As the world stands right in the middle of the climate change crisis staring at humans, people like Jadav Payeng, a local tribesman from Assam has turned into a global reforestation hero single-handedly by growing a 1360-acre forest at Majuli island in Jorhat district of Assam.
A humble forester, Payeng who was in Bhopal recently for taking part in an environment conclave shared his inspiring story in an exclusive chat with News18.com. He is often credited with the world’s largest man-made forest in Majuli island in Assam.
At the age of 20, he saw hundreds of snakes lying haplessly in Majuli reserve, the world’s largest river island located in Brahmaputra river, in the year 1979. The serpents were swept away by an over flooding river. Amid large-scale erosion in the tree-less, dry sandbar, the temperature kept soaring in the month of June, the snakes eventually died.
“This unfortunate instance made me think that we all could meet the same fate in future if nothing is done,” said the old man.
Settled at a 5km distance, Payeng consulted the Deori tribe for a solution and they asked him to grow bamboos on the island and the young Payeng nicknamed Molai started off with 25 saplings and never stopped thereafter.
A native of the ‘Mising’ tribe who reside in the forests and rear cattle to sell milk, Payeng engaged in the family trade and continued his mission forest in subsequent years. As the green cover grew, deer, rabbits, birds, rhinos, tigers, and around 115 elephants visited Molai Kathoni in the year 2008 after 30 years.
His efforts were largely unknown to even the forest department who ultimately ventured into the forest-grown by Payeng in the year 2008 after locals of village Aruna Chapori complained that elephants had damaged their crops and houses. The officers were stunned to see this dense and flourishing forest. Around the same year, when tigers killed nine cows in local villages, villagers reached the area in large numbers to cut down trees, blaming the forest for the problem.
Payeng however stood up saying first they need to kill him before cutting down trees. The locals finally budged and retreated without damaging the forest, recounted Payeng in his rudimentary Hindi. Asked whether elephants still pester locals, a smiling Payeng said he has grown enough bamboos (a grass variety for wild animals) so they have enough to feed on.
Jitu Kalita, a wildlife photographer from Jorhat in the year 2007 was first to discover his efforts during a routine jungle trip and had later written about him in Assamese ‘Daily Janambhumi’ and this was followed by many publications approaching his forest and highlighting his efforts in the year 2008.
In the year 2012, Jawaharlal Nehru University had summoned him to its campus, and after assessing his wildlife knowledge for three days, he was honored with the title of ‘Forest Man of India’. Later late President of India APJ Abdul Kalam had also honoured him with Rs 2.5 lakh cash prize and citation. In the year 2015, he was awarded Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian honor in the country.
The biggest of them all, the forest grew in excess of 1360-acre of the area has been named after him as Molai Forest. Payeng who is over the years invited for lectures worldwide over has now employed six persons to keep his project going in his absence. “I use the money I receive with awards and other projects to fund these associates,” said Payeng who since the year 2011 has started growing another forest in a nearby island but the work remains unfinished amid the covid19 outbreak.
He says he wishes the forest to grow around 2,000 hectares so that elephants and other wild animals don’t venture close to human habitations. Raised on the government land, Payeng wants it to turn into a community reserve to also offer socio-economic benefits and livelihood options.
A native of Kokilamukh in Jorhat, Payeng developed an inclination for plants in early life as he went to study at Nobinang Boligaon village, there lived Dr Jadunath Baijpura an agriculture scientist who loved teaching kids about plants through practical learning. As Payeng started planting saplings of different types, he and his mentor realized that he has a natural gift as saplings planted by him grew faster especially paan (betel).
Under his tutelage, Payeng kept his passion alive for plants and after studying till class X, he has been growing his forest for the last 42 years, starting in the year 1979.
Now 90, Payeng’s mentor still guides him. “Whenever I go for attending events, I seek his blessings and he also writes notes for my speeches.”
A treasure of practical knowledge, Payeng rues that lessons on plants don’t start at the primary level and claimed even research students who visit his forest can’t identify plants though they all know their names theoretically. Citing an example from the North-Eastern region, the veteran forester said that from March to June, the region receives rainfall but over the years the pattern has been erratic.
These months see dry spells and increased heat, he added.
Saying that the very existence of humans depends upon the survival of the plants, Payeng said countries like the US have hampered nature the most, and worldwide plantation is required to counter climate change.
Claiming that population is growing constantly but the land available remains the same so we need to for plantation as much as possible so as to minimize erosion of the soil. He also blamed the present environmental mess on slack bureaucracy saying officers who remain in AC rooms and never venture out formulate policies that are good for nothing.
He has been the subject for award-winning documentaries and a movie featuring South Indian superstar Rana Daggubati in Tamil, Telugu, and Hindi with titles –Kaadan, Aranya, and Hathi Mera Sathi. Schools across the United States of America teach his inspirational tale in ecology classes.
The forestry veteran has undertaken plantation projects in many countries like France, Switzerland, Bangladesh, Taiwan, Arabic countries; now has undertaken a forestation project in Mexico where he will work with local students for the next ten years, three months each per year.