In 1979, a teenager became so concerned with soil erosion that he planted a few trees. Over the next four decades, Jadav Payeng continued to plant and now he has single-handedly created a forest bigger than New York’s Central Park. His endeavours on Majuli island in northern India went entirely unnoticed for decades.
It was only when a journalist headed into the enclave that his secret was revealed to the world. Jadav’s remarkable tale has now been told in the online documentary Forest Man, which has amassed almost 2.8million views. Jadav lives on Majuli, in the state of Assam, which is the world’s largest river island.
It is very susceptible to soil erosion and experts claim that within 20 years it could completely wash away. After one terrible year of extreme flooding in 1979, Jadav decided he would plant a sapling in the barren soil to help his homeland. It was an act he pledged to repeat every day for the foreseeable future and in the last 39 years, his woodland has grown to 550 hectares. By comparison, New York’s Central Park is 341 hectares.
Jadav explained: ‘This place is full of trees. I have planted everything myself. ‘At first, planting was very time-consuming but now it’s much easier because I get the seeds from the trees themselves.’ Jadav can still locate the first sapling he planted, which is now a towering tree with a thick trunk.
Jadav’s secret project came to light in 2007 when journalist Jitu Kulita was on the Brahmaputra river taking pictures of birds and saw the lush, green foliage in the distance of the barren land. He approached but Jadav believed he was a poacher. When the forest began to grow, elephants, Bengal tigers and rhinos made Majuli their home for several months of the year. But the rare and exotic animals, plus the growing publicity around the forest, made Jadav’s project a target from poachers and illegal loggers.
Jadav, dubbed the ‘Forest Man of India’ by the former president APJ Abdul Kalam, said the threat now comes from man who would ‘destroy the forest for economic gain.’ He continued: ‘There are no monsters in nature, except for humans. ‘Humans consume everything until there is nothing left. Nothing is safe from humans, not even tigers or elephants.’
Jadav, now in his mid-50s, makes his money with his wife by selling cows’ milk to local villages.
He remains dedicated to his forest and will continue to plant saplings and seeds until his ‘last breath.’ The father-of-three says he prefers the quiet of the forest to a busy city where people cannot breathe or think clearly because of pollution. He added: ‘My dream is to fill up Majuli island. ‘I will continue to plant until my last breath.
‘I tell people “cutting those trees will get you nothing.” ‘Cut me before you cut my trees.’ Scientists have called on people to follow Jadav’s example. Dr Arup Kumar Sarma from the Indian Institute of Technology said he ‘has already shown the example that if one person can, at his own effort, do this kind of plantation, then why not others.’