his wife and five children continue to live the simple life of their
Himalayan neighbors. In the process he has become knowledgeable and
productive in helping ensure his peoples' hard won living.
In electing CHANDI PRASAD BHATT to receive the 1982 Ramon Magsaysay Award
for Community Leadership, the Board of Trustees recognizes his inspiration
and guidance of Chipko Andolan, a unique, predominantly women's
environmental movement, to safeguard wise use of the forest.