He saved one of India’s vast forests from coal mining and clinched the 2024 Goldman Prize

The 2024 Goldman Prize goes to an Indian activist for his strong no to mining in the Hasdeo Aranya forests. A battle that has become "a model of environmental justice, unique only in India"

India stands as one of the world’s leading consumers of coal for electricity generation. The forests of Hasdeo Aranya, also known as the “Lungs of Chhattisgarh“, are well-known for harboring vast coal deposits. It was from these exposed nerves that the remarkable efforts of Indian activist Alok Shukla began, recently earning him the Goldman Environmental Prize, an annual award given to grassroots environmental activists.

Alok Shukla’s two-decade commitment honored

At the age of 43, Shukla spearheaded a movement that successfully protected 445,000 acres of Chhattisgarh forests from the development of 21 coal mines, earning him the prestigious “Green Nobel.” This award acknowledges his two decades of dedication to the biodiversity and cultural identity of the Adivasi populations.

The awakening

Shukla’s profound commitment started with a deep realization. The first time he saw the expansive forest of central India, he understood two things instantly: one, this forest, home to thousands of tribes, endangered animals, and rare plants, was one of the most beautiful places he had ever seen; and two, he would dedicate his life to stopping the multibillion-dollar companies eager to uproot it in search of the coal beneath its soil.

The only question was: how? And as with all great things, it began with small steps.

The threat and response

By 2012, the Hasdeo Aranya forest, spanning over 2,470 square miles and rich in biodiversity, was threatened due to its enormous coal reserves (India, being the world’s second-largest consumer of coal after China, finds these deposits highly valuable). The state government was then initiating the creation of over 20 coal extraction blocks within 445,000 acres of forests, crucial natural resources for the 15,000 Adivasi natives in the area.

Along with the Adivasi, tigers, elephants, sloth bears, leopards, and wolves, as well as dozens of endemic species of birds and reptiles, it forms one of India’s largest intact arboreal habitats. Understandably, the 5.6 billion tons of extractable coal threatened its very existence.

The movement grows

Alok Shukla, founder of the Save Hasdeo Aranya resistance committee, began advocating for Hasdeo’s protection through extensive protest campaigns, including sit-ins, tree-hugging campaigns, encouraging couples to write #savehasdeo on their wedding invitations, and a variety of other content on social media.

The publication of the auctions in 2020 ignited the communities’ protest, leading to a 10-day, approximately 167.8 miles march to the state capital, Raipur. Finally, the Indian government retracted its plans.

Determined to save the lungs of Chhattisgarh from destruction, Shukla’s ability to successfully influence policy has made the Hasdeo movement a model of environmental justice in India, generating unprecedented national and regional solidarity, according to the award recipients.

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