the chipko movement as a case study of ecofeminism
Within the literature I surveyed in writing this blog, ecofeminim tends to hold the Chipko movement as a model of an ecofeminist environmental movement. In the 1970’s a group of Indian villagers in the Uttar Pradesh region of the Himalayas formed a group comprised predominantly of women to protect local forests from deforestation. These forests had been used as a commonly owned and controlled source of timber and wood for cooking, and as we explored in the connections between women and nature section, this meant that women were dependent on the resources of the forest. However, during the 1970’s the local government threatened to change this pattern as it considered new forestry practices that would cede local control to outside corporations through contracts under which these corporations would develop a logging industry.
These women (with some men) organized a non-violent movement modeled after Gandhian resistance methods, calling themselves the Chipko, which loosely translates as “tree hugger” in Hindi. In protest, women and children linked arms around the trees slated for felling and effectively halted the deforestation in that area. This model of protest spread to other regions in the Himalayas undergoing the same struggle between local control over the forests and the governments considering outside commercial development.
While the movement is hailed by some as an environmental movement, and it is considered one of the first organized environmental protest movements, others note that the Chipko were protesting not just deforestation but also a shift toward outside control. Since the trees had been treated as a “commons” used by the villagers, the Chipko movement can also be viewed as a movement to protect the economic and material livelihood of the villagers that depended on these forests for subsistence.
These are some of the crucial elements of the Chipko movement noted by ecofeminists:
1. The local women held epistemic privilege over outsiders. That is, due to their specific and direct experience in the ecosystem they knew more about the ecosystem than the logging companies and perhaps even the governmental overseers. The perspective of these women with technical knowledge of the trees were undervalued and ignored in the process, ecofeminists note.
2. The women were not acting just in opposition to the government’s decision to allow logging companies to take control of the forests, but also in opposition to the local men—the husbands, brothers, fathers that supported the move. In a broader sense, ecofeminists note that the Chipko movement also involved a protest against capitalism and Colonialism. Protesting the trees meant protecting the ability of women to control the means of production and the resources used in their daily lives.
3. The ecofeminist interpretation of the Chipko movement includes an analysis of the material needs of women (through examining their dependence on the trees) as much as it considers the need to protect nature from domination and oppression.
I assert that looking at the Chipko movement through an eco-feminist lens is interesting in two ways:
First, the Chipko movement as an ecofeminist movement illustrates the complexity of the ecofeminist position. While the peasants saved the trees from being felled and saved the forests from shifting from a diverse ecosystem to single-species industry, the Chipko were not ultimately asking that the trees be saved. In fact, these trees were a resource used by the community for daily subsistence, and that meant that some would be cut for cooking fuel and shelter. This illustrates the ways in which ecofeminism acknowledges the material dependence of humans (and more specifically, women) on the natural environment and its resources. Although ecofeminists want to encourage humanity not to think of nature as something to be dominated, the Chipko movement shows us that ecofeminists want to do this in a way that allows women to have a voice in how and when nature will be dominated for human use.
It brings up, then, important questions about the ecofeminist position that might show the need for clarification in the ecofeminist position. Which goals are of higher priority? Is it more important that we protect nature from domination by humans or that we protect nature from domination by patriarchal ideologies? Since the Chipko movement can be thought of more broadly as a protest against capitalism and a movement to maintain local control, does this dilute the environmental message in this instance of ecofeminism? Is the Chipko movement truly an environmental movement?
In many ways consideration of the Chipko movement illustrates how for ecofeminists, environmental issues are intertwined with political and economic issues. But this causes complexity within the position when there are various values that we must order to make normative conclusions. If the government had decided that instead of allowing corporate loggers to take control it would instead set the forests aside as a protected nature preserve, what would the ecofeminist position recommend? Does this complexity make the ecofeminist position flexible and thus useful in various settings, or does this complexity require ecofeminism to develop a more nuanced, formal position that can assign priorities when there are conflicting or competing values?
Second, the Chipko movement is interesting in that it helps to show the differences between the deep ecology position and the ecofeminist position (see the post on deep ecology for more information). Because of the attention ecofeminists pay to the dependence of the local Chipko women on the resources of the forest, it would seem that the ecofeminist position is well differentiated from the deep ecology position. It would seem, at least, that in the scenario noted above, deep ecologists would have supported the government in protecting the trees by establishing a nature preserve while ecofeminists would prefer to honor the material dependence of women on the resources of the forest and keep trees available to them. Considering this difference might make us wonder if ecofeminism would call deep ecology the ultimate goal, though an impossible one until women have don’t require material resources for subsistence? At what point would the ecofeminist decide to protect the forest if the resources of the forest were still needed for survival of the locals?
Warren, Karen. Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature. 1997.