When This Man Saw Nature Dwindling Around Him, He Embarked on a 43-Year Mission to Bring His Home Back to Life

Fri Mar 25 2022

While many people take our planet for granted, there are others who truly appreciate the beauty, complexity, and importance of the natural world. Yes, without the world’s natural ecosystems the human race would crumble. And while big corporations need to take accountability for their impact on the environment, that’s not to say that individual people at home can’t take matters into their own hands. After all, that’s exactly what Jadav Payeng has done.

The “Forest Man of India” is the living embodiment of the notion that one person can truly make a difference. Jadav Payeng couldn’t stand idly by while his home and the natural world dwindled around him, so he spent over four decades quietly bringing an incredible plan to fruition. This plan was originally kept under the radar, but in the end, he just couldn’t hide his creation any longer. This is his awe-inspiring story.

Jadav Payeng Grew Up on What Used to Be the World’s Largest River Island, and He Watched It Shrink in Size As the Years Went By

59-year-old Jadav Payeng grew up as part of the Mising tribe on the island of Majuli in Assam, India. Previously known as the largest river in the world, Majuli once spanned across a whopping 2,500 acres and was the home of tribal communities, animals, and all kinds of trees. However, its close proximity to the waterways proved to be its downfall.

As climate change steadily increased the levels of water coming down during monsoon season, the subsequent floods started to erode the soil, destroy homes, and push humans and animals away from the island. When he was a child, Jadav saw this destruction for himself. But as he was just the son of a poor buffalo trader father, he didn’t think there was anything he could do. He thought he had to just sit by while his island home shrunk with each passing year.

As a Child, an Agricultural Scientist Taught Jadav the Importance of Having and Planting Trees on Such River Islands

Even as a child, Jadav could see that his beloved home was turning more and more into a desert with each passing year. The trees were being cut down or washed away, and the soil was eroding more and more of the acreage. However, his thought process changed entirely when he met an agricultural scientist by the name of Jabadesh Barua.

Jabadesh taught Jadav all about the importance of trees – especially on a river island like Majuli. He learned that they not only stabilize the ground and help soak up excess water from monsoons, but they also attract wildlife and promote a more natural ecosystem. Jabadesh told Jadav “Plant trees and they will take care of us,” and he would often give the young boy saplings of paan leaves to be planted around the island.

When He Was 16 Years Old, Jadav Was Horrified to See Dried-up Sandbars and Dead Animals Around His Home

Although Jadav appreciated what Jabadesh taught him, at the time he was still a little young to truly appreciate and understand his words. However, that all changed in 1979 when Jadav was 16 years old. Jadav had seen the deforestation caused by local builders around his home, but he witnessed the full effects of this when he wandered around the island and saw the dried-up sandbars.

Jadav also witnessed around several dozen dead snakes lying on these barren sandbars. They had been washed to the shore during the monsoon, but without any shade or protection from the sun they sadly passed away. Jadav noted that “When I saw it, I thought even we humans will have to die this way in the heat. It struck me.”

Jadav Knew That He Needed to Step in and Save His Island, but He Just Didn’t Know How to Do It

As Jadav thought more about what was happening to his island and the huge impact it had on the wildlife and the ground beneath his feet, he just didn’t know what to do. He knew that climate change and the increasingly vicious monsoons were something he couldn’t control, so he began to think about what he could control.

After a while, he realized that the bigger picture was to stop people from cutting down trees on Majuli. He remembered what Jabadesh Barua taught him, and knew that if he could bring trees back to the island he could restore some of its former glory. So, he decided to leave school and leave behind his formal education to give all of his attention to his plan.

He Started Working With a Tree Planting Scheme, And They Planted Over 200-Hectares of Forest in a Neighboring Village

Jadav originally thought that he couldn’t make a difference on his own, which is why he decided to sign up as a laborer for a tree planting scheme. He was excited when he learned that the social forestry division of the Gologhat district was planning on restoring the forests that once stood in the state of Assam, and he couldn’t wait to get to work.

Although the tree planting process was taking place around Aruna Chapori – which is about 3 hours downriver from Jadav’s home in Majuli – Jadav knew that the scheme was a great stepping stone. He and the rest of the team managed to plant an incredible 200-hectares of forest across 5km of the riverbank, and Jadav learned so much along the way.

