Lepcha leaders have started a hunger strike to protest the construction of a hydropower dam that threatens the natural and sacred environment of the Teesta River in Sikkim. The Teesta drains south out of the Himalayas and falls thousands of feet through the mountains before emptying into the Brahamaputra River in Bangladesh.

The projected dam, the first of many proposed for the Teesta, will involve diverting the river down an 18 km tunnel to provide the height necessary for generating electric power.

Dawa Lepcha, General Secretary of “Affected Citizens of Teesta,” an environmental and social organization formed to protest the dam construction, told the press that their group has asked the appropriate authorities to review the project. Their appeal has been ignored, he said.

Lepcha leaders argue that the project threatens the Kanchenjunga National Park, which protects the world’s third highest peak on the border of Sikkim and Nepal and is sacred to the Lepchas. The president of the group, Athup Lepcha, said that they were seeking to protect and preserve the environment with their protests.

The protesters began their hunger strike, which has generated some attention in India, on June 20th. More than one press report has referred to the strikers as “satyagrahis,” a term which carries a lot of meaning in India because of its association with Gandhi.

The Dzongu Lepcha Reserve, which the people feel is threatened by the dam project, is an especially important area for them. “Dzongu is a holy place, where our age old culture and traditions are still intact,” said Ajuk Lepcha, President of the Kalimpong Lepcha Association. “We believe that our souls rest here after death. We will not tolerate any dislocation and threat to this place.”

The government of Sikkim argues that the 280 megawatt power project poses no threat to the environment of the area or the Lepcha culture. A government statement released last week, in response to the publicity generated by the hunger strike, was predictable: “All measures have been taken to ensure that the damage to the ecology is mitigated and as a special safeguard for the preservation of the Lepcha culture the union ministry of environment and forest has barred the developers of the project from setting up any labour colony within the Dzongu region.”

The Lepchas further strengthened their peaceful protests on Tuesday this week when they announced that they would be erecting a temporary blockade of a major highway in Sikkim to protest the Dzongu project. The blockade was to last for two hours yesterday, Wednesday.

A blog that chronicles the hunger strike and associated news, called “WeepingSikkim … ani sikkim runcha,” carries news and opinion posts, photos, and lots of comments by readers concerned about the proposed project.

For instance, the posting for yesterday contains several interesting statements, including a comment by one person who said, in part, “We are peace loving people and let the government handle it peacefully. Government should come forward for solution rather than staying back and supporting the destructors.”

The Lepchas feel very strongly about the religious value of their mountainous environment. Dawa Lepcha eloquently expressed to one source the spiritual views of his people toward their homeland: “We are Buddhists now, but we still do follow our own practice like nature worshipping. We have our own priests and all that. So we worship these mountains, these rivers, these lakes, the trees. These projects are going to destroy whatever we worship.”