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Man plants forest, becomes film star

This is the second in a series of two articles telling the story of Molai, a forest in the Indian state of Assam that was planted by Jadav Payeng over 35 years. Read the first part here.

Jadav “Molai” Payeng is a 51-year-old man who lives in India’s north-eastern state of Assam in the village of Aruna Chapori. A member of Assam’s indigenous Mising tribe, Payeng is better known as the “Forest Man.”

Starting his forestry career as a laborer working on a government-sanctioned tree plantation project in 1980, Payeng was the only one to not turn back when the project was officially abandoned mid-way. In the decades since, Payeng single-handedly transformed a barren sandbar in the middle of India’s mighty Brahmaputra River into a self-sustaining forest ecosystem.

Payeng planted seeds and saplings by himself, watered them and nurtured them with dedication to create the 550-hectare “Molai Forest,” which today is larger than New York City’s Central Park.

Molai forest (yellow square) occupies a sandbar near the village of Jorhat in Assam. Image courtesy of Global Forest Watch. Click to enlarge.

Payeng relentlessly fought rapid soil erosion on the island from monsoon flooding exacerbated by upstream deforestation by planting trees that now shelter iconic wildlife including Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris), the Indian rhinoceroses (Rhinoceros unicornis) and many bird species.

“After 12 years, we have seen vultures. Migratory birds, too, have started flocking here. Deer and cattle have attracted predators,” Payeng told the Times of India.

For decades, Payeng struggled alone. “It was painful, but I did it,” he said. “There was nobody to help me. Nobody was interested.” Payeng’s remarkable achievement only came to light in 2008 when the state’s forest officials chanced upon a dense forest – the Molai forest – that they didn’t know existed.

Jadav Payeng, the man who planted a 550-hectare forest over 35 years. Photo by Bijit Dutta.
Jadav Payeng, the man who planted a 550-hectare forest over 35 years. Photo by Bijit Dutta.

Today, he is the protagonist of an award-winning 2013 documentary made by Canadian filmmaker William Douglas McMaster, appropriately titled, “Forest Man.”

Although government support was not forthcoming, Payeng was honored in 2012 at a public event at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Since then, his work has been recognized by the likes of the Indian Institute of Forest Management and dignitaries like former President of India, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam – who gave Payeng his “Forest Man” title.

William McMaster, who directed Forest Man, ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund the film’s post-production and raised over $8,300 worth of support. Not only was his film well-received, but it went to be screened under the Emerging Filmmakers Showcase at The American Pavilion during the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the award for Best Documentary.

“I am very happy the film has won an award,” Payeng was quoted as saying in The Telegraph earlier this year. “But I am more happy that this has been viewed by a global audience and that McMaster has taken my message of conservation of the environment to the world.”

According to data from Global Forest Watch, 23 percent of India’s forests are primary, nearly all of which is contained in the country’s mountainous northeast. The state of Arunachal Pradesh has the bulk of India’s primary forest, sheltered in the relative safety of its largely inaccessible Himalayan foothills. This forest, called the eastern Himalayan broadleaf ecoregion, is home to a plethora of wildlife. According a study published by the University of California Press in 2010, this strip of forest running from Nepal through West Bengal and Arunachal Pradesh is home to 490 bird species and 183 mammal species, including the clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), red panda (Ailurus fulgens, and the endemic Hodgson’s giant flying squirrel (Petaurista magnificus), found nowhere else in the world.

While listed as Least Concern by the IUCN, Hodgson’s giant flying squirrel (Petaurista magnificus) is still declining, primarily due to habitat loss. Photo by Nandini Velho.

The eastern section of forest occupying Arunachal Pradesh also houses the headwaters of the Brahmaputra River. Here, accessible areas of forest have been heavily impacted by deforestation, with a 2007 study published in Biodiversity and Conservation finding a nearly 24 percent reduction of forest cover between 1970 and 2000. The study projected that at the 2007 rate of deforestation, only 38.7 percent of original forest cover will remain in 2100.

Trees often play a critical role in river systems, taking up excess water and holding soil together, thereby lessening floods and erosion. Some scientists blame deforestation in the Brahamaputra watershed for the seemingly increased frequency and severity of flood events in the river basin. In 2012, one particularly strong flood killed 124 people and displaced millions. However, other studies maintain flooding hasn’t significantly worsened over the past few decades.

The area immediately surrounding the headwaters of the Brahmaputra River lost approximately 40,000 hectares of tree cover from 2001 through 2012. Map courtesy of Global Forest Watch. Click to enlarge.

Regardless, small-scale reforestation efforts like those undertaken by Payeng can help near-river ecosystems resist flood damage.

“We showed that though Payeng lives a simple life, he still made a big difference in the world,” McMaster told The Telegraph. “Also, we examined Payeng’s ideas on how to stop erosion along the Brahmaputra through plantation, and how frustrating it is that no one in the government has adopted the idea,” the filmmaker said.

Payeng has also been the subject of another film titled “Foresting Life” by Indian filmmaker Aarti Shrivastava.

“We are amazed at Payeng,” Assistant Conservator of Forests, Gunin Saikia, told the Times of India. “He has been at it for 30 years. Had he been in any other country, he would have been made a hero. He treats the trees and animals like his own children.”

What Payeng has achieved and what he stands for has not been an easy journey. He has had to give up his education, home and the comfort of civilization to accept a life of isolation for himself and his family. Treated as a social outcast by the people of his own village and constantly threatened by illegal loggers and poachers, he lives in a small, primitive hut on his beloved island where he keeps some cattle. Selling their milk is his only source of income.

Thirty-five years, hundreds of hectares and several films after he started planting trees, Jadav Payeng still has the passion that led to a life of conservation service. In the future, Payeng plans to learn how to manage his forest more effectively and is ready to start similar ventures in other areas of Assam. In the short-term, his aim is to spread his forest to another sandbar in the Brahmaputra River.

Indian elephants (Elephas maximus indicus, Endangered) have reportedly re-colonized Molai Forest. Photo by Morgan Erickson-Davis.


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