Jadav Didn’t Understand Why the Tree Planting Scheme Came to an End After Five Years As There Was Still So Much Work to Do

While working as part of the tree planting team, Jadav learned even more about the ecosystem and the importance of trees around the Assam region of India. They were the lifeline of river islands, and he soon realized that his own island would disappear if something wasn’t done soon. So, he hoped that he would be able to convince the forestry division to continue their efforts elsewhere along the river.

Sadly, this didn’t happen – and he was even more upset when he realized that the tree planting scheme he was a part of was due to end after five years. In Jadav’s eyes, this was too early. There was still so much work to be done if they wanted to restore all of the islands and save villages and the people who lived there. So, he put his thinking cap on once again.

Jadav Didn’t Want to Give Up, so He Decided to Plant a Few Bamboo Trees Near His Home in Majuli

Although Jadav looked to see if there were more tree planting schemes in the works, he soon learned that there weren’t. And while he pleaded with officials to plant trees on his own island of Majuli, there simply wasn’t the money or the resources to do so. In the end, Jadav knew that, if he wanted something to be done, he’d have to do it himself.

Jadav believed that he alone didn’t have the capabilities to make a huge impact on Majuli, but he wanted to at least try. The idea of restoring a forest on the river island seemed like a mammoth mission, but he knew that he could at least attempt to do something small. That’s why he decided to start by planting 10 bamboo shoots near the riverbank.

The People in His Village Thought He Was Crazy to Plant the Bamboo, but He Was Excited to See The Shoots Grow

Jadav found a dry spot near the riverbed to plant the bamboo shoots, and he hoped that they’d prove to be successful and grow to protect the village beyond. But the people in his village were a little more skeptical. He noted that “I wanted a forest here, so I built a small boat and started planting saplings. People first thought I was crazy. But I didn’t give up on the saplings and came back every day to see their progress.”

Thankfully, he didn’t have to wait too long to see the fruits of his labors flourish. While bamboo can take around three years to get established, it still grows relatively quickly compared to other trees out there. Because of this, Jadav was able to witness their growth with his own eyes – and he soon realized that he could do so much more. So, he decided that 10 bamboo shoots just wasn’t enough.

He Could See the Difference Just 10 Shoots of Bamboo Were Making, so Jadav Decided to Take His Plan up a Notch

As Jadav’s 10 shoots of bamboo continued to grow, he could see the real difference they were making. As the roots settled themselves firmly into the ground they solidified the soil that was at risk of being eroded, and Jadav even witnessed the return of birds and other animals. That was all he needed to push his plan to a whole new level.

Jadav knew that his efforts so far had made a difference, but he knew that he’d need to plant even more if he wanted to restore his river island to its former glory. So, he came up with a plan that he hoped would transform the whole island, and keep it safe from further monsoons – no matter how intense they were.

Jadav Decided to Start Planting One Tree Every Single Day, and He Woke up at the Crack of Dawn to Do So

Jadav’s plan was to plant a single tree every single day… for as long as he needed to. It was the least he could do, but he hoped that it would make a real impact. With a busy day of work on his family farm ahead of him, though, the only time Jadav could plant these trees was at the crack of dawn before the sun had even risen.

Every day, he would get up before his whole family, set off on his homemade boat to an area of the island that he thought needed attention, and planted a single seedling. He noted that “First with bamboo trees, then with cotton trees. I kept planting – all different kinds of trees.” However, he also confessed that he wasn’t doing this alone.

Jadav Believes That the Natural World Around Him Helped to Further Enhance His Planting Efforts

Jadav didn’t have another human helping him plant the seedlings and bring the island back to life. Instead, he had the natural world around him. He stated that “it’s not as if I did it alone. You plant one or two trees, and they have to seed. And once they seed, the wind knows how to plant them.”

He continued, “The birds know how to sow them, cows know, elephants know, even the Brahmaputra river knows. The entire ecosystem knows.” While he knew that he had to quite literally plant the first seedling, every tree he planted after that became part of a much bigger picture. At the time, he didn’t know how that picture was going to play out.

He Didn’t Get Permission From the Government to Plant a Tree Every Day, but He Believed the Risk Was Worth It

Of course, when Jadav was part of the tree planting efforts in Aruna Chapori, he did so with a team and as part of a government-backed scheme. This meant it was completely legal and signed off by the forestry commission. When Jadav started planting a tree a day in Majuli, though, he didn’t seek permission. He believed the risk was worth it.

