Painting the world green again – The incredible story of the Forest Man of India

#ClimateChange has been on the lips of environmentalists, activists and scientists around the world for several decades now, but it seems it has taken extreme climatic events in recent years to really come to the fore of public discussions and media attention. In SA alone, we can all attest to its effects owing to deep and prolonged droughts, the crises in the Eastern and Western Capes, and exceptionally heavy downpours and floods in other regions. In the face of all the bad news, many of us simply feel powerless and unable to make a significant impact.

A few seeds

Over 100 Indian Elephants use Molai Forest part of their migratory route, and ten calves have been born in the area. Image by Yathin S Krishnappa

But, the truth of the matter is that each and every one of us can make a difference, and the story of Jadav “Molai” Payeng proves just that. Born into a poor rural family, Molai wouldn’t perhaps have been the obvious candidate to inspire people worldwide to contribute towards undoing the damage done to our precious environment. Nonetheless, at the age of 16 he saw a sight that changed the trajectory of his own life – a multitude of snakes that had been washed ashore a river sandbar by a flood were withering and dying owing to unprecedented heat and the lack of green coverage. He intuited that this would someday happen to humankind if things carried on as they were.

Five magnificent Bengal Tigers have also made Molai Forest their home

Molai approached his village elders with his concerns, but they concluded that his fears were unfounded. To placate him, however, they offered him some bamboo seeds, which he planted on the severely eroded and lifeless sandbar in the river Brahmaputra. He nurtured the seedlings and built a small fence to protect them. This was in 1979, and so began his life’s work.

Little by little

An illustration of Jadav Payeng, from the biographical children’s book “Jadav and the Tree-Place” by Vinayak Varma. Additional images by Line1 and Sam Azgor

Every day from then on, he would take a two hour journey on foot, boat and bicycle to the sandbar to either plant, collect seeds or nurture younger and vulnerable trees. Over a period of about three and a half decades, his efforts produced something that would have seemed impossible – he had created an entire forest. Replete with a wide variety of vegetation, including medicinal trees, Mother Nature played her part too, and the 5.5 km2 “Molai Forest” beckoned to increasingly endangered wildlife. Bengal Tigers, Indian rhinos, Indian elephants, monkeys, deer, birdlife, and more found a home in his sanctuary – a sanctuary that started with just a handful of seeds.

In an interview, the Forest Man of India related that he was, undoubtedly, the happiest man alive, having lived a life that brought good into a world that so desperately needs it. In 2015 he was honoured with the title “Padma Shri”, India’s fourth highest civilian award – he notes, however, that he would have preferred it if the government had simply planted a tree.

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