Women Of Chamoli Fight Pine

Deep in the interior of Chamoli District, 40 kilometres from Karnaprayag, the barren Garhwali landscape suddenly gives way to a lush oak forest, green, in stark contrast to the surrounding barren hillsides, which are punctuated with lone pine trees. This is the forest of Nanda Sen, protected by the women of Malai village.

In 1985, this forest was nearly destroyed when the Forest Department started an "afforestation" drive in the villages of Malai and the nearby settlements of Benoli, Deval and Chaurasen using pine saplings. However, instead of placing saplings on barren land around the villages, they were planted in the Panchayati Ban, which actually had flourishing stands of broad leaf species. After the Department secured permission from the village Pradhan, the contracts for putting up boundary walls, digging pits and planting the saplings were awarded to a few village leaders, who made sizeable profits, while at the same time the existing oak forest was being destroyed.


The village women approached the all-male Panehayati Ban Committee, which declared its helplessness in the face of a governmental decision to plant pine amidst the oak. The women knew the destruction of the forest would add to their woes. The conifers are of little use to villagers. The leaves are useless for fodder, the wood is bad for construction and as fuel it produces too much smoke and sticky soot. Pines do not allow undergrowth, their needles acidify the soil and they are also more prone to forest fires.

When the people asked the District Forest Officer why pine saplings had been planted in an oak forest, he replied that four species had been planted but that only pine had survived grazing by village animals. The people retorted that almost 90 percent of the saplings had been pine, and the official had just to walk to the nearby forest to verify it. He then agreed that it had been a mistake to have planted pine at that altitude.


The activist women invited Chipko leader Chandi Prasad Bhatt to initiate action in February 1988, and a two-day environment camp was held in Nanda Sen, attended by about 1000 people from the surrounding villages. They issued a notice to the Forest Department to take action by July, or there would be direct action to uproot the pine saplings. At the same time, the women decided to take control of the community forests. Godavari Devi, of Malai's Mahila Mangal Dal: "We wanted to protect the forests for grass, fodder, fuelwood. So we decided to volunteer to keep watch on the forests. Some days we were in the forests from nine in the morning until ten at night."

Since the authorities had not bothered to respond to their demands, the women of Malai held a three-day camp in mid-July and decided to launch a Chipko andolan In response, the forest officials finally uprooted some pine saplings and had them planted at a lower slope. They promised to uproot all the pine saplings from Nanda Sen, if the transplanting was successful. As part of their campaign, the women also planted oaks and other broad leaf species on common village land.

Within six months of their initial meeting, the effort of the women had already paid off. The oak forest has recovered and is lush and green again. But the Mahila Mangal Dal is determined not to lower its guard. Says Godavari Devi, "If they do not remove all the pine saplings, we will have to do the job. We have to save our water source, fodder and fuelwood."

Pandurang Hegde, a well-known activist from Karnataka, helped organise last year's march to save the Western Ghats. "NFS" is News From The Fields And Slums, a feature service on grassroots issues.

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Himal Southasian