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The struggle to save forests – Karnataka’s Appiko Movement, an offshoot of Chipko, continues to inspire

“While observing the 50th anniversary of the Chipko Movement for saving forests, many inspiring stories were shared, but we did not hear much about the highly inspiring Appiko Movement in Karnataka. Bharat Dogra fills us in on the gaps after he visited some of the villages

Appiko and Chipko mean the same – hug the trees. Although many people, particularly villagers, contributed so much to the collective effort that comprised the Appiko Movement, the pivotal contribution was no doubt made by Pandurang Hegde. I met him when he was a student at the Delhi School of Social work. I had gone to the ashram established by Vimla and Sunderlal Bahuguna in Silyara Village in Tehri Garhwal District of Uttarakhand while researching a book on the Chipko Movement, and had the opportunity to meet Pandurang there. He soon passed out from the university as a gold medallist and took up a few jobs to pay back his loans. However, his heart was set on returning to his home district – Uttara Kannada. He took what he learned from the Himalayan Chipko activists to these villages. As Sunderlalji said, “the Himalayan bird flew over to the Western Ghats.”

There are still some parts in the world where forests contribute to providing the nearby villagers a high quality of life. There are several such clusters of villages in the Western Ghat Region of Uttara Kannada. While the forests of this district have come under tremendous strain due to a number of factors (including commercial exploitation for industrial-urban use and indiscriminate mining), the destructive impact of deforestation seen elsewhere has motivated people to organise themselves for the protection of the remaining forests. Thanks to Appiko, the people’s movement for saving forests started in 1983, and several forests still exist.

A 15-minute walk through a village like Gubbigadde (where people were enthusiastic participants in the Appiko Movement) gives a fair idea of the importance of forests in the lives of the villagers. I found that the people there were well-versed in the properties and uses of so many types of vegetables and medicinal plants growing wild. Then, there were numerous types of implements, for domestic as well as agricultural use, ranging from the humble broom to the sturdy plough. Above all, the forest provides the basic daily needs of fuel, fodder and water, I learnt. Leaf manure from the forests has a special significance in the district famous for its gardens of areca-nut, banana, black pepper, coconuts and cardamom, which flourish largely because of this manure and overall conducive environment provided by natural forests.

Due to the manifold contributions of forests, it is not difficult to understand the pain which the people of Gubbigadde (literally meaning field of sparrows) and other villages felt when the forests near them were auctioned to meet the needs of the plywood industry or for other industrial-urban requirements. These villages also have a tradition going back to the days of the British rule, of opposing anti-people forestry practices. Villagers were anxious for some action to protect trees and listened with rapt attention when Pandurang told them inspiring real-life stories of how the people of several Himalayan villages, especially women, had hugged trees to prevent them from being axed.

Around the same time, Sunderlal Bahuguna, the venerable leader of the Chipko Movement, visited Karnataka. As the people were full of questions about deforestation and how to check this, a local youth club invited him for a public meeting in Gubbigadde. The stories he told of the non-violent struggles to save forests inspired the people further to take steps to protect the forests near their own villages. The people of Salkani Village, particularly, who had already written protest letters to forest officials, were ready for direct action.

The opportunity came soon enough in September 1983, when the Forest Department started felling trees in the Kalase Forest. Even though the forest was located far away from the village settlements, as soon as the news reached Salkani and Gubbigadde, efforts began to mobilise people to go to the tree-felling site. On the morning of 8th September 1983, about 160 people started their march towards Kalase. Braving rain and ignoring leaches that clung to their feet, crossing a river on a hanging rope bridge, the people rushed on, determined to prevent further cutting down of trees. Some rushed towards a tree which was being felled and hugged it. The woodcutters were stupefied. How could they cut down a tree which was being embraced by human beings?

Surprisingly, the forest workers were not all that opposed to the basic concerns of the people and agreed to stop work till senior officials came. On 22nd September, the district forest officer arrived with scientists and influential people. At first, he said the tree felling was scientifically approved and would continue, but a scientist accompanying him said the allegations of excessive damage were correct and that the people should be complimented for having brought this to the notice of the authorities.

Husri Village was the next major site of confrontation. In 1969, a natural forest of 900 acres had been cleared to raise a eucalyptus plantation. This played havoc with the forest-dependent life of villagers, though a part of the forest was left for their use. In 1983 the Forest Department sent woodcutters to fell nine trees there. The people decided to resist this. About 200 of them marched to the forest and embraced the trees. The tense situation was prevented from worsening when the official present was persuaded to convey the viewpoint of villagers to senior officials and the Minister of Forests.

