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India's Bishnoi 'tree huggers' renew conservation fight

Mahima Kapoor
July 16, 2023

Khejri trees are sacred among the Bishnoi people in India's Rajasthan state. Nearly 300 years ago, the Bishnoi sacrificed hundreds of lives to protect their sacred "tree of life." Today, their trees are again threatened.

A group of men in white robes sitting on the floor
The Bishnoi Tiger Force leads protests against the cutting of khejri trees

Rampal Bhawad leads the Bishnoi Tiger Force in northern Rajasthan state. They are a group of environmental activists from the Bishnoi community, which has a long history of protecting and preserving flora and fauna in India.

Last year, Bhawad was told that an infrastructure project in a nearby village cut down several khejri trees, dumped them in a drain and covered the evidence with the help of excavators. The khejri tree is sacred for the Bishnoi, as it can survive in Rajasthan's desert climate.

"Some of us went over immediately," Bhawad told DW. "We uncovered the remains of the khejri trees and lodged a complaint with the local police."

"Multiple protests, legal proceedings and appeals to politicians later, we can only see our struggle growing without an end in sight," said Bhawad.

A cut tree on the dirt ground next to solar panels
This khejri tree was cut down to make way for solar panels in Rajasthan's Jodhpur districtImage: Sharvan Patel

Protecting the 'tree of life'

The khejri tree is essential to the desert ecosystem. Largely a community of agrarians, Bishnois rely on the tree for nourishment. The trees also provide hydration, nourishment and shade for wildlife.

The hardy tree dominates vegetation across the state and is often called the "tree of life."

Ram Vishnoi, a 63-year-old farmer from Khejarli village near Jodhpur, told DW that the tree is essential for agriculture.

"Any field you see here will have khejris planted at regular intervals because the partial shade protects our crops," Vishnoi said. The tree is also known to help enhance the nitrogen content of soil.

India's original tree huggers

The Bishnoi community are a Hindu sect that was founded in 1485 based on 29 principles ("Bishnoi" translates to 29 in Hindi), most of which promote protecting the environment, plants and animals.

"In Hinduism, the dead are cremated, but our principles don't allow that because it requires burning wood from trees. So, we bury our dead," Deepak Chaudhary, a resident of Khejarli, told DW. "Even for ritualistic ceremonies, the community burns coconut husks for the holy fire, instead of wood."

The Bishnoi are equally passionate about protecting wildlife. Chinkara gazelles, peacocks, and nilgai antelopes roam freely in Bishnoi villages.

"Protecting the environment is in our blood," Chaudhary said. "It's what we do best." 

Raising awareness about environmental challenges

Roughly 300 years ago, a group of Bishnois in Khejarli village mobilized to protect khejri trees from being cut down to harvest lumber for a new palace under orders of the maharaja, or king, of Jodhpur, Abhai Singh of Marwar.

A group of soldiers led by a general was sent to cut down the trees, but a local woman named Amrita Devi ran out of her house, pleading for them to stop. She hugged the tree in protest. With an obligation to follow the king's orders, the general took an ax to the tree, slaying Devi in the process. 

Her three daughters followed her example, replacing their dead mother in hugging the tree. They were also killed by the soldiers.

As news of the killings spread, more Bishnoi people came from neighboring villages to protect their beloved trees. It wasn't before 363 people had been massacred that the maharaja found out about the situation.

Overcome with guilt, he ordered his army away and promised the community that no one would cut khejri trees under his regime. The incident became known as the "Khejarli massacre." It was one of the first incidents in history where people are known to have sacrificed their lives for trees. 

Women in bright-colored robes plant a tree
Women in Rajasthan commemorate the Khejarli massacre every year by planting a treeImage: Matteo Nardone/Pacific Press/picture alliance

And the Bishnoi community has held on to its roots. The Bishnoi Tiger Force was launched in 1998 in response to the killing of two blackbuck antelope in a Jodhpur village by Indian movie star Salman Khan.

After nearly two decades of protest led by the Bishnoi community, Khan was charged with poaching in 2018 and was sentenced to five years in prison.

It was a well-publicized victory for the community. However, Bishnoi environmental groups are struggling to draw attention to khejri deforestation.

Bishnois vs. the government

The Bishnois are again faced with stopping the indiscriminate felling of their sacred trees. This time around, the khejri trees are now under threat from infrastructure development.

In 2019, Rajasthan's government began allotting land contracts to private companies for developing renewable energy projects, and it soon became apparent that forests were being cut to make room.

Three years later, several Bishnoi conservation groups protested and received assurance from the regional government that trees on the leased land would be replanted, rather than cut down.

"There was a feeling of relief when we signed the compromise, but the power companies resorted to building fences around the land and cutting trees in the cover of darkness," said Devendra Budiya, chairman of ABBM, a Bishnoi conservation group.

The ABBM is currently fighting an ongoing legal battle in Rajasthan to stop the felling of the khejri trees and hold officials accountable. However, there is little optimism within the community.

In search of space for solar panels

Sarawan Patel, a photographer and environmental social worker in Jodhpur, told DW that the protests are not drawing enough attention.

"Despite the large scale of deforestation, we have not been able to make waves or have our pleas heard and this remains a local issue," he said.

Bhawad said there was currently a fine of 100 rupees ($1.20/€1.10) for the felling of a khejri tree.

"Nothing will matter until the law is changed," Bhawad said. "That law was enacted in the 1950s, when 100 rupees was significant," he added. "In today's day and age, it's nothing, which is why these private companies are not scared."

Although Bishnois are motivated to protest deforestation, Bhawad said, they are facing a lot of pushback from officials.

When asked about the way forward, Bhawad recalled what is widely believed to be Amrita Devi's last words some 300 years ago: "A chopped head is cheaper than a felled tree."

DW's requests for comment from government and forestry officials in Rajasthan were unanswered.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn