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Mountain Research and Development Vol 28 No 1 Feb 2008: 4–7 doi:10.1659/mrd.


Pankaj H. Gupta
From Chipko to Climate Change
Remote Rural Communities Grapple with Global Environmental Agendas

Few mountain communities remain disrupted Jardhar’s social and ecological

untouched by the influence of globalization. cohesiveness. The present article argues
Until just 30 years ago, the village of Jardhar that the global conservation ethic and glob-
in Garhwal, India, in the middle Himalaya led al development are, in certain circum-
an isolated existence, living from a compos- stances, detrimental to local interests: they
ite agroecology that ensured a high degree transfer costs from powerful urban centers
of food security and ecological sustainability. and demand sacrifices from fragile moun-
Certain events—forest degradation, the tain communities. The story of Jardhar illus-
Chipko resistance movement (tree hugging), trates how this global politics is played out
the introduction of Green Revolution farming, in a remote mountain village, and what les-
and the building of the large Tehri dam near- sons it has for both policy makers and com-
by—ended this isolation and, in the process, munities.

A society in transition issues at stake, group discussions and

interviews were conducted with members
On the road that snakes through the of 15 households (key informants), as
slopes of Jardhar (78.35° E, 30.32° N), well as informal interactions with over 50
young boys on motorcycles, the ubiqui- individuals out of a total population of
tous cell phones slung around their about 3000.
necks, weave their way around women
carrying head-loads of grass, men walking
A heritage of resistance
up with sacks of freshly harvested grain,
and mules carrying cooking gas cylinders. What makes the story of Jardhar gaon (vil-
Many of these boys are visitors: most work lage) compelling is its resistance to the
as urban laborers in far-off cities, while onslaught of commercial agriculture.
their families continue traditional liveli- Spearheaded by the Beej Bachao Andolan
hoods based on farming in the terraced (BBA) or Save-the-Seeds Movement, peo-
fields or extraction of forest produce. ple in Jardhar and other villages of the
Clearly, this is a rural society in transi- Hemval River valley have been trying to
tion. protect their indigenous crop diversity.
This transition from subsistence ecol- They are currently also engaged in trying
ogy to commodity production has several to prevent the introduction of genetically
implications. What triggers the process of modified crops into their already endan-
FIGURE 1 A sustainable change and what are the impacts of this gered ecology.
agroecological system: the
forest is not just a source of change on social and environmental rela- Group members include Dhum Singh
food, fuel, and fodder; it also tions in Jardhar? What do local people Negi, Sudesha Devi, and Vijay Jardhari,
keeps the stock of seeds
robust and resilient. (Photo by
think about change? To explore the local thinker-activists who, along with the
Pankaj H. Gupta) late Kanwar Prasun, had participated in
the Chipko movement in the 1970s and
1980s. Chipko was a people’s movement
triggered by discontent over the opening
of felling rights to contractors from out-
side the region, a change in state policy
that weakened the community’s control
over their forests. Chipko began as a way to
assert local rights over forest extraction,
but its ‘success’ was ensured only by its
global conservationist appeal—attracting
academics, activists, and writers from dis-
tant lands. Coinciding with the emerging
global debate on environmental issues
that started with the Stockholm confer-
ence, Chipko found a receptive audience
among India’s policy makers, culminating

FIGURE 2 Women’s work: most farming processes are mastered by women in Garhwal.
(Photo by Pankaj H. Gupta)

in the enactment of The Forests Conserva-

tion Act of 1981, which effectively banned
commercial felling in all upland areas.
While environmentalists hailed this legis-
lation as a victory, mountain people were
clearly disgruntled, as it ended a signifi-
cant source of income for them.
Though the areas immediately around
Jardhar had no significant interest in com-
mercial felling, these local activists saw in
the fervor around Chipko a chance to mobi-
lize people about local concerns, in partic-
ular the disruption of the self-contained
economy and consequent outmigration.

