In northeast India, an island is being steadily swallowed by the water that surrounds it. And yet, as the monsoons rain down and the nearby river rages, a young man works determinedly, planting seeds in the sodden ground. The year is 1979, but he has set himself a mammoth challenge that will take over 35 years to complete: to replant and repopulate this sparse, soggy land before it disappears underwater completely.
The story starts almost 40 years ago with a teenage boy in India – and a particularly remarkable part of India at that. The boy lives on an island called Majuli. Populated by some 150,000 residents, Majuli has been named the biggest river island on the planet.
Majuli Island sits adjacent to the Brahmaputra River, but its waterside location places it in a very vulnerable position. Flooding is frequent and has ravaged the area over the years, eating away at the land and constantly reshaping the terrain.
Majuli Island is in fact literally sinking into the water. Indeed, in the middle of the 19th century the island measured approximately 480 square miles. Now, however, it’s been reduced to one third of that: just 135 square miles.
During this time, the Brahmaputra River has devoured countless houses, while the lives of local residents are put at risk every year. Their livelihoods, too, are under constant threat from the water. And yet these aren’t the only things in danger.
This part of the world has a rich, ancient culture and heritage. Majuli is, in fact, home to the Neo-Vaishnavite culture. For the past 600 or so years, adherents of the faith have constructed monasteries known as satras. And while there were once over 60 of them, erosion has meant that more than 30 have been lost to the mighty river.
Worse, it’s predicted that the entire island could be lost to the river within the next 20 years. So, in order to preserve Majuli’s land and its heritage, one man set out on a mission. That man was Jadav Payeng. While most teenagers would be out playing, a young Payeng decided that he wanted to make a difference.
Hence, in 1979, at the age of 16, Payeng began planting trees. Since then, the forestry worker and activist has devoted nearly four decades to populating the island with trees in an attempt to fortify the land.
Yet as well as wanting to reverse the effects of erosion, Payeng had another motive for his work. Though the island was previously rich in wildlife, many animals had fled Majuli owing to its troubles. With his work, then, Payeng hoped to be able to entice the return of the rhinos, elephants, tigers and deer which had once lived in the beautiful landscape.
Payeng’s dedication led him to become the subject of a 2013 documentary called Forest Man. Charting this exceptional man’s efforts, the short film has received numerous awards, including one from Cannes in 2014.
While being interviewed for Forest Man, Payeng explained his work. “I have planted everything myself,” he said. “At first, planting was very time consuming, but now it’s much easier because I get the seeds from the trees themselves.”
Payeng also explained how certain trees can combat the destructive effects of the river. “Coconut trees are always straight, and they help prevent erosion if planted densely enough,” he said. “So it is good for protecting the soil, for boosting the economy and for fighting climate change.”
Payeng has had to deal with many challenges while working to transform the barren land into a rich forest. However, he has said that his biggest problems actually come from fellow humans.
Speaking in the documentary, he said, “When the trees are big it became difficult for me to protect them. The biggest threat was from men. They would have destroyed the forest for economic gain.” So, did humans thwart Payeng’s plans to revitalize Majuli?
In fact, his project has been a resounding success. Working singlehandedly, Payeng has transformed a once arid area into a lush, green forest. His 38 years of sweat, determination and hard work have paid off. Planting thousands and thousands of trees, Payeng has actually created a forest of a staggering size.
Indeed, to put his work into perspective, Payeng’s homegrown forest covers an area of approximately 1,400 acres. In contrast, New York’s Central Park measures in at just 843 acres. But have the activist’s phenomenal efforts made any difference?
Indeed they have. Payeng’s forest has been widely recognized as significantly fortifying the land. And just as the environmentalist had intended, his work has also been highly effective in attracting local wildlife – including endangered species – to return to the island.
The new forest has attracted a herd of almost 100 elephants, and they have since gone on to raise a new generation. Bengal tigers have also made a reappearance, as has a type of vulture that had reportedly disappeared from the island more than four decades ago.
Paveng’s work has returned the land to its rightful owners: the animals that once populated the region before mankind arrived. “There are no monsters in nature, except for humans,” he explains in Forest Man. “Humans consume everything until there is nothing left.”
It’s clear that Payeng has achieved something incredible. He may even have saved the island. And his connection to his home is so strong that he has no intention of retiring from his role in the ancient locale. Indeed, he is even prepared to risk his own life for it. In Forest Man, he ends with a warning to those who would take advantage of the forest. “Cut me before you cut my trees,” he says. Hopefully it is a threat that he will never need to act upon.