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Forest Man

For 40 years, a man planted a tree every day on a remote river island in India and grew a forest bigger than New York’s Central Park. 

Photography by William Douglas McMaster

Jadav Payeng, a Mising tribesman in India, began planting seeds and bamboo shoots on a deserted sandbar on Majuli Island in Assam in 1979. That summer, he stumbled on the freakish sight of hundreds of snakes floating ashore and dying in the scorching sun after floods washed them onto the banks of the Brahmaputra River.

“When I saw it, I thought we will also die this way in the heat, without any tree cover,” says Payeng, who was only 16 years old at the time. “I sat down and wept, and in the grief for those dead snakes, I created this forest.”

Every year, the northeastern state of Assam faces raging floods and droughts. In 1979 it had been hit by one of the most devastating. With persistent erosion and decline in forest cover, many of the islanders and animals lost their homes and lives. Out of his love of nature, the teenager sowed and nurtured a forest as a home to wild animals and to stop the land vanishing from beneath Brahmaputra’s relentless currents.

Over the course of four decades, Payeng worked religiously growing thousands of varieties of plants and trees without help from anyone. He transformed the once dry wasteland into a lush-green 1,400-acre oasis and brought Majuli, the world’s biggest river island, back to life. The forest, called the Molai Woods, provides shelter for hundreds of bird species, reptiles, wild boar, monkeys and deer, and even elephants, rhinos and tigers.

“When the animals came, it was the most joyous day of my life,” remembers Payeng, now 55. “Now people come from all across the world because the forest amazes them.” Widely considered a celebrated conservationist, he remains humble. “It’s not as if I did it alone,” Payeng told NPR. “You plant one or two trees, and they have to seed. And once they seed, the wind knows how to plant them; the birds here know how to sow them; cows know; elephants know; even the river knows.”

“What Payeng has done is to show that one person can make a huge, positive impact on the environment,” says Will McMaster, a Canadian filmmaker who made the short film Forest Man, documenting Payeng’s efforts to expand the woodland he cultivated. It won the 2014 Best Emerging Director award at the US pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival and has been viewed over 40 million times online.

McMaster recalls his sense of wonder of the forest: “When I first saw it, I couldn’t believe that someone could have planted so much and was concerned that people would think I’d made the whole story up. On the first day of shooting as Payeng took us deeper into the forest, I noticed rows of tall trees evenly spaced that only a human could have done.”

While the woodland flourished, it created other problems for his neighbours, who, like him, were mostly subsistence farmers. The wild elephants strayed into the village pastures and rice paddies, raiding and damaging crops, while the big cats preyed on farm animals. Angry islanders blamed Payeng and started cutting down, setting fire to trees and threatening to kill the animals. To defend the wildlife and encourage a peaceful co-existence, Payeng planted more bamboo, mango and banana trees for elephants and, as the deer herds grew, the tigers and leopards stopped coming out to the villages.

Jadav Payeng (c) William Douglas McMaster

His Herculean reforestation contributions have earned him recognition in India and internationally, but perhaps not enough. Payeng lives with his wife and three children inside a bamboo hut he built, with no electricity, and sells cow and buffalo milk for his livelihood, which is his only source of income.

“I don’t think he cares about being recognised for what he’s done, he just cares about tending his forest,” says McMaster. “His life isn’t drastically different since we made the film. He gets a few international travellers and journalists visiting him. There have been a few interesting stories; one being that he was accused by some local authority of using his planting as a cover for illegal logging, which was hilarious. Poachers are a problem, too. Payeng has chased them out on occasion.”

The mission never ceases. Majuli, his island home, is slipping away and likely to be completely gone in a couple decades. The island has been lobbying for years to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site, which would grant it funding to protect itself from erosion. Payeng hopes to rejuvenate the entire island.

Aside from climate change, the most serious threat to the forest and its inhabitants comes from poachers and illegal loggers. “Nothing is safe from us, not even tigers or elephants. It is a huge forest and cannot be protected by a handful of rangers,” says Payeng, who, along with five of his fellow tribesmen, keeps a round-the-clock vigil on the woodland. “Humans have caused all these environmental problems. If we fight against nature, then nature will show us the error of our ways. We need to teach future generations to protect the Earth, otherwise there will be nothing left.”