In the first phase, the Appiko Movement spread within a short time to 8 areas – Mathghatta, Salkani, Balegadde, Husri, Nedgod, Kelgin Jaddi, Vanalli and Andagi. In the last week of December 1983, the forest minister visited Kalase and other affected areas. People turned out in large numbers to present their views to him, The minister gave orders to stop the felling of several marked trees and said that in future, only dead and dry trees would be cut there.

A picture taken during the Appiko foot march campaign in 1984.

In April 1984, some Appiko activists decided to go on a long foot march to take their message to a wider area. They started from Sirsi town on 10th April and after covering about 650 km, returned to Sirsi on 29th April. Such foot marches also helped the activists get a firmer grasp of the realities. Within three years, the movement spread to the districts of Shimoga and South Canara. In some villages, resources were mobilised initially by daily collection of handfuls of grain. The traditional theatre of Karnataka, Yakshagana, was adopted to spread the movement’s message. Following the ban on green tree felling after 1989, the movement gave more attention to regeneration of degraded land.

Pandurang Hegde and other Appiko activists started getting frantic calls from other areas for help in forest protection initiatives. In some places, local politicians tried to make use of the popularity of the new movement to serve their own narrow interests. As Pandurang and others found the right contacts to help them, several reliable and committed local allies emerged who took on a lot of the responsibilities. These included A.C. Subbaiah in Coorg and Shampa Daitota and Hari Rao Marlaje in South Canara.

There was excellent media coverage by the Kannada and English media and this helped people in remote parts of the region to initiate tree protection work. The then consultant editor of Deccan Herald, Ajit Bhattacharjea, who always encouraged such causes, deserves special mention as someone who took keen interest in providing adequate space to the activists of the young movement. Pandurang Hegde was able to find a space in Karnataka’s leading newspaper to highlight the aspirations and messages of nature protection and the Appiko Movement.

The movement succeeded in getting tree-felling checked at several places. In 1990, the State government imposed a total ban on the felling of green trees within natural forests. This was a truly amazing achievement as, when the movement started in 1983, the tree felling was being fully justified by the government as ‘scientific’. For Pandurang, those were the busiest and most rewarding years of his life. He tried to consolidate the struggles in the areas where the movement started, while at the same time travelling to several new places. He also took up the academic and research work necessary for providing the rationale for the Appiko Movement.

What is more, Pandurang realised at an early stage that struggles should be combined with constructive activities. While indiscriminate tree felling sanctioned by the government had to be opposed, people also needed to be self-disciplined while harvesting various kinds of minor forest produce, so that trees were not damaged. He wrote: “Inspired by Chipko, the Appiko Movement evolved its own philosophy of conservation and regeneration of natural resources in the tropical Western Ghat Region. The broad goal is to strive towards establishing a harmonious relationship between human beings and nature while protecting the tropical forests. The Appiko coined the slogan in Kannada as Ulisu, Belasu and Balasu. Ulisu in Kannada means, to save, Belasu is to regenerate the forest, and Balasu means rational use of the tropical forests.”

There was a continuing need to check various distortions in the government’s policy, particularly as some international aid agencies had a similar agenda of promoting industrially useful species of trees. They had given a false pro-people orientation to this by attractive packaging of community forestry, although the community’s participation was only marginal and the emphasis remained on promotion of commercial species of trees and overall commercialisation of forest policy. In the long run, this would lead to increasing alienation of people from forests, although in the short term, money provided by aid agencies could be used to hide this fact. In addition, despite the ban, some tree felling continued illegally and rural communities needed to be vigilant. Pandurang was involved in helping rural communities oppose and stop illegal tree-felling.

Following the objections of Pandurang and other activists of the Appiko Movement, and with the help of friends like Nicholas Hildyard and Jeremy Seabrook in Britain, the Department for International Development (UK) agreed to carry out a review of its Karnataka Forestry Project. In its final report, the review committee confirmed the validity of some of the most important objections raised by the Appiko Movement. On the basis of this report, the project was altered to meet people’s priorities.

However, the success proved to be short-lived, as alternative funding for a  similar project with the same distorted priorities became available from Japanese aid agencies. The Japanese authorities, moreover, were not at all responsive to objections from people’s movements like Appiko. They chose to simply ignore the objections of Appiko and did not even respond to several communications from them. So, despite its many early successes, the Appiko Movement had to learn to live with some limitations.

(The writer is a senior freelance journalist based in New Delhi. He is honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children, Planet in Peril, Earth without Borders and Man over Machine.)