Myth and History of “Tree Hugging”

Show the slight­est bit of con­cern for the en­vi­ron­ment and you get la­beled a tree hug­ger. That’s what poor Newt Gin­grich has been deal­ing with re­cently, as the other pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates at­tack his con­ser­v­a­tive cre­den­tials for hav­ing once ap­peared in an ad with Nancy Pelosi in sup­port of re­new­able en­ergy. Never mind that he has since called the ad the “biggest mis­take” of his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer and talked about mak­ing Sarah Palin en­ergy sec­re­tary. Gin­grich will be haunted by the tree hug­ger label the rest of his life. He might as well grow his hair out, stop show­er­ing and start walk­ing around bare­foot.

But is that what a tree hug­ger re­ally is? Just some dazed hip­pie who goes around giv­ing hugs to trees as way to con­nect with na­ture. You might be shocked to learn the real ori­gin of the term.

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The first tree hug­gers were 294 men and 69 women be­long­ing to the Bish­nois branch of Hin­duism, who, in 1730, died while try­ing to pro­tect the trees in their vil­lage from being turned into the raw ma­te­r­ial for build­ing a palace. They lit­er­ally clung to the trees, while being slaugh­tered by the foresters. But their ac­tion led to a royal de­cree pro­hibit­ing the cut­ting of trees in any Bish­noi vil­lage. And now those vil­lages are vir­tual wooded oases amidst an oth­er­wise desert land­scape. Not only that, the Bish­nois in­spired the Chipko move­ment (which means “to cling”) that started in the 1970s, when a group of peas­ant women in North­east India threw their arms around trees des­ig­nated to be cut down. Within a few years, this tac­tic, also known as tree satya­graha, had spread across India, ul­ti­mately forc­ing re­forms in forestry and a mora­to­rium on tree felling in Hi­malayan re­gions.

De­spite this pow­er­ful his­tory of non­vi­o­lent re­sis­tance, we still con­sider tree hug­ger a deroga­tory term. Mean­while, a cur­rent ex­am­ple of for­est pro­tec­tion in Brazil, where the coun­try’s en­vi­ron­men­tal agency has a spe­cial ops team that hunts down il­le­gal log­gers, gets all kinds of glory. Not that it shouldn’t, con­sid­er­ing Brazil has cut de­for­esta­tion by nearly 80 per­cent since 2004. But do en­vi­ron­men­tal he­roes need to, as the BBC re­cently de­scribed Brazil’s for­est agents, “wear mil­i­tary fa­tigues, with heavy black pis­tols slung ca­su­ally on their thighs” in order to get any re­spect?In Africa, there are sev­eral con­ser­va­tion or­ga­ni­za­tions that have a shoot-to-kill pol­icy when they see a sus­pected poacher. Pri­vate se­cu­rity firms in Zim­babwe, the De­mo­c­ra­tic Re­pub­lic of Congo and Malawi pro­vide mil­i­tary-style pro­tec­tion for the iconic an­i­mals that West­ern tourists flock to see. While some have ar­gued in sup­port of these des­per­ate mea­sures–point­ing to the dra­matic rise in poach­ing in re­cent years–the “shoot first and ask ques­tions later” ap­proach has led to the deaths of lo­cals, who just hap­pened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. These in­ci­dents of course lead to re­sent­ment to­ward con­ser­va­tion, which has been shown to be most ef­fec­tive when local com­mu­ni­ties are in­volved in the process.

Not sur­pris­ingly, peo­ple want to pro­tect the land they live on. And like the Bisnhois and peo­ple of the Chipko move­ment, they are often will­ing to lay down their lives for it–armed only with their own two arms.

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About carlos

I'm a curious person, of reasonable intellect, "on the beach" (retired) and enjoying my interest in anthropology, language, civil rights, and a few other areas. I've been a hippie/student/aerospace tech writer in the '60s, a witness to the Portuguese revolution in the ‘70s, a defense test engineer and witness to the Guatemalan genocide in the '80s, and a network engineer for an ISP in the '90s. Now I’m a student and commentator until my time is up. I've spent time under the spell of the Mesoamerican pyramids and the sweet sound of the Portuguese language. I've lived in Europe, traveled in Brazil, Central America, Iceland, New Zealand, and other places. My preferred mode of travel is with a backpack and I eat (almost) anything local. Somehow, many of the countries I have been to have had civil unrest (for which I was not responsible). I'm open to correspond with anyone who might share my liberal, humanist interests. I live in San Buenaventura, California.
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