My Himalayan journey
MY ecological journey started in the forests of the Himalaya. My father was a forest conservator, and my mother became a farmer after fleeing the tragic Partition of India and Pakistan. The Himalayan forests, rivers, ecosystems have shaped both my identity and mind. It is from the Himalaya I learned most of what I know about ecology. Walking with our father through forests of oak and rhododendron, deodar and pine was our classroom. The songs and poems our mother composed for us were about the trees, forests, and India’s forest civilizations.
My involvement in the contemporary ecology movement began with Chipko, a nonviolent response to the large-scale deforestation that was taking place in the Himalayan region. In the 1970s, peasant women from my region in the Garhwal Himalaya had come out in defence of the forests. Logging had led to landslides and floods, and scarcity of water, fodder, and fuel. Since women provide these basic needs, the scarcity meant longer walks for collecting water and fire-wood, and a heavier burden. Women knew that the real value of forests was not the timber from a dead tree, but the springs and streams, food for their cattle, and fuel for their hearths. The women declared they would hug the trees, and the loggers would have to kill them before felling the trees.
A folk song of that period said: ‘These beautiful oaks and rhododendrons, they give us cool water. Don’t cut these trees. We have to keep them alive.’ In 1973, I had gone to visit my favourite forests and swim in my favourite stream before leaving for Canada to do my PhD. But the forests were gone, and the stream was reduced to a trickle. I decided to become a volunteer for the Chipko movement, and I spent every vacation doing pad yatras (walking pilgrimages), documenting the deforestation and the work of the forest activists, and spreading the message of Chipko.
My parents were Gandhians and their doors were open for the leading Gandhians of the Himalaya – Mira Behn and Sarala Behn, and later Sundarlal Bahuguna, Bimla Bahuguna, and Ghanshyam Shailani, the Chipko poet. Mira Behn visited frequently when my father was posted in Chakrata which is where I was born. Mira was born in England on 22 November 1892 as Madeleine Slade, the daughter of Admiral Sir Edmund Stade. She left England in 1929, inspired by the freedom movement, and became Gandhi’s disciple in Sewagram. Because of the heat of Wardha, she was frequently ill. Gandhi told her to set up an ashram in the Himalaya. She set up Pashulok Ashram in Rishikesh near the banks of the Ganga.
It is her life in the Himalaya that made her realize that something was wrong with the Himalaya.
‘Pashulok being situated as it is at the foot of the mountains, just where the Ganga emerges from the Himalayan valley, I became very realistically aware of the terrible floods which pour down from the Ganga catchment area, and I had taken care to have all the buildings constructed above the flood high mark. Within a year or two I witnessed a shocking flood: as the swirling waters increased, (there) came first bushes and boughs and great logs of wood, then in the turmoil of more and more water came whole trees, cattle of all sizes and from time to time a human being clinging to the remnants of his hut. Nothing could be done to save man or beast from this turmoil; the only hope was for them to get caught up somewhere on the edge of an island or riverbank prominence. The sight of these disastrous floods led me each summer to investigate the area north of Pashulok whence they came. Merciless deforestation as well as cultivation of profitable pines in place broad-leaf trees was clearly the cause. This in turn led me to hand over charge of Pashulok to the government staff and to undertake a community project in the valley of the Bhilangana. Here I built a little centre, Gopal Ashram, and concentrated on the forest problem.’1
During her stay in Garhwal Mira studied the environment intimately and derived knowledge about it from the local people. From the older ones she learnt that, earlier, Tehri Garhwal forests consisted largely of oak, and Garhwali folk songs, which encapsulate collective experience and wisdom, tell repeatedly of species such as banj and kharik. They create images of abundant forests of banj, grasslands and fertile fields, large herds of animals and vessels full of milk. In Mira’s view the primary reason for the degeneration of this region was the disappearance of the banj tree. According to her, if the catchment of the Ganga was not once again clothed with banj, floods and drought would continue to get aggravated.
