How one man transformed an isolated, barren sandbar in northeastern India into a lush, wildlife sanctuary.
It’s 3:30 a.m. Jadav “Molai” Payeng, and his wife and three children wake-up and get busy milking, feeding, and bathing their 90 odd cows and buffalos. By 8:00 a.m. the milk is put in containers to be ferried to the nearby town of Johart in the northeastern Indian state of Assam. After a brief nap and early lunch, the children leave for school, while Payeng pulls out his bag of seeds and saplings and canoes to the nearby Mekhai islet. “This is my new plantation site of about 500 hectares,” he says. After a brief pause, he muses, “This should keep me busy for another 30 years.”
Payeng, 54, is no ordinary man. He belongs to the Mising tribe of northeast India, and lives on Majuli Island in Assam. He is a dairy farmer by profession but a green crusader by passion. Since 1979, Payeng has been planting trees to save his river island from vanishing due to soil erosion. To date, he has planted a forest of 550 hectares, larger than New York City’s Central Park, on an islet off of Majuli island. The forest is called “Molai Sanctuary” — Molai is Payeng’s nickname — and provides refuge to varied wildlife, including several rhinoceros, elephants, and tigers.
Majuli is located in the middle of Brahmaputra River, in northeastern India. It is the world’s largest river island, and is home to about 200,000 people. Over the last 100 years, Majuli has experienced severe soil erosion due to monsoon flooding and excessive sediment discharge of fine silt and clay from the island caused by low magnitude seismic events. As a consequence, since 1914, Majuli’s surface area has shrunk from 733 square kilometers to 522 square kilometers. Scientists say that climate change may have contributed to intensified flooding in recent years, accelerating the rate of erosion. Now, much of the riverbank has been reduced to barren sandbar islets, and scientists fear that in 15 to 20 years, Majuli could shrink and be completely submerged by the river.
It’s one of these desolate sandbar islets, named Aruna sapori, that Payeng set forth to transform into a lush green paradise. It all began back in 1979 when Payeng was a teenager and the annual monsoon brought hundreds of snakes to the island, along with the usual logs, bits of wood, and hyacinths. When the floodwater receded, the snakes had nowhere to hide on the barren island. Exposed to the scorching summer sun, they started to die of heat exposure in large numbers.
The sight of the carnage moved the young Payeng immensely. As he recalls, “At that time, I was hardly 15 [or] 16 years old. I wept a lot seeing those dead snakes. I felt that the snakes didn’t deserve to die, at least one or two should have been alive!”
Desperate to find a solution, Payeng approached the village elders and urged them to take action to make the island more hospitable to wildlife. The elders said nothing could be done, but gave him 20 bamboo shoots and suggested he try planting them. “There was nobody to help me,” Payeng says. “Nobody was interested. It was painful.”
Undeterred, Payeng started planting the bamboo shoots, with a dream to make the islet a green and fertile home for birds and animals. Along with bamboo, he began collecting and planting silk cotton and other indigenous plants.
In 2002, the state forest department initiated a plan to reforest 200 hectares of land on the same sandbar islet. Payeng enrolled for a job as a laborer for the project and started planting trees. The five year project was abandoned after only three years, but while the rest of the workers moved on to new jobs, Payeng chose to stay back to plant more trees on his own. What had started as a teenager’s desire to help the stranded snakes ended up becoming his life’s mission.
Initially, finding seeds to plant was difficult, and Payeng was forced to canoe to the mainland to collect them. Gradually as the years passed, the mature trees on the islet provided the necessary seeds for further extending the forest.
Watering the large number of saplings was also challenging as they were spread over a vast area. During the dry summers, Payeng used a drip irrigation system to water them. He drilled small holes in earthen pots, which he then placed on bamboo platforms erected over the saplings. The pots, which were filled from the river, slowly dripped water onto the plants, drying out after a week. Transporting water from the river by buckets proved to be too much work for one person, so Payeng began aligning his seed planting with the annual monsoon season. By planting seedlings right before the monsoon, the plants received ample rainwater and were able to sustain themselves until the next rain.
To improve the fertility of the sandy soil Payeng also ferried large amounts of cow dung, organic matter, termites, ants and earthworms to the islet. “Termites and ants help to improve the soil fertility,” he explains. “They burrow into the silt hardened surface, make [it] porous and arable, facilitating plant roots to go deep.”
