The Spark that led to the fire

"It was in 1974 that women began to play an active role in the Chipko Movement. In that year, at a site above the village of Reni overlooking the Alaknanda River near the Tibetan border, the Forest Department granted a concession to fell 2,500 trees. Chandi Prashad Bhatt subsequently informed the contractor that Chipko activists in concert with village representatives organized by local leader Govind Singh Rawat would intercede to block the felling. But on the day that a crew arrived to begin cutting trees, Bhatt and his fellow DGSM activists found themselves busy in Gopeshwar with a visit from high-level forestry officials, while the men from Reni were occupied in the district capital of Chamoli, where it seemed that the army had finally got round to paying compensation for land which it had held since the conflict with China.

In one the contractor says:

"You foolish village women, do you know what these forest bear?

Resin, timber, and therefore foreign exchange!"

"Yes, we know. What do the forests bear?

Soil, water, and pure air,

Soil, water, and pure air."

Were the authorities trying to manipulate events? If so, they had failed to reckon with the women of Reni. On their way to the approach road leading to the forest, the crew was seen by a small girl, who rushed to tell Gaura Devi, the head of the village Mahila Mangal Dal. Gaura Devi quickly mobilized 27 women and girls in the village, and together they went to the forest and confronted the lumbermen. Standing in front of the trees that had been marked for felling, Gaura Devi addressed the men: "Brothers! This forest is the source of our livelihood. If you destroy it, the mountain will come tumbling down onto our village." She then placed herself in front of a gun brandished by one of the men. "This forest nurtures us like a mother; you will only be able to use your axes on it if you shoot me first." Initially met with abuse and threats, the women refused to move out of the way of the lumbermen. Composed of mountain farmers from Himachal Pradesh who understood only too well what Gaura Devi was talking about, the lumbermen quickly lost heart. After a three day stand off, they finally withdrew without having accomplished their task.


The Reni action was important for the Chipko movement in two ways. First, it was the first occasion where women participated in a major way and in the absence of men and DGSM workers. As Gaura Devi recounted: "It was not a question of planned organization of the women for the movement, rather it happened spontaneously. Our men were out of the village so we had to come forward and protect the trees. We have no quarrel with anybody, but only wanted to make the people understand that our existence is tied with the forests". Second, the government could no longer treat the Chipko movement as merely the reaction of local industry deprived of raw materials. From this action, Chipko was to emerge as a peasant movement in defense of traditional forest rights, continuing a century-long tradition of resistance to state encroachment."