Ecofeminism is a social movement and philosophy that looks at the connections between nature and women. As a social movement that centers on the protection of nature, it is a movement led by decolonial and indigenous movements, primarily by women of colour activists.
In theory, it considers how the oppression of women and the domination of nature are interlinked. It is a term coined in 1974 by French feminist Françoise d’Eaubonne in her book Le Féminisme ou la Mort (Feminism or Death, 1974). Social movements such as the Chipko Andolan show that women globally have been protecting the environment for a long time.
As an extension of the feminist movement, western academia started theorising the term in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Eco-feminist theorists, such as the pioneer, Vandana Shiva argue how the oppression of women and nature are interlinked due to the system of capitalist patriarchy.
Ecofeminism theorises that we exist in a culture dominated by capitalist patriarchy—how societal values and ethics are controlled by a profit-driven, sexist and male-centred society—and seeks to highlight how these oppressive systems work together to facilitate the mutual exploitation of women and nature. It seeks to address how patriarchal dominance of society has perpetuated masculine violence and domination towards women and the natural world.
CHIPKO ANDOLAN – a movement of village women
A key example of an ecofeminist movement is the Chipko Andolan in India in early 1973. Chipko was a forest conservation movement in India led by both male and female activists and leaders such as Indian environmentalists, Chandi Prasat Bhatt and Sunderlal Bahuguna, and the indigenous women of the Himalayan region of Uttarakhand in the Chamoli district, then part of Uttar Pradesh.
Rural women were the backbone of the movement, especially since these womenfolk were the most affected groups due to rapid deforestation taking place in the area. With the rise of national economic development in India, rapid deforestation threatened their livelihoods, such as the lack of firewood and drinking water since the womenfolk were the primary gatherers of fuel and responsible for fetching drinking water.
In fact, the original Chipko Andolan dates back to the 18th century. Started by Rajasthan’s Bishnoi community and led by a lady named Amrita Devi, a group of villagers sacrificed their lives protecting trees from being felled. Under initial orders from the King of Jodhpur, the King withdrew his order due to the incident and banned the felling of trees in all Bishnoi village communities.
The story of the Chipko movement in 1973 follows how a contractor was given the right from the state to fell trees for a sports manufacturing company. The area, already denuded, was subjected to landslides and floods due to rapid deforestation from commercial logging. Women also had to trek further for fuel, fodder, and water.
When the loggers arrived at the village, they were met by the womenfolk who formed a circle around the trees, linked arms, and embraced the trees to prevent the men from cutting them down. After days of agitation, the government cancelled the contractor’s logging permit and the local women successfully prevented deforestation within the area. The womenfolk demonstrated the collective power of the ordinary people against unfavourable environmental policies.
Chipko, means “to embrace” in Hindi and refers to the tree-hugging technique demonstrated by villagers in the area who resorted to “tree-hugging” to save the felling of trees. The inspiration behind the name of the movement comes from this powerful, peaceful act of protest. The Chipko movement helped increase social and ecological awareness for the villagers and beyond their community. The idea of the Chipko movement spread between villages and soon became a turning point for many future environmental movements globally.
How gender and climate crisis intersect
The Chipko Andolan highlights how marginalised groups such as women of colour are most affected by environmental issues – what feels ever-present. For example, research shows that climate change is not gender-neutral.
In the 21st century, women are increasingly more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change than men since they represent the majority of the world’s poors and are often more dependent on local natural resources.
Ecofeminist values and principles are especially relevant today to analyse the profit-driven and sexist system of capitalist patriarchy that continues to harm our ecosystem through the exploitation of natural resources and the people who inhabit them. The most vulnerable and marginalised are always the hardest hit, such as women of colour, children, and lower-income communities who face the brunt of climate change, predominantly in the Global South.
While ecofeminists have been criticised for being essentialist, understanding the relationship between nature and women does not have to necessarily uphold a negative relationship because it reinforces the division of gender roles. Feminine and masculine qualities are part of all individuals and are not specific to the gender binary.
The Chipko movement highlights the power of environmental grassroots movements originating in the global South and how collective effort can create social change. As an indigenous woman of colour, I feel empowered learning about the Chipko Andolan because the environmental movement in the west has largely excluded marginalised voices from the conversation – often those who are most impacted by environmental issues such as climate change.
Ecofeminist movements such as Chipko teach us about the origins of the movement and to value the contributions of women of colour because they have always been part of the conversation.
While ecofeminism considers how gender and environmental justice are interlinked, an intersectional approach is crucial to further understand how other forms of oppression intersect with our diverse identities.
As individuals, we can actively challenge the values upheld by capitalist patriarchy such as hierarchical thinking, show reverence for nature, and supporting the liberation of all women.