The issue was not merely one of planting trees, but of planting ecologically appropriate trees. As Mira Behn pointed out, the replacement of banj and mixed forests by the commercially valuable pine was a major reason for the increasing ecological instability of the Himalaya and the growing economic deprivation of Garhwali women, since pine failed to perform any of the ecological and economic functions of banj. Like Gandhi, she believed that all beings have equal rights to live, all support each other. There is no living being who does not nourish another, sustain another.2
Sundarlal Bahuguna worked with Mira Behn. She told Sundarlal that everything that was wrong with the Himalaya was connected to what is happening to the forests, both the destruction of forests through commercial forestry, and the change in species from the broad-leaved native tress like oak and rhododendron to chir pine which was valuable for timber and resin. She explained how pine replacing oak was destroying the hydrology of the Himalayan ecosystem.3 She taught Sundarlal that ‘The forests of the Himalaya are protectors of the plains, the breadbasket of India. We have a duty to protect these forests not just for Himalayan communities but for India’.4
Gandhi’s other disciple Sarala Behn was a frequent visitor to our home when my father was posted in Pithoragarh. Sarala Behn, born Catherine Mary Heilman in 1901 in England, had come to India in 1935 to volunteer at Gandhi’s Sewagram Ashram. Like Mira Behn, Gandhi told her to move to the Himalaya, and she started to work with women in the Kumaon and Garhwal regions. In 1946 she started the Laxmi Ashram with six girls. Bimla joined in 1949. She later married Sundarlal Bahuguna on condition that he give up politics and dedicate himself to the service of society, a commitment he readily made, and fulfilled through his life. Their ashram in Silyara became a mobilizing and organizing place for the Chipko movement. For us it became an Ashram for Ecology. Sundarlalji passed on in 2021.
The education at Laxmi Ashram was based on Gandhi’s idea of Nai Talim, education for economic self-reliance. ‘To create conditions for a free society in which people could seek free livelihoods according to their freedom and choice. ‘Hands, Heart, and Head should all develop in Harmony.’ This is the philosophy on which I have built the Bija Vidyapeeth/Earth University at the Navdanya Biodiversity farm in Doon Valley.
I call the Chipko movement my university of ecology, where knowledge and action are one continuum. Chipko taught me about self-organizing. Women would gather daily and put a fistful of grain in a common basket, and that would be the food they ate as they protested in the forest. If one woman was involved with the protest, others would take care of her children, cows, buffaloes; and then they would rotate. I learned how you must turn within yourself to see what resources you have, rather than looking externally.
Chipko taught me the value of self-help and solidarity. I remember in 1977, this forest in Adwani, Uttarakhand was going to be logged for timber. And because the government had already faced some setbacks, they decided to hire local contractors from within the village, rather than from outside. Timber was still being logged, and the village headman was given the contract for logging. Yet, his wife Bachni Devi led the protest to stop the logging.
The women arrived en masse, carrying lanterns. Seeing them, the police who were present said, ‘Foolish women, can’t you see the sun is out?’ These lanterns are not for the sun, said the women, ‘they’re for you’. The slogan they used was ‘Kya hain jungle ke upkaar? Mitti, paani, aur bayaar’ (What are the jungles’ gifts? Soil, water, and pure air). In other words, forests are not resin, timber, and revenue.
Chipko taught me ecology and biodiversity. When the Chipko movement finally succeeded in getting logging banned in 1981 after the 1978 flood, it was because the authorities then understood what the women were saying: forests regulate water, and therefore to avoid floods and droughts, we need to protect our forests. While others had treated the forest as separate from the river, the women knew it was connected. Half a century later, this is the language of science. Today people look at the ecological functions of the forest. Scientists took half a century to catch up with illiterate women.
Finally, Chipko taught me humility. There is a certain arrogance that comes with science. Science is always pitted against mythology, but dominance based on domination over nature is the mythology of our time. I was a part of the arrogance of science when I was working with nuclear reactors. But Chipko taught me that everyone has knowledge, and that the role of science is merely to coevolve and co-create knowledge in partnership with nature and people.
From Chipko, I learned about biodiversity and biodiversity-based living economies; the protection of both has become my life’s mission. As I described in my book Monocultures of the Mind, the failure to understand biodiversity and its many functions is at the root of the impoverishment of nature and culture. The lessons I learned about diversity in the Himalayan forests I transferred to the protection of biodiversity on our farms.
I started saving seeds from farmers’ fields and then realized we needed a farm for demonstration and training. Thus Navdanya Farm was started in 1994 in the Doon Valley, located in the lower elevation Himalayan region of Uttarakhand province. Today we conserve and grow 630 varieties of rice, 250 varieties of wheat, and hundreds of other species. We practice and promote a biodiversity-intensive form of farming that produces more food and nutrition per acre. The conservation of biodiversity is therefore also an answer to the food and nutrition crisis. When nature is a teacher, we co-create with her.
