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This tribesman planted a forest in India that’s bigger than Central Park

Conserving nature

Jadav ‘Molai’ Payeng began planting seedlings in 1979, and the forest has grown so big that it has sheltered tigers and elephants.

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    Jadav “Molai” Payeng was named “Forest Man of India” in 2012 by a vice chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
    Arundhati Nath
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Jadav “Molai” Payeng, a simple Mising tribesman in India, began planting seedlings on a barren sandbar in Jorhat district in 1979. Some 35 years later, he is credited with single-handedly planting and nurturing a forest that is bigger than Central Park in New York.

Mr. Payeng did not set out with that ambition. Rather, a heart-wrenching sight touched him deeply.

Assam, a state in India’s northeast that includes Jorhat, faces flood damage every year, and 1979 was not an exception. In addition to “devastating floods [washing] onshore a huge heap of garbage,” Payeng says, “hundreds of snakes” also washed up. The snakes died in the excess heat on that sandbar. It was “a piteous sight,” says Payeng, who was 16 at the time.

He visited the elders of the Deori community who lived a few miles away. “I asked the elders if there were any ways to save these poor creatures from dying,” he recalls. They asked him to plant the world’s tallest grass – bamboo. “The shade of the long bamboo plants would help keep the area cool,” he says.

He planted the 50 shoots that he says the village elders gave him. But he didn’t stop, instead planting more shoots every day. Days passed into months and months rolled into years, but still, Payeng did not stop. And he tended to the growing plants without help from anyone.

The forest planted by Payeng is now known as Molai Kathoni – Molai being Payeng’s nickname and kathoni meaning forest in Assamese. The density of the woods makes it hard to believe it has been planted by a human.

Today, Payeng’s work takes on an environmental dimension that goes far beyond saving snakes and has earned him recognition in India and abroad.

“Jadav Payeng has played a very important role [in] the conservation of the eco-system of Assam and [India’s] North-East,” says Palash Ranjan Goswami, secretary-general of Seven Look, a nongovernmental organization based in northeastern India that focuses on the conservation of wildlife. “His activities have motivated upcoming generations to work for the benefit of Mother Nature,” says Mr. Goswami, who made his comments via email.

Payeng studied up to the 10th standard at a school in Jorhat and currently lives in the nearby village of Kokilamukh with his wife and three children. He owns about 50 cows and buffaloes and sells milk for a living. His day starts before dawn when he milks the livestock. By midmorning he starts on his way to the forest.

Clad in a Mising-styled lower garment and a short-sleeved top, he cycles about 1-1/4 miles to Kartik Chapori, then rows his boat to get to the other side of the river. He has to cycle for another three miles to reach the forest.

He makes this trip every day.

The forest has numerous varieties of plants, and among the thousands of trees are “leteku, poniol, gamari, segun, teteli ...” Payeng smiles as he talks about the varieties, which in English include tamarind, teak, jackfruit, silk cotton, mango, mulberry, Indian rosewood, banyan, and custard-apple.

Watering 1,360 acres

As Payeng was cultivating the forest, it was difficult to water the entire area by himself, so he devised a clever but simple solution. “I bought some big earthen pots which could hold five liters [more than a gallon] of water, and made small holes at their bottoms,” he says. He then tightened the holes with hay and “placed the water-filled pots on the ground near the growing saplings.”

This made the water drip slowly, and it was possible to water this 1,360-acre area every day.

The forest has also been home to tigers, rhinoceroses, rabbits, deer, vultures, and other varieties of birds.

During a visit in March, the rustle of leaves swayed by the breeze can be heard along with the sound of the cuckoo bird. Payeng points to the bark of a large tree and says, “Look at these scratch marks – the tiger sharpened its claws here.” When the monsoons come, herds of elephants, as well as deer and rabbits, visit the forest.

Not everyone, however, is a fan of Payeng’s work. Around 2008, a herd of wild elephants destroyed homes in the village of Aruna Chapori. When the residents came to know that Payeng had planted a forest in which the elephants were taking shelter, they grew violent and wanted to destroy the forest.

Payeng strongly objected. “Cut me before you cut down the trees,” he recalls telling them. He asserts that trees have always helped the human race and should be protected to help conserve the environment.

Goswami of Seven Look notes that his organization has worked to help residents understand Payeng’s efforts. “We have tried to provide a helping hand to Jadav by educating the people of the neighborhood. We’ve tried to make them understand the importance of Molai kathoni so that they cooperate and help Mr Payeng in his work,” he says.

Environmental education, Payeng says, should be compulsory starting in primary school. “Every student taking admission in a school should practically plant and nurture two saplings. Only then will they earn their own oxygen,” he says.

Payeng also says that India’s education system should place more importance on the implementation of what is being taught. “Students are reading about global warming and the needs of the environment in books, but they are not doing anything for the environment practically,” he laments.

Honors near and far

Payeng’s work was unknown to the world until Jitu Kalita, a local journalist and wildlife photographer, accidentally discovered him in the forest. He published an article about Payeng’s work in a local newspaper in 2010. Two years later, Payeng was named “Forest Man of India” by Sudhir Kumar Sopory, then vice chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

In 2013, William Douglas McMaster completed a short documentary on Payeng’s work, titling it “Forest Man.” It won the 2014 Best Documentary prize at the Emerging Filmmaker Showcase in the American Pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival.

And last year, Payeng was conferred the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award given by the government of India.

“With sheer hard work and perseverance, Jadav has shown the world the power of will of a single human being,” writes Rituraj Phukan, secretary-general of Green Guard Nature Organization, in an email. Green Guard is another conservation NGO based in northeastern India. “He has achieved something that will be hard to emulate and his creation, the forest which now bears his name, will inspire generations to come,” Mr. Phukan adds.

Although Payeng has gained national and international fame, he still seems oblivious to it. He says it is his duty to grow trees. “Nature is nothing other than a form of God Himself. I will continue on my journey to plant trees,” he says.

Payeng now receives donations from abroad. Also, he has employed four people who assist him with planting trees.

“Being a citizen of the country where Gautam Buddha attained enlightenment under a banyan tree, isn’t it our responsibility to protect our forests?” he asks. “Humans are said to be the smartest of all life-forms on earth, but it’s the humans who are responsible for the degradation of the environment.”

Payeng isn’t stopping with his forest. Majuli, one of the world’s largest river islands, is situated in the Brahmaputra River. It has been shrinking year after year because of erosion. Payeng wants to plant trees to protect this island and make it a sustainable tourist spot.

He is also undertaking the planting of trees along National Highways 37 and 52 in Dibrugarh and Dhemaji districts in Assam. Those areas “have witnessed massive destruction of forests because of the ongoing Bogibeel bridge project,” he says.

Payeng is confident about his mission.

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups helping animals:

Pandas International works to ensure the preservation and propagation of the endangered giant panda. Take action: Volunteer with panda keepers in China.

Soi Dog Foundation aims to improve the welfare of dogs and cats in Thailand and end animal cruelty. Take action: Provide emergency treatment for a stray cat or street dog.

Greenheart Travel is an international exchange organization that provides cultural immersion programs to change lives and advance careers. Take action: Volunteer with a stray dog rescue project in Thailand.

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