Jadav Payeng is a remarkable man. Growing up with his seven sisters and five brothers, he was number three of his thirteen siblings. They lived in poverty, and both his mother and father provided for them as best they could through selling milk.
He later earned the nickname as “The Forest Man of India” after he transformed a desolate river island into a large and healthy forest in Assam, India.
The heat was nearly unbearable in the summer of 1978. Payeng was just a boy in his teen years and was returning home to Aruna Sapori, a river island on the Brahmaputra River where Payeng was born. He had come from completing his final exams at Jagannath Baruah Arya Vidyalaya in Jorhat.
Payeng did not return to school after that. Instead, he cared for the livestock that his now deceased parents had left him.
One of the first things Payeng noticed upon his homecoming was the mass of dead snakes that covered the island. He wondered what had happened, and the sight of this huge amount of death evoked an emotional pain that was heartbreaking for Payeng. The snakes numbered more than a hundred.
Distressed, Payeng went to the nearby Deori community village. He learned that flooding had caused the snakes to wash up to the island. Without the protection of shade-producing trees, the snakes were deserted and helpless to flee from the overwhelming heat, and they had no food to sustain them.
The people of the village called upon Payeng to plant and grow trees in an effort to prevent even more snakes from dying. Payeng and the villagers realized that their request was about much more than the snakes. It was a part of the natural life-cycle in the area.
Planting trees would eventually provide a habitat for birds as well. Birds lay eggs and are a food source for snakes. Payeng was given twenty-five bamboo plants and fifty seeds by the villagers. At the young age of fifteen, Payeng was now a man on a mission. In April of 1979, he navigated his way through the rugged terrain, planting trees as he went.
Fast-forward thirty-six years later, and the result of his efforts was 1,360 acres of thick forest. The island itself is still eroding because of its make-up of silt and sand, but Payeng’s hard work could turn out to be one of the greatest single-handed efforts to help save one of the world’s largest river islands. Payeng is wise in the ways of his environment and acknowledges that those trees he planted may still not be enough to save the island. However, he sure hopes it is. “I never thought that my small initiative would make such a difference one day,” he said humbly.
There is life now where there used to be none, thanks to Payeng. Two years ago, his hand-planted forest was home for more than a hundred deer, five Royal Bengal tigers, vultures and other birds, and wild boar.
Now in his fifties, Payeng is a green-minded man who does all he can to make his home as environmentally-friendly as possible. He wakes before the sun rises and continues to plant more trees. When the sun begins to set, he returns for dinner, and then goes to bed, only to wake again and repeat his daily routine.