Jadav Payeng reforested a desert island in India. The story of the man nicknamed "Forest Man" took off and circumnavigated the world.
Thirty years ago, the island of Majuli in northeast India, was a barren stretch of sand being eroded by the waters of the Brahmaputra. Today covered with 550 hectares of lush forest (equivalent to 500 soccer fields), it is now called Molai Forest. This miracle is the result of the work of a determined man who planted a forest with his own hands, tree by tree, until he had recreated a virtuous circle encompassing nature and the island’s inhabitants. Jadav Payeng’s story recently went international following the "Forest Man" documentary.
When did you decide to plant a forest in Majuli?
In 1979, when I was 16, the Brahmaputra flooded part of the island. The water brought plant and animal life, for example snakes. But when the water receded, all the snakes died because of the heat. I realized there were no trees to shade them, and I thought that if snakes could die because there was no forest then people could too. Vegetation is a source of life, people need it. So then I started planting shrubs in two villages, Aruna sapori and Kartik sapori.
How did you know what plant species to plant to recreate a well-balanced ecosystem?
I am a man of nature, and I also went to school. I learned from my mistakes. Initially, I wanted to plant trees on a sand dune, but it didn’t work. I sought advice from the wise men of the island who told me to try bamboo. Not only did the bamboo grow, but then other plant species managed to take over the dune.
What is your routine?
I get up at about 3 am to take care of my cows and pigs. Then, after a large bowl of milky tea with no sugar, I take care of the forest. Every day I plant saplings and pick up the fallen fruit from the mature plants. Back home, I sometimes receive visitors who come to ask about my project. While I talk to them, I use the time to extract the seeds from the fruit I’ve picked up which I then store for sowing later.
Nature helps me too: plants flower, seeds are dispersed by the wind or birds and then produce new plants. You just have to give nature a little help to set up a virtuous momentum.
Do the people living on the island support you?
All the greenery has gradually attracted animals: vultures, rhinos, deer, tigers and also elephants, some of which caused damage in the villagers’ fields - which upset them. I had to convince them that the animals were not harmful. It is us who encroach on the animals’ territory with our crops. Now the local community supports me. Instead of cutting down trees, people collect dead wood. Our island is becoming a model of forest management.
When will the forest be completed?
The island is large and I can’t finish the project alone. Fortunately, since the media have told my story, I have received many messages of support. People and NGOs want to help me. Together we will continue reforesting the island. So Majuli - and the whole of India, I hope! – will be green again.
What advice would you give people who would like to follow your example?
It’s not enough just to plant, you have to take care of the first shoots until they are strong enough. Then nature will take over.
Main picture: Jadav Payeng, surnommé “Forest Man” - Copyrights: Franck Vogel