Armed with only their bare hands and fierce determination to save the forest upon which their livelihoods depended, Gaura Devi and the women put themselves between the trees and the contractors' chainsaws. The state government had hatched a plan to draw the men of the village away to another town, believing the women would not put up a fight.
They were mistaken.
Gaura Devi stared down the contractors and compelled them to leave the forest. Her actions that day, in March 1974, became legendary -- it led to a 20-year ban on the felling of trees above 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) in the region. And the events at Raini village in northern India were a pivotal moment in what became one of the country's most influential environmental movements.
The Chipko -- meaning "to hug or cling" in Hindi -- started as a campaign by local villagers in the Alaknanda Valley to stop rampant tree felling by developers, which was blamed for a huge flood disaster in 1970 that devastated villages in the area. But it grew into a nationwide conservation movement, receiving international attention for its methods of nonviolent resistance. Images of activists wrapping themselves around trees became an enduring environmental symbol. "It showed ordinary people can change the course of history. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things," said Shekhar Pathak, historian and author of "The Real Chipko."
The message of the Chipko movement was that rampant deforestation and commercial development in ecologically fragile areas like the Himalayas -- a region prone to landslides and floods -- will only increase the severity of disasters.
The movement was credited with the passing of the Indian Forestry Act of 1980, as well as measures banning the felling of trees and the implementation of various acts on biodiversity and conservation.
But in the years since, the region has continued to be beset by a series of disasters, with villagers, activists and scientists say their repeated warnings have gone unheeded.
"We were assured that this valley will not see another iteration of 1970-like devastation. We started to feel apprehensive after seeing the kinds of activities that started in this area, especially without taking heed to the environment in last few decades," said Chandi Prasad Bhatt, environmentalist and one of the original leaders of the Chipko movement. "But this devastation was over what we had feared."
On February 7, residents of Raini village in Chamoli district -- once the cradle of the Chipko environmental movement -- watched in horror as an avalanche of water, ice and rock crashed through the Rishiganga Valley, wiping out bridges, roads, houses and two hydropower dams.
For almost a week, rescue teams have dug through the mountains of mud and debris to reach at least 43 workers believed to be trapped in a tunnel of the state-owned Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project. But rescue operations have been stalled by rising water levels in the Rishiganga river.
Against the odds, two people were rescued alive on Thursday -- but hopes of finding more survivors is dimming. At least 38 people have been killed and 170 are still missing, thought buried or trapped in the dams' tunnels.
Bad weather is also hampering rescue and relief work to 13 villages cut off by Sunday's disaster, with medical personnel setting up camps for stranded villagers.
"We have just heard that the river is flooding in, we were trying to clear a path to the villages that have been cut off but now we have asked everyone to pull back and we will have to change strategy," Vasant Pawre, a spokesperson for the NDRF in Uttarakhand said Thursday.
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