A history of sustainable
Jardhar was long an isolated, remote set-
tlement. In other parts of Garhwal, people
were located on the trade route to Tibet
or engaged in activities such as commer-
cial extraction of timber, medicinal plants, plowing and harvesting in between. The “There was no trade
and minor forest produce. But the people women were responsible for other farm- in seeds. Our brides
here only farmed and reared cattle. Stray ing activities, fetching firewood and fod-
brought seeds with
trade, where it took place at all, was in der, and were the primary agents of seed
domesticated animals: goats, cows, and preservation and propagation, keeping them, and when they
sheep were occasionally bartered for the diverse stock of seeds resilient and went back home on
clothes, salt, and very basic materials; this robust—an essential feature of subsistence visits, they took with
required making the long downhill trek to farming (Figure 2). them seeds from here.
Rishikesh, more than 60 km away. Life was In this way, seeds
frugal, the working conditions and topog-
Decline of farming and the birth of were exchanged.”
raphy were tough, there was no surplus,
and despite being far from idyllic, it was
a monetized culture (Dhum Singh Negi)
an egalitarian society where nobody went Except for the risks of potential resource
hungry. Nearly everyone, including the overuse, this interdependent ecological
few non-farmers such as masons and musi- system was eminently sustainable and
cians, had access to some cultivable land. ensured a high degree of food security. Yet
Humans, forests, livestock, and agri- it began to break down in the early 1970s.
culture formed an interdependent ecolo- The immediate cause of the crisis was the
gy. Animals converted forest grasses into degradation of the village forest, for which
milk, draught power, and soil nutrients; the villagers blame lack of proper commu-
the forest provided construction material, nity management of fodder and firewood
firewood, fodder, and water; human activi- extraction, and overgrazing by alien,
ty ensured that forests did not become nomadic tribes. The urge to derive cash
‘overgrown’ and harbor predatory mam- income also played a part in this: as the
mals. It was also at the interface of the for- villagers shifted from free-range cows to
est and cultivated lands that newer, robust, high-yield, stall-fed buffaloes, they altered
and varied crops developed, resulting in a the demand profile from the forest. It is
wealth of plant diversity (Figure 1). Even also likely that unregulated access facilitat-
gender roles complemented the produc- ed firewood sales.
tion cycles: the men led a semi-nomadic Forest degradation set off a series of
life grazing cattle on the lower slopes in adverse impacts: villagers had to go fur-
winter, returning to the higher mountains ther for firewood, water, and fodder, leav-
in the monsoon season, and helping with ing less time for farming. Food produc-
Pankaj H. Gupta

“People used to be tion dropped significantly—from enough Global environmentalism in Jardhar

caring and helpful. throughout the year, to less than 10
But only money works months. With no cash income, this creat- The roots of the change that are evident
now. The village has ed a crisis of survival. Households in Jardhar today go back to the 1970s, a
changed, its people responded by opting for outmigration. time of momentous happenings in the
With no particular skills to offer, the social space of Garhwal and neighboring
have changed.” (72- men who went to the cities earned very lit- Kumaon. This was the Chipko movement.
year-old Bachni Devi) tle, but even meager remittances were cru- The mantle of Chipko was again resurrect-
cial at home. Over time, each household ed in Jardhar a decade later, this time as a
lost more than one male member to the reaction to the diffusion of the Green Rev-
city—leaving old parents in the care of the olution in the mountains, which, despite
younger women, who continued with such technologies being clearly inappro-
farming activities as best as they could. priate in a mountain context, was being
With fewer men, cattle-rearing was dra- aggressively promoted by the state to
matically reduced: the variety and number increase food availability in cities and to
of livestock was reduced to just 1 or 2 buf- keep food prices low.
faloes, directly affecting soil quality. As High-yielding varieties of seeds, fertiliz-
firewood was replaced by petroleum cook- ers, and pesticides began to be pumped
ing gas, forests became ‘overgrown’ and into a region that had thus far based its
the population of wild mammals such as agricultural sustainability on seed preserva-
monkeys, bears, and wild boar went up tion, compost and crop diversity. The gov-
dramatically. These animals often attacked ernment even set up a branch of its agricul-
standing crops. ture institute near Jardhar, and farmers
Besides these environmental impacts, were offered hybrid seed varieties of rice
the introduction of the monetized econo- for field trials. Even though the communi-
my had a dramatic effect on relationships. ty had a wealth of over 80 varieties of rice
Marked social differentiation emerged and over 200 kinds of beans (Figure 3),
based on monetary values, as the basis of many farmers were attracted by the
existence moved from food to financial prospect of higher and faster yields. The
security, from community cohesiveness to sole exception was Vijay Jardhari, a prac-
individual self-interest. Even borrowing ticing farmer and BBA activist whose cre-
oxen from a neighbor—essential for plow- do is self-reliance for farmers (Figure 4):
ing—now had to be paid for. On the
prized irrigated valley floor, families began “A farmer’s independence can only be ensured
to hire out land for commercial farming. if he keeps his own seed, otherwise he is just a
Rice and wheat began to be replaced by slave of the company or the government. What
soybean and tomato, grown with pesticides kind of new seeds are these that cannot be kept
and synthetic fertilizers. By 2007, farming for the next crop!”
by Jardhar villagers had shrunk to half of
what it was just 30 years before, especially
Local responses
the more labor-intensive kind practiced in
FIGURE 3 Beej Bachao Andolan helps the rainfed homestead gardens that pro- Despite 20-odd years of courageous strug-
conserve the vast crop diversity of the
region. (Photo by Pankaj H. Gupta)
duced a diverse range of food crops. gle, BBA has been more inspirational at a
global level (a Google search reveals 585
links). Part of the reason is that its choice
of rhetoric, as with Chipko, is influenced by
global environmental discourse. However,
its message has failed to impress its own
people. Farmers here grow hybrid rice,
while the youth of Jardhar have ambitions
beyond life in the village, and livelihood
options that extend from driving tourist
cabs to working in city hotels—all of
which yield tangible cash incomes that
subsistence mountain agriculture cannot.

