If you’ve paid even passing attention to the climate change debate in recent years, you’ve more than likely heard the term ‘treehugger’ tossed around once or twice. Often leveled towards ecologists and activists as an insult, the term has become co-opted by the green movement. Makes sense; when you love something, you hug it, right? But as cute and/or derogatory as the image of environmentalists squeezing trees may be, it actually has (WARNING: INCOMING PUN) roots in a real-life event.

On March 26, 1974, 28 women made a brave and historic stand against a logging company under contract to the Indian government to cut down the forest surrounding the remote Himalayan village of Latta. Menaced with verbal abuse and the threat of physical violence—some of the loggers were reportedly armed with guns—the women encircled the trees and joined hands in a peaceful protest. Unnerved, the loggers abandoned the effort and the village’s trees were spared. The protest would come to bee seen as a watershed moment in India’s Chipko conservation movement and introduced the environmental movement to a new non-violent tactic: “treehugging.” (In Hindi, chipko means, literally, “to hug.”)

At the time, India was far from the emerging economic superpower we know today. In the 1960s, the government instituted an aggressive plan for domestic growth across all industries to draw upon the nation’s natural resources. Logging regulations were loosened and lumber contracts were handed out en masse. As a result, deforestation quickly became a pressing concern for many in rural India. Devastating landslides and floods were common, and soil erosion decimated subsistence agriculture. Rural women bore deforestation’s greatest burden; as keepers of the home, they were forced to push deeper into the forests in search of firewood and water. In many ways, the Chipko Movement was as much a feminist cause as it was an environmental one.

News of the Latta villagers’ success against the loggers spread to other villages, largely by word of mouth. Communal wells became networking hubs at which women from other villages would hear of the successes at Latta and apply them to their own communities. As the protests spread, they grew more elaborate; a 1977 demonstration saw women and girls tie sacred threads around the trees slated to be cut, forging a symbolic bond between themselves and nature. The Chipko Movement was presented with a Right Livelihood Award in 1987, an international award honouring practical solutions to global issues like human rights, sustainability and environmental conservation.

The incident at Latta may have been inspired by the ancient Indian folktale of Amrita Devi, a young girl who mounted a similar protest against agents of the Maharajah. When the axemen came to cut down her village’s trees to build a new fortress, Devi and other girls threw themselves in front of the trees. “If a tree is spared—even at the cost of one’s own head—it is worth it,” she said. Tragically, the axemen took her at her word, killing Devi and her friends and taking the trees. Word spread to other villages, igniting similar protests. When the loggers returned home empty-handed and told the Maharajah of the resistance they’d encountered, he immediately suspended his tree-felling program.

Do you consider yourself a treehugger? If so, do you find the term an insult or a compliment? Personally, I love trees, but I’m not really up for any hot-and-heavy man-on-conifer action, y’know? Have at it in the comments.

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