The first known 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.
The Bishnois inspired the Chipko movement (chipko means “to cling” in Hindi) that started in the 1970s, when a group of peasant women in the Himalayan hills of northern India threw their arms around trees designated to be cut down. Within a few years, this tactic, also known as satyagraha (“truth-force”), had spread across India, ultimately stimulating reforms in forestry and a moratorium on tree felling in Himalayan regions.
Here’s a clip from Sudesha, a 1983 documentary film by Deepa Dhanraj for Faust Films. The film is part of the series “As Women See It.” The heroine of the film is Sudesha Devi, an activist in the Chipko movement, who is still working in the Indian environmental movement:
In recent decades, tree sitting, a Western version of Chipko, has been widely employed by environmental activists. Here, instead of hugging the tree, a protester sits in the branches, usually on a small platform built for the purpose, to protect it from being cut down (speculating that loggers will not endanger human lives by cutting an occupied tree). Supporters usually provide the tree sitters with food and other supplies. Tree sitting is often used as a stalling tactic, to prevent the cutting of trees while lawyers fight in the courts to secure legal protection for the forest.
Tree sitting has often been an effective tactic for saving forests, having been used hundreds of times in various countries. The Waller Creek Tree-sit, October 22, 1969, Austin, Texas is often cited as the first modern use of this method. During the Elm Conflict in Kungsträdgården in Stockholm, Sweden in May 1971, many protesters sat in the ancient elms. In 1978, a tree sitting action led to the protection of what is now the Pureora Forest Park in New Zealand. In 2006, 2007, and 2008, protesters in Berkeley, Californiasat in coast live oak trees to prevent the construction of a new sports facility by the University of California, Berkeley. On September 5, 2008, the University began logging the grove, after winning court agreement. Four days later, after a little more than 21 months, the final four tree sitters surrendered to authorities, ending the longest running urban tree sit in history.
In the United Kingdom, tree houses have sometimes been occupied for a year or longer. One tree house, BattleStar Galactica at the Manchester International Airport, held 12 people. Such tree houses often have lock-on points for protesters to chain themselves during evictions.
A tree village is an extension of a tree sitting protest, involving several tree houses. Fern Gully, a tree village in Northern California, lasted over 20 years, ending in 2008 with an agreement not to fell the stand of old growth redwood trees.
Logging companies have developed tactics, often in concert with law enforcement officials, to counter these protest actions. For example, tree sitters in a forest claimed by Pacific Lumber in Humboldt County, California have been subject to forced removal by hired extractors. The practice started with a single extractor in the late 1990s, but in 2003 Pacific Lumber hired teams of climbers to remove dozens of tree sitters, particularly in the Freshwater area East of Eureka, California. Most of the extractions in Northern California are done under the leadership of Eric Schatz of Schatz Tree Service, a well known professional arborist.
The largest clash between tree sitters and extractors occurred November 15-20, 2014 on Burnaby Mountain in unceded Coast Salish Territories in Canada. Jakub Markiewicz (AKA Faery The Land Defender ) sat in a tree in an attempt to stop Kinder Morgan crews from clearing trees in order to fly oil-drilling equipment into the area. Twenty Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers, military fatigued climbers, and specialized units brought in from across the country arrested Markiewicz after a six hour stand off. He was armed only with two cameras and a megaphone. Over 100 additional arrests of protestors, many of them members of the Coast Salish Nation, were made on the mountain during the injunction. Lawsuits and protests went on for years, causing repeated delays in construction. In 2018, work on the pipeline was finally halted after the Federal Court of Appeal ruled the federal government had not properly consulted with First Nations.
This brief history shows that tree hugging can be an effective tactic in environmental action especially when used in combination with legal action. However, tree huggers risk imprisonment, fines, injury and even death, so the tactic should be used only as a last resort when all other measures have failed.
Michael Simms is the founder and editor of Vox Populi.