Mountain Research and Development Vol 28 No 1 Feb 2008


FIGURE 4 Vijay Jardhari, a

practicing farmer and the voice
of Beej Bachao Andolan. (Photo
by Pankaj H. Gupta)

The men who visit ‘home’ periodically and labor from the mountains, even
bring with them the aura of a wider world. at the cost of a precious mountain
With exposure to urban cultures, physical ecology and way of life.
work has been devalued. Today, a more 3. Most development discourse tends to
permanent form of migration is being focus on the material aspects when
driven by the desire for English-medium looking at solutions for communities
education and outsourced IT jobs, with under stress. Yet decisions taken by
whole families prepared to move to the members of such communities are
urban fringes to achieve these ambitions. also—perhaps even more so—influ-
The local service and trade sector has also enced by their cultural impulses.
grown, fueling urban-based service occu- Ignoring these cultural factors can
pations in nearby towns like Chamba and result in inappropriate efforts, as for
New Tehri. example the failure of BBA in finding
an audience among the younger pop-
ulation within the region.
1. The power of global environmental
discourse is pervasive and operates at
several levels. It influences national Can Jardhar gaon turn its brush with glob-
governments to formulate policies alization into an advantage? Its rich biodi-
that are often insensitive to fragile versity, its potential to grow many organic
rural ecologies; it also conditions the crops, and now a growing pool of talent
arguments of local movements. Chipko with urban skills could give the village
echoed the global green agenda of advantages even as it battles to survive.
the 1970s and 1980s, specifically that There are 2 possible pathways it could
of conservation of forests and wildlife. take.
Beej Bachao Andolan reflects the global In similar circumstances, many moun-
emphasis on biodiversity of the 1990s. tain communities are learning to live with
In the 21st century, as climate change a market economy: the state or develop-
takes center stage in the global envi- ment agencies help ‘build capacities’ of
ronment debate, forests—in order to subsistence communities to move to com- “The difference is in
fulfill their ‘carbon sink’ function— modity production, though the process mental power.... A per-
could be made even more inaccessi- typically benefits only a few. son doing physical
ble. Again, it is local communities like However, if an egalitarian society and
work is paid Rs 80 a
Jardhar that will be the vanguard of a ecological balance are the goals of sustain-
revolution not of their making. able development, then perhaps Jardhar day (US$ 2) but a
2. While environmentalism helps to could evolve its own response: persist with computer operator gets
transfer the environmental costs of its subsistence ecology and grow its own Rs 1000 (US$ 25).”
urban consumers to communities (eg food, while also practicing commodity (Mukesh, a 15-year-
by blocking their access to forests, or production on the margins that will bring
old volunteer in a
by protecting wildlife even when it in some cash income. But for this model
destroys their crops), the global to succeed, the local community should UNESCO-funded com-
development agenda also sustains be free to manage its natural resources— munity radio initiative
economic growth in urban centers by in this case the forests—in ways it consid- in Chamba)
facilitating the supply of cheap goods ers are the best.

AUTHOR Award. This article is based in part on research for his ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Pankaj H. Gupta I am grateful to all the families of Jard-
16/1, ISEC Campus, Nagarabhavi, Bangalore 560072, FURTHER READING har for their warm hospitality, and to
India. PSBT for a fellowship that made possi- Goldman M. 2006. Imperial Nature: The World Bank and ble a forthcoming film on the region.
Pankaj H. Gupta is a documentary filmmaker and Struggles for Social Justice in the Age of Globalization. Stimulating discussions with Lina
researcher based in India. He has worked on several doc- London, United Kingdom: Yale University Press. Krishnan helped me to crystallize
umentaries with organizations such as The Energy and Grossman LS. 1984. Peasants, Subsistence Ecology, and ideas.
Resources Institute (TERI), Centre for Science and Envi- Development in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea.
ronment, and the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, and Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
conducted research and training programs for the Inter- Jenkins R. 1979. The Road to Alto. London, United King-
national Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the dom: Pluto Press.
International Development Research Centre (IDRC). He is Rangan H. 2001. Of Myths and Movements: Rewriting
currently doing a Masters’ degree in Sustainable Develop- Chipko into Himalayan History. New Delhi, India: Oxford
ment from Staffordshire University, on a Commonwealth University Press.