In the most northeasterly reaches of India, in the state of Assam, lies a forested river island larger than Central Park. It is teeming with wildlife, including rhinos, the endangered Bengal Tiger and a herd of wild elephants. It features trees so thick that they shocked rangers from India’s Forest Department when they first stumbled upon the small jungle. Most notable, however, is that four decades ago, before a young Mishing tribesman took to the island with a handful of seeds and a heart full of sorrow, this sanctuary was simply a barren, sandy strip of land.

That’s right. Before 1979, the world’s largest river island was simply a sandy expanse dotted with driftwood. It was Jadav Payeng, the son of a poor buffalo trader, who single-handedly transformed the island to the 1,300 acres of dense jungle that it is today.

When Payeng was a boy, the island was connected to the mainland. Erosion began to claim the island and ultimately severed it.

“Earlier, this was all sand. No trees, no grass — nothing was here. Only driftwood.”

 

One day in his youth, Payeng witnessed a sight so disturbing it would change his life forever: a pile of snakes on the sandy banks, scorched in the sun with no trees to offer cool refuge. “When I saw it, I thought even we humans will have to die this way in the heat. It struck me. In the grief of those dead snakes, I created this forest.” This was in 1979; forty years later, he’s still planting trees.

He has lost count of how many trees he has planted in the last four decades. Payeng estimates that there must be ‘hundreds of thousands of trees now,’ enough to shock the Forest Department when they first stumbled across the small jungle.

“It’s not as if I did it alone. You plant one or two trees, and they have to seed. And once they seed, the wind knows how to plant them, the birds here know how to sow them, cows know, elephants know, even the Brahmaputra river knows. The entire ecosystem knows. […] Now, seeds of grass carried downriver from China wash up, and pollinate, on their own.”

Payeng never received permission to plant the trees and while he’s received a variety of awards for his work, his motivations come from a very humble place: it is simply a demonstration of the Mishing tradition of honoring nature. His efforts have landed him India’s highest civilian honors, the Padma Shri and a cash reward on behalf of President APJ Abdul Kalam. He served on a board with 900 experts at the seventh global conference of the International Forum for Sustainable Development in France and Jawaharlal Nehru University christened him ‘Forest Man of India.’

“The Padma Shri is an award for encouragement,” he says, “but my aim has always been to do good for the country. Even the President of India has to do something for the earth; otherwise, there will be nobody left, nothing.”

Despite these honors, Payeng laments the apathy of the Forest Department, commenting that they never aided his restoration efforts and dismissed him when he mentioned the endangered rhinos frequenting the forest; it was only when he found the body of a poached rhino that they believed him.

What keeps him motivated to keep working? “No one sees God. I see God in nature. Nature is God. It gives me inspiration. It gives me power. […] As long as it survives, I survive.” Payeng shows no signs of slowing: he plans on expanding the 1,300-acre forest another 5000 acres along a barren stretch of the Brahmaputra’s sandbars and islands. His plan? One seed at a time.

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