Navdanya, the movement for biodiversity conservation and organic farming that I started in 1987, is spreading. So far, we’ve worked with farmers to set up more than 150 community seed banks across India. We have saved more than 4,000 varieties of rice. We also help farmers make a transition from fossil fuel and chemical-based monocultures to bio-diverse ecological systems nourished by the sun and the soil. Biodiversity has been my teacher of abundance and freedom, of cooperation and mutual giving.
at a time of multiple crises intensified by globalization, we need to move away
from the paradigm of nature as dead matter. We need to move to an ecological
paradigm, and for this the best teacher is nature herself. This is the reason I
started the Earth University/Bija Vidyapeeth
at Navdanya’s farm. The Earth University teaches Earth Democracy, which is the freedom for all species to evolve within the web of life, and the freedom and responsibility of humans, as members of the Earth family, to recognize, protect, and respect the rights of other species. Earth Democracy is a shift from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism. And since we all depend on the Earth, Earth Democracy translates into human rights to food and water, to freedom from hunger and thirst. Because the Earth University is located at Navdanya, a biodiversity farm, participants learn to work with living seeds, living soil, and the web of life. Participants include farmers, schoolchildren, and people from across the world.
The Earth University is inspired by Rabindranath Tagore, India’s national poet and a Nobel Prize laureate. Tagore started a learning centre in Shantiniketan in West Bengal, India, as a forest school, both to take inspiration from nature and to create an Indian cultural renaissance. The school became a university in 1921, growing into one of India’s most famous centres of learning. Today, just as in Tagore’s time, we need to turn to nature and the forest for lessons in freedom.
In ‘The Religion of the Forest’, Tagore wrote about the influence that the forest dwellers of ancient India had on classical Indian literature. The forests are a source of water and the storehouse of a biodiversity that can teach us the lessons of democracy – of leaving space for others while drawing sustenance from the common web of life. Tagore saw unity with nature as the highest stage of human evolution.
In his essay ‘Tapovan’ (Forest of Purity), Tagore writes: ‘Indian civilization has been distinctive in locating its source of regeneration, material and intellectual, in the forest, not the city. India’s best ideas have come where man was in communion with trees and rivers and lakes, away from the crowds. The peace of the forest has helped the intellectual evolution of man. The culture of the forest has fuelled the culture of Indian society. The culture that has arisen from the forest has been influenced by the diverse processes of renewal of life, which are always at play in the forest, varying from species to species, from season to season, in sight and sound and smell. The unifying principle of life in diversity, of democratic pluralism, thus became the principle of Indian civilization.’
It is this unity in diversity that is the basis of both ecological sustainability and democracy. Diversity without unity becomes the source of conflict and contest. Unity without diversity becomes the ground for external control. This is true of both nature and culture. The forest is a unity in its diversity, and we are united with nature through our relationship with the forest. In Tagore’s writings, the forest was not just the source of knowledge and freedom; it was the source of beauty and joy, of art and aesthetics, of harmony and perfection. It symbolized the universe.
In ‘The Religion of the Forest’, the poet says that our frame of mind ‘guides our attempts to establish relations with the universe either by conquest or by union, either through the cultivation of power or through that of sympathy.’ The forest teaches us union and compassion. The forest also teaches us enoughness: as a principle of equity, how to enjoy the gifts of nature without exploitation and accumulation. Tagore quotes from the ancient texts written in the forest: ‘Know all that moves in this moving world as enveloped by God; and find enjoyment through renunciation, not through greed of possession.’
No species in a forest appropriates the share of another species. Every species sustains itself in co-operation with others. The end of consumerism and accumulation is the beginning of the joy of living. The conflict between greed and compassion, conquest and cooperation, violence and harmony that Tagore wrote about continues today. And it is the forest that can show us the way beyond this conflict.
early 1980s I was working in the Science and Technology Policy Unit of the
Indian Institute of Management. In 1982, the Indian Ministry of Environment in
New Delhi invited me and a team of ecologists to conduct an impact assessment
of mining limestone in the Mussoorie hills. Karst
limestone with cracks and fissures become cavities and caves which hold water
are a very important aquifer. Sahasradhara (thousand springs) in the Doon Valley flows from the limestone. Our study on mining assessed the hydrogeology and documented the floods and landslides and showed that when limestone is left in the mountains and can perform its hydrological functions,
it supports Nature’s economy and a sustenance economy for local people through its water gift that is a much bigger economy than one supported by the extraction of limestone.
