To Protect a Forest, He Organized its People

Alok Shukla pulled together a community resistance campaign that saved an ancient forest in India from being dug up for coal.

When Alok Shukla first set eyes on Hasdeo Aranya — a gorgeous, ancient forest spread across 657 square miles in central India — he knew right away that the struggle to save it would be “a battle for the soul of Chhattisgarh.” What Shukla didn’t anticipate back then was that the struggle would take 12 years.

“I looked at it then and thought, how can this beautiful forest be destroyed?” he said, speaking in Hindi during a recent interview with Earth Island Journal. “It belongs to the Adivasis [Indigenous people] who live here, who do not want mines to displace them or the forests.”

The 657 sq mile Hasdeo Aranya forms one of India’s most extensive contiguous forest tracts. It is a critical elephant and tiger corridor and is home to many other endangered animals and plants. It also holds some 5.6 billion tons of coal reserves. All photos courtesy of The Goldman Prize.​

Located in the relatively-new state of Chhattisgarh — where some 44 percent of the land is still densely forested — Hasdeo Aranya forms one of India’s most extensive contiguous forest tracts. These forests are a critical tiger corridor, linking neighboring parks and preserves. They are home to many endangered species, including some 50 Asian elephants, leopards, sloth bears, grey wolves, and striped hyenas, as well as 92 bird species, and 167 rare and medicinal plants. The forests are a significant carbon sink, and are also a catchment area for the Hasdeo River, which flows into the Mahanadi River and serves as the watershed for the Hasdeo Bango reservoir, which irrigates some 741,000 acres of farmland.

Hasdeo is, in fact, part of a vast swath of mostly forested land running through the middle of the India — from the far northeast nearly all the way to its southern tip — that is also home to the country’s many Indigenous tribes, many of whom depend on the forest for their livelihoods.

Unfortunately, this swath is also where the bulk of India’s untapped coal and other mineral resources lie buried. And as the country’s expanding economy scrambles to keep up with its rising energy demands — much of which are being met by coal, India’s most abundant fossil fuel — these lands and the people who live there are under increasing threat from extractive industries. (India is the world’s second largest coal consumer and producer, after China, with 761 million tons generated in 2022-2023, providing nearly 70 percent of the country’s electricity. More than 21 percent of India’s coal comes from Chhattisgarh.)

Beneath the Hasdeo forests specifically, are some 5.6 billion tons of coal reserves, one of the largest reserves in India and one that successive governments have routinely tried to get to. The country’s environment ministry had declared the Hasdeo a “no-go” zone for mining in 2010 because of its incredible biodiversity. But the declaration was never formalized into law, leaving the forests vulnerable to mining interests.

When Shukla first visited Hasdeo in 2012, the state government had already leased out 1,898 hectares of “coalfields” in the forest. Between 2011 and 2015, one of India’s most powerful multinational corporations, Adani Enterprises Limited, headed by Gautam Adani, Asia’s second wealthiest tycoon and a close ally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, acquired these leases and received permission to develop five coal mines in the forests. By 2013, 1,882 acres of the forest had already been turned into massive coal pits, despite pending legal challenges by environmental and citizen rights groups. (A 2022 Washington Post investigation found that the Modi government has for years granted tax breaks and preferential treatment to Adani’s coal business.)

Alok Shukla helped found the Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (Save Hasdeo Aranya Resistance Committee), a grassroots movement uniting forest villages across the region in the struggle against one of India’s most powerful multinational corporations, Adani Enterprises Limited.

Shukla and a villager check out a coal mine on the forest fringe. Nearly 15,000 Adivasi — Indigenous peoples — depend on the Hasdeo Aranya for their livelihood, cultural identity, and sustenance.

Shukla focused the bulk of his efforts on helping the Adivasi communities learn their legal rights and file cases arguing that the coal leases violated Indigenous and community forest rights.

Shukla, 43, a convenor with Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan (Save Chhattisgarh Movement), an informal alliance of grassroots groups across his home state, quickly realized that while the local Adivasis were trying their best to resist the mining projects, their efforts weren’t well-coordinated. Neither were they fully aware of their legal rights.

“Unfortunately, in India, while there are laws in place to protect Indigenous people and their lands, tribes are often not aware of those laws. Nor has much effort been made to inform them about these laws. Because, states and corporations don’t want gram sabhas [village councils] to decide the fate of their projects,” explained Shukla, who has degrees in botany, zoology, and political science, but choose to become an environmental and Indigenous rights activist right out of college after witnessing the devastation extractive industries had wreaked on land and rural communities in his home state and beyond.

So, in 2012, he helped found the Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (Save Hasdeo Aranya Resistance Committee), a grassroots movement uniting forest villages across the region in the struggle against Adani and his enablers.

Shukla focused his efforts on helping the Adivasi communities learn their legal rights and file cases arguing that the coal leases violated Indigenous and community forest rights and that Adani Enterprises hadn’t received informed consent from the traditional village councils. “We helped them understand that they had decision-making power,” he said. “We just showed them the path to effective, collective, resistance, and how to work in solidarity with each other, and that empowered the communities to take leadership.”

He also helped plan citizen actions, including marches and sit-ins in front of government offices in the region. These initiatives helped keep new mines from being opened in Hasdeo while the cases dragged on in court. But in June 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, the Chhattisgarh state government announced a public auction of another 21 mine leases. Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti immediately shifted into high gear, mobilizing a fierce opposition campaign, which despite Covid restrictions, included on the ground protests, press conferences, legal petitions, and viral social media campaigns using the hashtag #SaveHasdeo.