In Jadav’s mind, the process of restoring his island was bigger than laws and regulations – and he didn’t think officials would mind, anyway. His remote island kept itself to itself, and they rarely had any visitors aside from family members of those who lived there. So, he continued to grow his forest and follow the Mising tribe’s tradition of honoring and looking after nature.

Jadav Tended to His Trees Alongside His Full-Time Job, but Soon Enough His Efforts Would Affect His Livelihood

Although Jadav’s planting efforts were tiring and time-consuming, he was spurred on by the support of his family. He had three children and a wife at home, and they lived in a small hut in the forest that he had grown – and they could all see just how much the trees meant to him. However, the trees didn’t put food on the table, so Jadav also worked full-time as a cattle farmer and sold milk as his only source of income.

After a few years of planting trees and tending to his cattle, Jadav eventually found a balance between both aspects of his life. Unfortunately, as the trees grew bigger and his planting efforts began to make a real difference, he soon realized that his trees would have a negative impact on his livelihood. And he just didn’t know what to do about it.

As Animals Returned to Jadav’s Forest, Many of the Big Cats Started to Eat His Cattle and Affect His Only Source of Income

When Majuli was suffering from dry riverbeds and dwindling forests, animals either fled the island or were sadly killed as a result of the destruction. But when the forest returned – thanks to Jadav Payeng – so did the animals. Majuli saw the return of elephants, tigers, birds, monkeys, deer, and much more, but of course, these animals had to eat.

Over the years, Jadav has lost over 85 cows and 96 buffalo to the big cats who now roam his forest. He knows this is the circle of life, though, and he knows that’s how a natural ecosystem is meant to work. He confessed that “I wasn’t scared. I know that tigers have half the courage of women. This one killed a buffalo, saw me, and slinked off… I never feel danger in the forest. It’s my biggest home.”

Jadav Started Planting His Forest in 1979, but His Amazing Work Was Only Accidentally Recognized In 2007

Since 1979, Jadav Payeng has planted a tree single day, and now his home island is covered in a lush forest. He’s incredibly protective of his work and his trees, and his biggest fear is that companies or local builders will cut down his trees to make their own profit – but he will do everything he can to ensure that doesn’t happen. He’s noted that “You will have to kill me first before you kill the trees.”

For Jadav, restoring the forest was never about pride or gloating – it was about keeping his home intact. Because of this, he never bragged about his work to anyone and he’s never gone in search of glory. He managed to quietly plant these trees for decades before anyone knew about it. And even then, when his work was eventually discovered in 2007, it was by complete accident.

Photo Journalist and Wildlife Enthusiast Jitu Kalita Accidentally Stumbled Upon Jadav in 2007, and Couldn’t Believe His Eyes

The person who spotted Jadav and his work first was photojournalist and wildlife enthusiast Jitu Kalita, who had originally planned to take pictures of birds around the Brahmaputra river. He hired a boat for the occasion, and it was while he was paddling near the island of Majuli that he noticed a strange patch of green in front of him.

Kalita noted that “I saw something strange… it looked like a forest far in the distance. I began walking towards it and when I reached it I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had found a dense forest in the middle of a barren wasteland.” The journalist needed to know more, but that’s when he found himself face to face with Jadav Payeng himself.

Jadav Originally Thought Jitu Was a Poacher, but Soon Realized He Was Just Interested in His Forest and His Story

As Jitu Kalita walked further into the forest, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. All of the other islands around the river were eroded and almost destroyed, but Majuli looked like a completely different world. Before too long he found the man responsible for bringing the forest to life, but Jadav was originally skeptical about Kalita and his intentions.

When Jadav first spotted him, he assumed that he was simply a poacher, looking to hunt down the tigers, elephants, or rhinos that lived in the forest. However, after a short explanation from Kalita, he realized that the journalist was overwhelmed with admiration and pride. Kalita wanted to know more about Payeng, and the man who had been quietly cultivating a forest for the past three decades.

Kalita Wrote an Article About Payeng and His Work, and Jadav Was Soon Dubbed ”The Forest Man of India”

Kalita was so impressed with Jadav and how he alone had managed to completely transform a landscape that he asked whether he could write a piece about him for the local paper. Jadav agreed, but he had no idea that this decision would turn him into an international icon. The piece was picked up nationally, and before too long his story made its way across the world.

