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Meet the Forest Man of India

Over the last 35 years, Jadav Payeng has been planting trees on barren landscapes in Assam. His efforts have created a jungle, which he claims, is bigger than the Kaziranga National Park

A man in his 50s sat quietly in the front row at Girimitra Sammelan in Mulund — an annual event to encourage and recognise mountaineers in Maharashtra and all over India. As one of the guest speakers, his topic was the importance of trees and the need to protect the environment. For an observer, he came across as just another other Indian from a distant village.

Jadav Payeng

During his talk, he revealed that he never studied beyond Class 10, and yet astounded the audience with his knowledge of environment, and why global warming must be stopped. “We do not understand, but everything we do is affecting the environment. If every Indian plants just one tree, the problem of global warming will be solved,” he stressed.

Jadav Payeng travels from his home Kokilamukh to Molai forest
Everyday, Jadav Payeng travels from his home Kokilamukh to Molai forest on the other side of the Brahmaputra river

The speaker, Jadav Molai Payeng is a member of the Mishing tribe in Assam, and single-handedly created the Molai forest, (named after him), which he claims is bigger than the adjoining Kaziranga National Park.

Jadav Payeng takes care of the entire forest all by himself
Jadav Payeng takes care of the entire forest all by himself

The need for a forest
Assam had experienced its worst summer in years in 1979; the heat was so unbearable that according to village lore, even dogs were jumping into the river Brahmaputra to survive. Around this time, the 17-year-old stumbled upon 100 dead snakes on a hot bed of silt (sandbar) that was formed from the previous year’s flood in the region. Disturbed, he approached the village elders who advised that planting trees was the best solution. He met with forest officials who suggested growing bamboo trees. For three years, government officials supplied saplings, till it was abandoned due to the death of these plants. But Payeng carried on, planting saplings in the tree-less sandbars.

“I never imagined this would grow this big; I am happy to see that it’s home to many animals,” reveals Payeng. Today, 35 years later, the Molai forest is home to several wild animals including four Royal Bengal tigers, Indian rhinoceros, 82 elephants, deers, rabbits, apes and species of birds including vultures, which are near extinction. In the initial period, every morning, Payeng would carry new plants from his home at the Majuli island, the world’s largest river island on the Brahmaputra, into the jungle, planting them in newer patches, and nursing them everyday. Soon, he found ways to cultivate seeds and began growing saplings within the forest itself, turning the sandbar into self-sufficient groves.

Why does this matter?
The Molai forest is situated on the banks of the Brahmaputra, an area prone to soil erosion and floods that wreck havoc in Assam every year. In 2012, floods displaced over 15 lakh people in Assam; lives were lost and entire villages were washed away. Every year, floods leave behind huge amounts of sand, broadening the Brahmaputra and destroying cultivable land.
“Many, including relatives and friends have lost everything to soil erosion and have moved out of the Majuli Island. “It has been reduced to less than half of its original size in the last few decades. Reforestation is the only way to prevent soil erosion. We need to plant more trees, soon, or else the river will eat into the land, and we’ll be left with nothing,” warns Payeng. Majuli is home to more than 100 species of birds, more than 20 reptiles, more than 20 mammals, and nearly 100 types of local fish.

Mission possible
Payeng lived with his family in the forest. His lone source of income was selling milk from the cattle to villagers on the other side of the Brahmaputra. He lost over 100 cows to tigers from the same forest he created, but this never deterred him from planting more trees. “They also need food to survive,” says Payeng.

In 2008, a herd of elephants even destroyed his house. “Since then, I have been living with my family (of wife and two kids) in Kokilamukh (Jorhat, Assam) , on the other side of the river. It’s not safe for them to live there,” he admits. But that’s not where the problems ended. The Molai forest has been an easy target for poachers, due to the absence of forest officials. This is another reason why Payeng doesn’t want to leave his forest. “I’ve lost animals,” says a saddened Payeng.

Now, Payeng has made it a mission to create awareness about the need to plant trees, to help save the environment. “People must be taught its relevance from an early age. Environment science should be a compulsory subject in school. When they grow up they will value the environment,” he believes. Payeng has also been working with villages around the bank of Brahmaputra to instill such awareness.

Save the vultures
Payeng wants to continue his effort of growing trees, and take this mission upstream. His next biggest mission however, is to help save the nearly extinct vulture, and help them relocate to Molai forest. “Vultures play a vital role in the food chain.

Jadav Payeng
Jadav Payeng in a still from the documentary Forest Man

They clean the environment, but they are nearly extinct in India. Many die after feeding on dead cows, which are treated with the inflammatory medicine Diclofenac.

Though, the Central Government has banned this medicine for animals, it’s still being used,” adding, with a tinge of hope, “There are couple of vultures in Molai forest; I hope they survive there.”

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