These efforts brought upon Shukla and his allies the ire of the Indian government, which has in recent years been extremely hostile to environmental activists, resorting to trumped-up legal charges and thuggish tactics to suppress opposition.

“When you fight a big corporation and government together, the challenges are many,” he said. “They try to discredit you in every which way. First, they try to bribe, then they harass and threaten you, or file cases against you. And now, of course, there’s a new trend in India where even the national intelligence agencies are tasked with investigating you. Our entire community of activists have false cases filed against them.” Shukla has also been subject to relentless social media smear campaigns would label him a “foreign-funded, anti-national.”

All of this can be disturbing at times, he says, “but this is my life’s mission…. If you have to fight, then it’s a given that you will have to deal with the dangers that come with it.” So, despite the many threats to their safety, he and the Adivasis persisted.

In the two years that followed, the struggle to save Hasdeo received widespread support across the country, made international headlines, and mobilized even the urban middle class, which has often shown little interest in rural environmental issues. Though the existing mines continued to operate, with some even expanding, state powers soon realized that they would lose vital social capital if they allowed all the new mining leases to go through.

In July 2022, bowing to people pressure, the Chhattisgarh state legislature unanimously adopted a resolution against mining in Hasdeo Aranya, demanded that existing allocations be cancelled, and declared the forests a mining-free Lemru Elephant Reserve.

“It’s been a huge sigh of relief,” said Priyanshu Gupta, an Indian public policy expert who has been following the Hasdeo struggle closely and was also present during the interview. “The declaration of the Lemru Elephant reserve actually makes it very difficult [for the state] to go back…. It means that in 20 out of 21 blocks we have no foreseeable threat.”

For his leadership in helping Adivasi communities hold on to their land and save one of the largest and most important carbon sinks on the planet, Shukla was awarded this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize.

“This prize is for the collective, not just for one person. It is a recognition of the efforts of the Adivasis of Hasdeo and will energize other struggles in the country to save the environment,” said Shukla, who arrived in San Francisco last week to receive the award. He called for global solidarity with their struggle, pointing out that the threat to Hasdeo isn’t over yet: The existing coal mines started their second expansion phase last December, and villagers in Hasdeo have been running a sit-in protest for over 800 days demanding withdrawal of the forest clearances for those mines.

“In this era of climate chaos, when we are talking of the global impacts of the loss of forests in India, and Africa, and the Amazon, this fight is no longer local. It’s a global struggle because it’s a fight the save Earth. So, when this is a global fight, the solidarity for it should also be global too,” he said.

Shukla was conferred the award at a ceremony in San Francisco this past Tuesday, along with five other activists from across the world. The other winners are:

The 2024 Goldman Prize winners (from left): Marcel Gomes (Brazil), Andrea Vidaurre (United States), Teresa Vicente (Spain), Alok Shukla (India), Nonhle Mbuthuma and Sinegugu Zukulu (South Africa). Murrawah Maroochy Johnson (Australia) was unable to attend in person.

Murrawah Maroochy Johnson (Australia)

Murrawah Maroochy Johnson blocked development of the Waratah coal mine, which would have accelerated climate change in Queensland, destroyed the nearly 20,000-acre Bimblebox Nature Refuge, added 1.58 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere over its lifetime, and threatened Indigenous rights and culture. Maroochy case, which overcame a 2023 appeal, set a precedent that enables other First Nations people to challenge coal projects by linking climate change to human and Indigenous rights.

Marcel Gomes (Brazil)

Journalist Marcel Gomes coordinated a complex, international campaign that directly linked beef from JBS, the world’s largest meatpacking company, to illegal deforestation in Brazil’s most threatened ecosystems. Armed with detailed evidence from his breakthrough investigative report, Gomes worked with partners to pressure global retailers to stop selling the illegally sourced meat, leading six major European supermarket chains in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom to indefinitely halt the sale of JBS products in December 2021.

Nonhle Mbuthuma and Sinegugu Zukulu (South Africa)

Indigenous activists Nonhle Mbuthuma and Sinegugu Zukulu helped stop Shell Oil’s destructive seismic testing for oil and gas off South Africa’s Eastern Cape, in an area known as the Wild Coast. Organizing their community, Mbuthuma and Sine Zukulu gugu secured their victory in 2022 by asserting the rights of the local community to protect their marine environment.

Teresa Vicente (Spain)

Teresa Vicente led a historic, grassroots campaign to save the Mar Menor —Europe’s largest saltwater lagoon — from collapse, resulting in the passage of a new law in 2022 that granted the lagoon as legal personhood — a first in Europe. Mar Menor, one the most important saltwater coastal lagoons in the western Mediterranean, had become polluted due to mining, rampant development of urban and tourist infrastructure, and, in recent years, intensive agriculture and livestock farming.

Andrea Vidaurre (United States)

Andrea Vidaurre’s grassroots leadership persuaded the California Air Resources Board to adopt, in the spring of 2023, two historic transportation regulations that significantly limit trucking and rail emissions. The new regulations — the In-Use Locomotive Rule and the California Advanced Clean Fleets Rule — include the nation’s first emission rule for trains and a path to 100 percent zero emissions for freight truck sales by 2036. The groundbreaking regulations — a product of Vidaurre’s policy work and community organizing — will substantially improve air quality for millions of Californians while accelerating the country’s transition to zero-emission vehicles.

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