We worked with local communities to build a movement to save the mountains and streams, and we supported citizens groups. The environment ministry initiated legal action to stop limestone mining in the Doon Valley, and in 1985 the Supreme Court ordered the permanent or temporary closure of 53 out of the 60 limestone quarries in the region. The court ruled: ‘This is the first case of its kind in the country involving issues related to environment and ecological balance, and the questions arising for considerations are of grave moment and of significance not only to the people residing in the Mussoorie Hills range forming part of the Himalayas but also in the implications to the welfare of the generality of the people living in the country. It brings into sharp focus the conflict between development and conservation and serves to emphasize the need for reconciling the two.’
The court further held that the closure of mining operations was a price that has to be paid for protecting and safeguarding the right of the people to live in a healthy environment with minimum disturbance of ecological balance and without avoidable hazards to them and to their cattle, homes and agricultural land and undue affection of air, water and environment. The decision by the Supreme Court of India was the precedent for accepting a stable and healthy environment as a human right. The court intervened on behalf of citizens.
We are now facing a climate emergency – unprecedented floods and droughts, heat waves and wildfires melting ice and glaciers, intensifying cyclones and hurricanes. We are facing an extinction emergency. Two hundred species are disappearing daily, one million are threatened. We are facing an existential emergency as billions go hungry and are sick.
Denying that we are in a planetary emergency is no longer possible. But not all solutions address the root causes of the existential crisis we face. While local communities protect nature as living systems, the billionaires are preparing for commodification and financialization of nature.
The Robber Barons of today, the philanthrocapitalists Rockefeller and Gates, the Blackrocks and Vanguards, are trying to own and privatize all of nature and our lives. They are mutating into ‘life lords’ to whom we will have to pay rent to breathe, eat, drink. What nature provides for free as a gift will now be a commodity we ‘buy’ at high cost and through digital social credits in the new economy which builds on the old colonization.
In 2021, Rockefeller and the New York Stock Exchange launched Intrinsic Exchange Group (IEG) whose mission focuses on ‘pioneering a new asset class based on natural assets and the mechanism to convert them to financial capital.’ A new colonialism, a new ownership, a new enclosure of the commons is being worked out by the Robber Barons who do not merely want to own nature, but also her ecological services. The assets include ‘Biological systems that provide clean air, water, foods, medicines, a stable climate, human health and societal potential.’5
The money machine is trying to own the last seed, the last drop of water, the last river, extinguish the last forest and last farm, the last insect and blade of grass. Creating fictitious currencies, and fictitious finance, nature is being reduced to a ‘financial asset’, to be miraculously multiplied to $4000 trillion.
The 2008 financial crisis was the result of the financial Robber Barons magically expanding the $90 trillion economy of real goods and services like homes and food into a fictitious $512 trillion financial economy. The financial economy grows at the cost of millions who were unhoused and unfed as a result. The more the real world is turned into a financial asset, the more homelessness and hunger grows.
Wall street and the financial asset companies are now seeing a $4000 trillion fictitious economy of finance by extracting profits from ‘Nature’s assets’ goods and services that the Earth produces. This commodification is an enclosure of the commons of life. It is an attempt to own the last river, the last forest, and the last acre of land. It is a recipe to displace and dispossess the real custodians of nature, the indigenous people and small farmers leaving them without access to land, forests and water and their earth centred cultures and livelihoods. Hunger, poverty, disposability, dispossession will grow. This is a violation of Nature’s Economy, Rights of Mother Earth, Rights of all beings and Human Rights.
Creating new algorithms to multiply finances and increase financial resources cannot regenerate the life lost in nature through ecological destruction. You can convert nature into cash through extractivism. But you cannot turn cash into nature. Protecting nature needs love and compassion, it needs economies of caring and sharing. This is the legacy of the Chipko movement which built on the freedom movement to create economies of permanence. I am grateful that my life’s journey has allowed me to walk in the footsteps of those who understood the value of nature and the Himalaya.
1. Quoted in Vandana Shiva, Staying Alive; Mira Behn, ‘Something wrong with the Himalaya’, p. 69.
2. K.S. Valdiya, Himalaya me Mahatma Gandhi ke Sipahi, Sundarlal Bahuguna. Sasta Sahitya Mandal Prakashan, New Delhi, 2017, p. 48.
3. Vandana Shiva, op. cit., p. 69.
4. K.S. Valdiya, op. cit., p. 48.