I was originally scheduled to write an article about the amazing story of the ‘Forest Man of India’ for Wisdom Pills, a lovely site I’ve written for a few times. The site is currently on hold and I’m hoping one day it will start publishing again. In the meantime I felt I should share a post about this story. It’s not new, the short documentary film Forest Man was made in 2013, but it may be a new story to many. It’s a lovely film and well worth watching all the way through.
In the northeastern region of India in the state of Assam lies Majuli, one of the largest river islands in the world. A wetland rich in flora and fauna and virtually pollution free, it is also home to around 150,000 people. The island is relatively unknown to tourists although, as a 2015 article in The Guardian revealed, it is slowly being discovered. It is also however being systematically and irrevocably eroded by the ebb and flow of the mighty Brahmaputra river. Exacerbated by climate change, each monsoon more of the island is washed away; the villagers’ homes are literally disappearing from under their feet. Much of Majuli’s riverbank is now made up of barren sandbars.
One man however has been quietly taking on the river since the 1970’s, a sapling at a time, in an effort to stem the erosion and provide a home to indigenous plants and animals. Thirty years later the forest that he has planted, by himself, is often cited as being larger than Central Park. Fabulously the forest is now home to tigers, rhinoceros, elephants, apes, deer and many varieties of birds. It has been named Molai Forest after Jadav ‘Molai’ Payeng, the man who single-handedly created it.
Jadav Payeng was only a teenager in 1979 when he witnessed hundreds of snakes washed ashore die on a sandbar in the merciless sun. Clearly a man of deep empathy, he decided to do something about it. With the advice of elders he started to plant tall-growing, shade-giving bamboo, digging holes one at a time with a stick to plant the shoots in. He gradually added in other indigenous seedlings of plants and trees. It was tortuous work, and as the amount of saplings grew he was faced with the difficulty of watering them all by himself. Ingeniously he devised a method of drip irrigation by balancing water-filled urns with small holes near the base of the new growth.
Payeng has confronted poachers and faced down island inhabitants angry at tigers and elephants making forays into villages for food. His answer to the latter problem was to plant banana trees in the forest, a favourite food of the elephants, encouraging them to stay away from the villages. As the amount of deer in the forest have increased, the number of visits by tigers to snatch the villagers’ livestock have decreased. Payeng himself has had cattle taken but doesn’t blame the tigers, rather he blames the encroachment on their natural habitat.
A natural-born environmentalist, Payeng has been honored with the fourth highest civilian award in India, the Padma Shri. Local media portrayed Payeng’s work and William D. McMaster’s 2013 documentary introduced an international audience to this incredible story. Even the making of the documentary is inspiring. To complete the venture and bring Payeng’s story to the wider public it was launched as a Kickstarter project, received the funding it needed to complete filming and went on to win the Emerging Filmmaker Showcase– Best Documentary prize at the American Pavilion in Cannes 2014.
In the chaos of all the assaults on the natural environment Forest Man is a timely reminder that we can all do something to pitch in and attempt to save our planet, one sapling at a time. I love his story, hope you do too.
UNESCO World Heritage Centre