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    The fading gains of Himalayan conservation
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    Rishikesh, June 5 2002, (IPS): The bare slopes where pine forests once thrived is a sure sign that the famous chipko conservation movement of the 1970s and 1980s, which drew world attention to this once verdant Himalayan region, is now a fast-fading memory. Vested interests have slowly but surely overwhelmed the movement in which women from local villages literally hugged trees to save them from the lumberjack's axe, inspiring a nationwide movement that saved entire forests critical to the environment and to the livelihoods of rural people in India.

    So powerful was the movement that by 1980, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered a 15-year ban on logging in the Himalayan regions of Uttar Pradesh. Last year, the new state of Uttaranchal was created out of these regions, marking a new phase of development activity, not all of which is environment-friendly. At a gathering of veteran chipko activists and villagers in this Himalayan town of Rishikesh in Uttaranchal in late May, participants complained that authorities who should be helping to protect the delicate ecology of the hills are instead working hand-in-glove with the timber barons.

    Activists and villagers at the meeting, one of a series of Media and Human Development Workshops organized by the Delhi-based Press Institute of India, said that they were hampered by restrictions imposed by authorities while those who denuded the forests for commercial gain were given free rein.

    Kunwar Prasun, a senior activist from the village who is once again playing a leading role in saving the Advani forest region, said: "At that time the struggle was against a small contractor. Now it is the transmission lines from the giant Tehri dam project which threaten about 50,000 trees in Advani forest and about the same number of trees in other Himalayan forests." He added: "While resisting tree-felling, we've also suggested alternative paths for transmission lines which will help to reduce the damage to a considerable extent and also spare the forest of Advani. The authorities have still not communicated the acceptance of our highly practical suggestions to us."

    Vijay Jardhari from Nagni village of Tehri district testified that a long-term lease for mining has been given to a contractor, bypassing proper procedures, which threatens to cause large-scale destruction to the fields and forests of those villages which have been conserving traditional seeds and protecting forests. "While the very survival of Kataldi village is threatened, others will lose heavily due to the demolition of natural resources and landslides."

    Also participating in the workshop was the legendary Sundarlal Bahuguna, taking time off from his well-known campaign against the Tehri dam project, which is now nearing completion in spite of warnings that much of Uttaranchal stands on a known Himalayan seismic zone. Bahuguna said that in attempting to speed up the project, which has been plagued by time and cost over-runs, the administration was threatening to cut off water and electricity supplies to people still living in the medieval town of Old Tehri -- which is due to be completely submerged by the project.

    He alleged the drinking water systems meant for several neighboring villages have been halted. "On the one hand the water of the sacred Ganges River will be diverted to Delhi to flush the toilets of that mega-city, on the other hand even the drinking water needs of Himalayan villages near the river are being denied." Bahuguna, who believes that restoring the harmonious relationship between people and nature would solve most modern problems, emphasized that the biggest danger to the ecology and livelihood of the people of Uttaranchal came from the series of large dam projects planned for the region.

    Dhan Singh, a pradhan (elected village head) from Lata village of Chamoli district, said that following the creation of national parks and a biosphere reserve (the Nanda-Devi Biosphere Reserve), it has become difficult for villagers to enter the forests they lived off and protected for centuries. Harish Chandola, a journalist who has returned to his ancestral village in Chamoli district, said that while earlier the villagers could easily obtain medicinal herbs for many ailments, these have become scarce because of over-harvesting. He recalled how village elders once carefully guided the collection effort to prevent ecological damage. "Now there is virtual plunder to supply valuable herbs to the Delhi cosmetic market. So there is no protection in the protected area while the local villagers are denied their basic needs." Recently, when the villagers entered the forests as part of a movement to reclaim their traditional rights, they found skins and bones of animals left behind by poachers, he said.

    However, a senior official of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, A.K. Bannerjee, said several development projects are now underway to help people of nearby villages. This ranged from the supply of wool to traditional weavers to the distribution of energy saving pressure cookers and cooking gas. Chandola responded that the benefits are marginal at best and only undermined the self-respect of the villagers. He also alleged that there was corruption in the implementation of some of the development schemes.

    Keeping in view emerging threats to forests and the diminishing forest rights of villagers in many places, particularly protected areas, several participants at the workshop called for a renewal of the Chipko movement. Bahuguna, who between 1981 and 1983 undertook a 5,000 kilometer march through the Himalayas to spread the message of the chipko movement, said any revival should be accompanied by a new policy for the entire region which protected both livelihoods and the environment.

    Dhum Singh Negi, a senior activist from Henvalghati village said: "Some NGOs, instead of responding to real needs, try to impose the agenda of their donor agencies and end up obstructing rather than helping our work." Negi, one of the main leaders of the original chipko movement, emphasized that NGO activity should address practical needs. It was left to Bahuguna, "the grand old man of the hills," to remind the participants that the most important idea is that development must always be in harmony with human culture.

    Bharat Dogra
    June 2002

    Bharat Dogra is a correspondent with Inter Press Service, a global news resource faciliating south-south and south-north dialogue on important economic, social, environmental, and other issues. IPS is distributed in the U.S. by Global Information Network