For over three decades, few people beyond Majuli knew about Payeng or his forest. Then, in 2009, Jitu Kalita, a nature photographer and journalist, stumbled upon this oasis when tipped off about it by the forest department. As Kalita recollects, “I reached [the forest] by boat and started walking along the forest periphery, trying to comprehend what I was seeing. When Jadav saw me, taking me for a poacher, [he] virtually pounced on me and pushed me out of the forest.” After Kalita published an article about the forest in a local newspaper, news of Payeng’s work spread across the world. Many awards and accolades followed. (In 2013, Canadian filmmaker William Douglas McMaster produced an award winning documentary short about Payeng, titled Forest Man.)
The forest, which spans 1,360 acres, has a rich diversity of plants and animals. There are more than 100 species of trees and medicinal plants, including arjun, goldmohur, and teak. Along with these trees, Payeng has planted orchids and a variety of fruit trees, including banana, jamun, mango and jackfruit. A large part of the forest is covered by bamboo, spear grass and tall elephant grass.
Kalita says he has spotted nearly 50 different local bird species in the forest, along with 70 migratory bird species that flock to the small water bodies in the sanctuary. And after nearly four decades of absence, vultures have made a comeback: Roughly 100 have been sighted in the area so far. The forest has also become home to apes, wild boars, Indian rhinoceros, elephants, tigers — including a royal Bengal tiger family, Asiatic buffalo, and a wide variety of reptiles. This marks a huge change for the area. “For 25 long years, not a single bird chirped here, it was a lifeless desert,” Payeng says. “The woods and the grasslands grew right in front of my eyes, and today it is home to many wild animals and birds.”
In 2006, elephants were first spotted in the forest, and by 2012 a herd of more than one hundred elephants also began stopping in Molai forest during its annual migration, remaining for three to four months every year. “That was one of the happiest moment in my life, that sight of hundreds of elephants coming; [it] was what I wanted to see since my childhood,” Payeng says.
Payeng has faced many challenges along the way. When the large elephant herd first arrived in 2012, elephants destroyed local homes — including Payeng’s — and trampled crop fields. Some villagers blamed Payeng’s forest for attracting the elephants, and retaliated by burning and cutting down trees. The forest department eventually intervened in the matter, and since then, the villagers have come to embrace Payeng’s sanctuary.
In another incident in 2012, gunshots were heard one night. When Payeng went to investigate along with several villagers and forest officials, he found a dead rhino with a missing horn. Following that event, forest officials have begun to regularly visit the forest, and the local villagers also keep a vigilant eye out for poachers and timber smugglers.
Payeng’s family has provided unconditional support for his work in the forest, not to mention a helping hand when it comes to planting saplings. And it looks like guardianship of the forest may pass on to the younger generation. “My children love the forest and are more connected to it than myself,” Payeng says. “They don’t mind spending the whole day in the forest.” As Jitu Kalita points out, “The youngest son, Sanjay, is shaping up to become the next Jadav Payeng. He will carry forward the incredible work of his father.”
Payeng believes that environmental education is essential for longterm protection of the planet. “Only by growing plants, the earth will survive,” he says. “For this to happen, environmental science education should be taught right from the primary school. If every child on the planet plants two pairs of saplings and takes care of them…for five years, he will not only be getting all the oxygen he consumes from his plants…but will also be greening the entire world… Some country should put [this] into practice and become an example, and soon enough, the rest of the world will follow.”
Spread of his incredible work has brought him some awards and recognition. In 2012, Sanctuary Asia bestowed on him the Wildlife Service Award and in 2015, government of India honoured him with Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award in India. He now receives a small amount of donations from outside India and also a couple of helping hands to aid him in planting trees.
Payeng is now working on his next project: greening the, nearby Mekhai islet, a 500 hectare area that looks a lot like Aruna Sapori islet did 35 years ago — desolate, barren, and sandy. Also he has started to plant trees along the National Highway 52 and 37 in two of the districts in his home state of Assam – areas which have witnessed destruction of forests due to the ongoing Bogibeel bridge project.
In 2015, in collaboration with Jadav Payeng an international NGO named FASS – Friends of Assam and Seven Sisters headquartered in Houston, Texas has initiated a project called, ‘Greening of the Brahmaputra Basin’, with an objective of greening all the barren sandbars of the river Brahmaputra. Organizers hope that, this will greatly control the flood and erosion problems along the Brahmaputra River.
Aptly nicknamed “The Forest Man of India,” Jadav ‘Molai’ Payeng, is an inspiration to all and his efforts show how a single person can make a change and bring forth a positive impact. Every day, everywhere, we see the rampant destruction of the environment. It is rare men like Payeng who remind us what we are capable of and gently nudge us to be the change we want to see.
Originally published in Earth Island Journal
Feature Image: Jadav Payeng planting a sapling. Photo credit: Photo by Jitu Kalita.