The Cleanest Line


Photo: Michael A. Estrada
Photo: Michael A. Estrada

The Original Tree Huggers

By Michael A. Estrada   |   Sep 4, 2018 September 4, 2018

When you hear the term “tree hugger,” what—or who—do you see? What image, or images, pop into your head?

It likely starts with the vague idea of folks who are often—and perhaps overly—passionate about protecting nature.

But then, if you expand it, what do they look like? Is it a man or a woman? Are they white? Do they look like, say, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo if they were out living the #vanlife together? As touching as that movie might be, it presents an all-too-familiar picture for what we might all imagine when we think of tree huggers.

It also misses a lot.

Years ago, when I first started on my path to becoming an environmentalist, and especially an environmental justice activist, the images conjured by the word environmentalism often coincided closely with “tree huggers”: i.e. white Americans from the late ’70s hugging trees. The problem with this soon became clear, however. Though an undoubtedly accurate representation of much of American environmentalism, these stereotypes fail to honor the histories of people of color in the environmental space, remain a disservice to the work being done today, and wrongly suggest to some that black, indigenous, and other people of color aren’t active in environmentalism.

The discrepancy between the public imagination and reality is not uncommon throughout societies. Public imagination is a fickle thing, and as time passes, words, images and topics will often morph into something new. For me, both in my personal and professional work, it’s become crucial to bridge the gaps between perception and reality, and promote the new—often by first reclaiming the past.

And the term tree huggers is a clear example.

The original tree huggers, a group of women of color, inspired generations of would-be tree huggers through their sacrifice, and their story illustrates what it means for an influential history to get erased from a movement; for leadership and contributions to get largely ignored. Though parts of this history might still be known to some, it is valuable for these histories to be taught, celebrated and acknowledged continuously—so we’re all aware that people of color have been leading environmental efforts throughout history, and still do.

We stand on the shoulders of indigenous people everywhere and this story is no exception.

A Brief History of the Khejarli Massacre  

In September 1730, soldiers representing Maharaja Abhai Singh arrived at Khejarli, the village of the Bishnoi people, with orders to cut down the community’s trees for the construction of a new palace. The Bishnoi, so named for the 29 life principles that they follow, are a religious sect who have lived in India’s Rajasthan desert for centuries.

Before the soldiers could begin their harvest, a Bishnoi woman named Amrita Devi ran forward to protect the native khejri tree (Prosopis cineraria). She did so by hugging the tree and refusing to move. When she was decapitated as a result, her three daughters promptly took her place. They too were killed in the same manner.

Inspired by their example, other Bishnoi (from a total of 84 different villages) continuously took their place until, in an event that would come to be known as the Khejarli Massacre, 363 Bishnoi had sacrificed their lives in defense of their trees.

Upon hearing of their sacrifices, the Maharaja Abhai Singh intervened and rescinded the original order, calling for a permanent ban to the felling of the Bishnoi’s trees. A temple was later erected in honor of the 363 Bishnoi who gave their lives, and today many Bishnoi make the pilgrimage every September to honor this history.

200 Years Later

In 1973, the history of the Bishnoi (aka the OG tree huggers) became the key inspiration and impetus for nonviolent protests against deforestation in Northern India, in what is now known as the Chipko movement. The now broadly used tree hugger term entered our collective psyches through the popularization of the Chipko movement (chipko, “to hug” or “to embrace”), which continued for eight years, until 1981. (This past March marked its 45th anniversary.)

Popularization is used here intentionally—the movement was quickly subject to appropriation. In many cases, the retelling of the Chipko movement is simplified or not told at all, and it is arguably why, roughly 40 years later, the mainstream, collective imagination doesn’t pair tree huggers with indigenous Indian communities, but with white, American environmentalists.

Remembering Chipko

Leading up to the year 1973, the Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand region of India was subject to significant environmental degradation from commercial logging. The Chipko movement was born as a response by the local people to protect their livelihood and communities. A grassroots effort, it was notably not one but a series of demonstrations against commercial logging that went on for eight years in separate locations throughout the region. The organizing was led by women from the separate villages and included the coordination of rotating day and night shifts, where villagers swapped places to make sure the trees were not felled in the middle of the night. In the movement, the women used the same method as the Bishnoi before them: embracing the trees, organizing and mobilizing multiple communities, and displaying an unwavering determination.

Alongside the praise it received within India itself, the international attention these protests attracted can be largely attributed to a few reasons:

  1. Its element of nonviolence;
  2. the leadership and bravery of the women who placed themselves between the would-be loggers and the trees;
  3. its significance in ecofeminist thought and discussion;
  4. and finally, the ability for the story to travel as fast as it did. The Chipko movement took place in the ’70s as opposed to the early 1700s, and attracted mass media attention.

Eventually, after years of dedication on the part of the local people, the Indian government ceased commercial logging in the region for 15 years (some sources say permanently). The women of the Chipko movement have gone on to garner international attention for their efforts, and their tactics have been successfully replicated by women elsewhere, including this year in Bosnia and Herzegovina. And yet they’re not who we think of when we think of tree huggers.

Toward a more just, resilient future

The origin of the term tree huggers is but one instance of obscured history, and an unfortunate norm when it comes to the environmental history we’re often taught or see lauded. Black, indigenous and people of color have always had a deep relationship with the environment and ecological community around them. The traumatizing effects of the voluntary and involuntary diaspora notwithstanding, our presence, ingenuity and leadership is ingrained in the environment and protection of the planet. Our experiences parallel that of the planet’s, and as a result it is crucial that we reclaim these erased histories so that we may better honor one another, heal one another, and build a more just and resilient future for everyone.

Ultimately, these stories are not only important because they exemplify the innate human resiliency that has inspired generations of would-be activists around the world, but also because they challenge us to think more critically about the direction of our work. These histories challenge us to ask, where else are the contributions and legacies of indigenous peoples and people of color being erased; where else have we perhaps missed a crucial piece in the building of our collective movements? Where else may we discover not a new solution to the crisis at hand, but one steeped in the heritages of our ancestors?

Our stories are bright and brilliant; here’s to reclaiming our pasts so that our futures may become stronger for all.

This piece was originally written and published for Brown Environmentalist.

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