Instantly, Jadav became an international icon. He was praised for his eco-efforts and for restoring his island home, and many people around the globe couldn’t believe that he had planted a tree every single day for the past few decades. So, they gave him the nickname of “The Forest Man of India” – but that’s not all they gave him.

Now People Know What He’s Done, Jadav Has Been Rightly Honored by the Government and Environmental Organizations

All in all, Jadav has planted over 1300 acres of forest on the island of Majuli – which is almost double the size of New York City’s Central Park. As Jadav planted his forest without government backing or approval he always knew that there was a chance he would get in trouble, but he was relieved to learn that this wasn’t the case.

In fact, in 2015, he was honored with Padma Shri, which is the fourth highest civilian award in India. As if that wasn’t enough, he has also been honored by environmental organizations in India and abroad, and he’s even been awarded an honorary doctorate degree from both Kaziranga University and Assam Agricultural University. The whole world can see just how instrumental he’s been.

Although Jadav Refuses to Take Credit for His Work, the Forest He Grew Has Now Been Named After Him

While Jadav certainly appreciates the honors and the congratulations, he doesn’t believe that he deserves such attention. In his eyes, he was just doing what needed to be done to keep his island home safe from the monsoons and the soil erosion. Plus, he maintains that “The birds, cows, deer, wind, water, and elephants have helped me.”

Even the locals in Majuli have given Jadav credit for his work in what is now known as the Molai Forest. Jadav confessed that “As a child, I was fair and had pink cheeks just like the winter radish. So my pet name was Mola (radish in the local language). As I grew up and started planting trees, people started calling it Mola’r haabi (Mola’s forest). From there, someone conveniently made it Molai forest.”

Since His Story Went Public, Jadav Has Continued His Efforts to Rebuild the Forests Around the River

“The Forest Man of India” may now be an international celebrity who attends awards ceremonies and receives honorary doctorates, but in his eyes, he’s still the same man he’s always been. He still lives on the island of Majuli, and he’s still on a mission to restore the ecosystems around the Brahmaputra river.

Because of this, Jadav has a plan in place to plant another 5,000 additional acres of trees along the barren sandbars and islands around the river. Not only would this improve life on his own island, but it should also improve the lives of other villages elsewhere. He’s doing this because he feels he’s “set an example of what one man can do” for the planet.

He’s Spurred on to Make Even More of an Impact by His Love of God, and His Love of the Natural World

While many people who hope to make a difference do so over the course of a few weeks, a few months, or even a few years, Jadav Payeng has cultivated his forest every single day since 1979 – and he’s never skipped a day. This shows pure determination and drive, and his commitment has inspired people across the globe.

When asked how he managed to sustain such a drive and a determination to grow his forest, he noted that “No one sees God. I see God in nature. Nature is God. It gives me inspiration. It gives me power… As long as it survives, I survive.” Amazingly, Jadav has even more plans that are due to take place outside of his river island – and even outside of his own country.

Jadav Now Plans to Travel Across the Globe to Mexico in an Effort to Replenish the Forests in the Country

As an environmental icon, Jadav has become famous in the world of forestry – and in 2021 he was given the chance to take his expertise and his experience across the globe. He signed an agreement with the Mexican non-profit organization Fundacion Azteca, which aims to plant a whopping seven million trees in Mexico.

For this project, Jadav will travel to Mexico for three months each year to teach Mexican youths about the importance of trees, help plant and cultivate the trees, and provide vital support for the organization. Although the project hasn’t started yet, he already has a plan to start planting coconut and areca trees when he gets there.

Jadav’s Story Is Proof That One Person Can Truly Make a Difference, Even if It’s One Decision Every Day

In Jadav’s eyes, what he’s achieved and what he hopes to achieve in the future wasn’t a big undertaking. Sure, he had to wake up early and work alongside his full-time job, but he simply planted a tree every single day. It was this small decision – that he repeated every day for over four decades – that made a big impact.

Yes, his story is proof that one person really can make a difference. While it might take time and will certainly be quicker if there are more people involved, that doesn’t mean that an individual shouldn’t do something because they’re on their own. Jadav grew a whole forest and restored his homeland to its former glory.