Want to save the planet but don’t know how? Consider the following story of one man in India who is credited with single-handedly planting trees and plants for 40 years, transforming a treeless landscape into a lush 1,360-acre forest.
Jadav Payeng, at the young age of 16 in April 1979, noticed that high heat in the absence of shade had killed a large number of snakes that had been swept ashore on the largest river island in the world, Majuli. The Majuli river is located in the northeastern Indian state of Assam on the Brahmaputra River.
That day, after seeing so many bodies of dead snakes washed onto the bare sandbar by seasonal floods, Payeng made a decision that would change his life – and that of the small island’s – forever:
“I came across hundreds of lifeless snakes twisted and curled up against each other on the deserted sandbar because there was no tree cover. This incident sent chills down my spine and my immediate thought that hit me was what would happen if this happens to us, humans?”
The Majuli has dwindled in size by more than half in the past 70 years. There is a distinct possibility that it will be completely submerged in the next 20 years due to extensive soil erosion along its banks. Large embankments constructed to protect town upstream on the Brahmaputra River are suspected of shunting forceful monsoon rainwater to the islet, causing the wasting erosion.
Payeng, born in 1963 as the son of a poor buffalo farmer and the third of 13 children, was a Mishing tribal teenager when he returned to his birthplace at Aruna Sapori, a river island on the Brahmaputra. In 1965, a flood had destroyed this island and Payeng’s family was forced to move to Majuli, the other side of the river.
A palm reader had told Payeng, when he was a boy, that his open hand pointed to a nature-oriented life. After seeing the dead snakes in 1979, he asked forest officials to help save the island by planting trees. They told him to do it himself.
The upset teenager then sought advice in the nearby Deori village community who shared their ancient wisdom about ecology with him. The Deori also gave Payeng 50 seeds and 25 bamboo plants. The lad vowed to help stop the Majuli erosion by planting trees to hold the soil in place.
This early education convinced him that nature holds the key to solving all problems. According to Payeng, every green plant is precious:
“A forest doesn’t weep over one tree but we should, because soon there will be none left. It is a gift from the soil and we all must understand that.”
41 years later, Payeng succeeded in planting 550 hectares of forest which is now occupied by Bengal tigers, Indian rhinoceros, and over 100 elephants who pay an annual visit. His 41-year effort had transformed the landscape from barren to lush. The pachyderms usually hang around for about six months and have given birth to 10 calves in the forest.
The Forest Man planted bamboos, teak, banyan, gulmohar, mango, tamarind, mulberry, peach, sugar-apple, and star fruit trees as well as many medicinal plants.
Today, more than 250 Mishing tribal families live along the Brahmaputra riverbanks. They have dubbed the forest “Molai” – which is also Paygen’s nickname.
In 2015, the former President of India P. J. Abdul Kalam, now deceased, honored Payeng’s achievement by giving him the title “Forest Man of India” in 2012. In 2015, Payeng was honored again in Mumbai with “Padma Shri,” the fourth-highest civilian award in India. True to his giving soul, Payeng shared the prize money to better the lives and welfare of the local villagers.
For one year Payeng worked alone replanting the Brahmaputra River islet’s sandbar. In 1980, the Assam Forestry Division started reforesting 200 hectares of land in one of the sandbars of the Brahmaputra, known then as Arun Chapori. Payeng joined the initiative and began to plant trees for the government project.
Five years later, the work at Arun Chapori was finished – but Payeng was just getting started. He stayed on and continued to plant trees, tending them himself with love and compassion.
The remarkable Payeng remained humble despite all the international attention his work received. The Forest Man of India took a dim view of armchair critics who are all talk and no action:
“I really do not care for these people who protest on the streets because they are really not contributing anything to the society, to the country. They don’t even know how to plant a sapling.”
Payeng hopes that his example will spread to other youngsters who will help reforest his nation:
“If every schoolchild is given the responsibility to grow two trees, it will surely lead to a Green India.”