Bali Devi’s address in Nairobi

Comments Off on Bali Devi’s address in Nairobi   |   News Articles

Bali Devi at the DaisThis is the translation of Bali Devi’s address to the UNEP Women As the Voice for the Environment Conference in Nairobi. Bali Devi is the Mahila Mangal Dal President of Reni village, a post once held by Gaura Devi. The speech marks the first time that a grassroots indigenous Chipko woman activist has spoken at an international conference.

Nairobi, Kenya
October 11, 2004

Sisters and Friends,

Semanya (Greetings)

I am Bali Devi from Reni, a distant village in Chamoli Garhwal, India. You may have heard of Himalaya. My village is in Himalaya. Nanda Devi is our patron deity and our highest peak bears the same name. For us, mountains too are gods.

I am Head of the Women Welfare Group in our village. Our hill women have always played a prominent role in social and environmental conservation. Let me tell you of one such example from our village.

It is an old story from about 30-32 years ago. I myself was just 22-23 then. At the time, in our Uttarakhand there was a movement going on to save the forests. It was known as the Chipko Movement. During those days we used to sing this song –

Come sisters, come brothers, we’ll save the forest

Our forests we will protect, we will drive the contractor far away!

In hat movement, the women of our village attained one big victory, which gave the Chipko a new direction and face. It was 26 March 1974. That day, all the men of our village had gone to the distant district headquarters for some work. The forest contractor thought this was a good opportunity, and as darkness descended, his axemen quietly entered the forest. At the time, Gaura Devi was the head of the Women Welfare Group. She rounded up the women in the village and, along with 26 other women, immediately rushed to the forest to confront the axemen. The women were threatened, but they did not budge, saying they would hug the trees to save them at all cost. At last, the axemen were forced to leave empty handed. That action, by the women of Reni, gave Chipko a new face and recognition.

Chipko was successful, but then we were faced with a new problem. In 1982, our forests were declared the Nanda Devi national park, and some years later, it became the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve. Under this, the government took complete control over the forests and natural resources in the area. We people, who had played on our lives to protect the forests, now suddenly were considered thieves and smugglers. And we are now forced to struggle and agitate again. We are only asking that in the name of environmental conservation, do not dislocate the people from their occupations, their culture, but rather include the preservation of our society and culture as part of environmental conservation.

We are not the only one struggling. In our entire Uttarakhand, women everywhere are involved in their local struggles. Sisters Renu (Askot, Pithoragarh) and Mallika (Munsiari , Pithoragarh) are – are women expected to be just the caretakers of the natural resources? Don’t we have rights over them? They also complain that by joining local institutions like the Van Panchayat (People’s Forest Committees) with the market, the role of women in the conservation and development of common property resources is being sidelined.

Chipko activist Sudesha Behn from Tehri says that women do the entire agricultural work in the hills, and have been doing this using their traditional knowledge and skills. And yet, they are still not independently recognized as farmers. Nor do they have any right to land. At the same time, there is increasing market influence and dominance in agriculture, particularly seeds, which are ruining mountain agriculture and endangering our food security. Hence we demand –

Fields ours, seeds yours

Will not do, will not do!

Then there is a big problem from a series of dams being planned in the hills. Not just big dams, we now realize that there is serious displacement being caused by small dams as well.

It is the women who are affected the most from such developments. Because the entire mountain rests on our shoulders. There is no work that we do not perform. From early morning to late night. All the time in close communion with nature. Natural resources are the basis of our very survival. So, it is only we who can protect and preserve them. We cannot leave it to others to do. To the government we say, in this we offer constructive support, but are equally willing to struggle. And we demand the right of the village over forests and natural resources.

Today the Himalaya calls

That villages have the right over forests

I have traveled outside my country for the first time. While coming, I was thinking that this might be a different world. But I see, it is the same sky, the same earth. Last evening, as I looked at the stars in the sky, I thought that these very stars must be shining over my village as well. We have all come here from different countries, different lands, but the stars that shine over us are the same. So I feel, let us take strength from the stars. Wherever we may be, whenever we are in trouble, let us all look to the stars to feel that we are one and in solidarity. Thus let us take strength from one another.

I end with an ode to our goddess Nanda Devi:

Hail, Nanda Devi

We will recite your name, O Mother Nanda…