It all started way back in 1979 when floods washed a large number of snakes ashore on the sandbar. One day, after the waters had receded, Payeng , only 16 then, found the place dotted with the dead reptiles. That was the turning point of his life.
“The snakes died in the heat, without any tree cover. I sat down and wept over their lifeless forms. It was carnage . I alerted the forest department and asked them if they could grow trees there. They said nothing would grow there. Instead, they asked me to try growing bamboo. It was painful, but I did it. There was nobody to help me. Nobody was interested,” says Payeng, now 47.
Jadav Payeng, an uneducated layman from Assam, a northeastern state of India, is a hero for his lonely effort to turn a flood-washed 550 hectors of sandbar into a thick forest. The sandbar that locates in the center of the Brahmaputra River in Assam has been converted to a dense forest with a huge variety of trees in over 30 years. The forest today houses many wild animals, vultures, reptiles and other creatures. A lonely cowherd who spent lazy afternoons planting trees while his cattle grazed along a sandbar on the Brahmaputra and single-handedly grew a forest, was honoured by the Jawaharlal Nehru University with title of “Forest Man of Assam” on the Earth Day.
Payeng has been spending whole his lifetime since 1979 for the forest, which is called Molai Kathoni (Molai’s forest) by the locales. Molai is the pet name of Payeng, who started his efforts in frustration of a huge flood in 1979, which washed away the trees and habitats of many creatures in the locality. Since then, he has been working in the area, which was laying forlorn, plating bamboo first and other trees later on.
As part of making the land fertile for other trees, Payeng depended on many rustic methods like growing red ants and other small creatures. In several years, vultures, migratory birds and others started to visit the area and to stay there. As of now, this single man forest has at least five tigers, a number of elephants and many other wild creatures.
The plantation is now a full-fledged forest with a sizeable deer population, elephants, Royal Bengal tigers, leopards, jackals, foxes, wild roosters, vultures and other birds. Local people refer to the forest as Molai Kathoni (woodland), after Payeng’s nickname Molai. Payeng said he has been encouraged by the recognition by JNU and is planning to expand the forestland by another 200 hectares very soon.
For a brief animation film based on Jadav Payeng’s life watch ‘The Man Who Planted Trees ( L’homme qui plantait des arbres )’