In 1979, Jadav Payeng embarked on what would ultimately become a successful 30-year project to single-handedly plant a 1,360-acre forest. Payeng’s tree-planting mission began at age 16, when flooding wiped away a large portion of forest along the Brahmaputra river sandbar in Assam, India. Wildlife were left without adequate shade, and Payeng watched helpless creatures begin to die off from the heat. Deeply saddened, Payeng realized his true calling, to “grow trees all my life.”
“After the floodwaters receded, the temperatures soared. The snakes died in the heat without any tree cover. I sat down and wept over their lifeless forms. It was carnage,” Payeng told the Times of India. “I alerted the forest department and asked them if they could grow trees there. They said nothing would grow there. Instead, they asked me to try growing bamboo. It was painful, but I did it. There was nobody to help me. Nobody was interested.”
Payeng started his forest by watering bamboo saplings morning and evening. He even brought red ants from his home village to the sandbar to help improve the soil. When his bamboo trees grew, Payeng decided to slowly introduce other species of trees into the island.
“I then decided to grow proper trees. I collected and planted them,” Payeng told the Times of India. “I also transported red ants from my village and was stung many times. Red ants change the soil’s properties. That was an experience.”
Through his individual, unprecedented act of conservationism, Payeng transformed the barren sandbar once prone to flooding into a lush, green forest that now shelters numerous birds, deer, rhinos, tigers and elephants. Payeng’s forest went largely unnoticed until 2008, when a team of Assam state officials came upon it in search of a herd of wild elephants that had run amok in a neighboring village.
“We were surprised to find such a dense forest on the sandbar,” Gunin Saikia, Assam’s Assistant Conservator of Forests, told the Times of India. “We’re amazed at Payeng. He has been at it for 30 years.”
Now, at 52, Payeng makes a living with his family in the forest he planted by rearing cows and selling milk, and he has his sights set on planting a second forest on yet another 1,300-acre sandbar.
“It may take another 30 years, but I am optimistic about it,” Payeng told the Times of India. “I feel sad when I see people felling trees. We have to save the nature or else we all will perish. I may live a very lowly life but I feel satisfied that I have been able to stir up a lot of people who love nature.”