Weekend Diversion: The Forest Man of India

How one person singlehandedly created a forest, saved an island, and changed the world.

Image credit: Amarjyoti Borah, via Al Jazeera.


“The trees are man’s best friends; but man has treated them as his worst enemies. The history of our race may be said to be the history of warfare upon the tree world. But while man has seemed to be the victor, his victories have brought upon him inevitable disasters.” -Nathaniel Egleston

They say that people don’t appreciate what they have until it’s gone, and that seems to be true pretty much everywhere you go. This applies to other people, it applies to animals, it applies to nature, it applies to time, and it even applies to love. Have a listen to Damien Rice’s heart-wrenching song, The Animals Were Gone,

https://play.spotify.com/track/3bXxAtl29DrLopvSzOzMQ3

while I tell you a story that has nothing to do with India, but takes place in my current city of Portland, OR.

Image credit: EncMstr of Wikimedia Commons.

This is Forest Park, one of the largest urban forests in the world. In the 1850s, most of what is now the park was logged, and a combination of settlers and developers planned to build on it. But without the vegetation there, and the stabilizing effect it has on the steep slopes and silty soil, repeated landslides foiled practically all of them. Long story short, the land needed the forest, and this in now the 19th largest city park in the United States.

Image credit: NASA’s Aqua Satellite / Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument, of a heavily deforested North Korea.

Vegetation is crucial for both water management and land management. Many of us have a vague idea in our heads that during the 1990s, there was a terrible famine in North Korea, resulting in the starvation deaths of more than two million people, and possibly many more than that. It’s well-documented that a tremendous flood in 1995 in the country was an extreme contributor to this, but what’s less well-known is that the primary reason for the flooding was not excessive rainfall, but the clear-cutting of forests that were necessary for soil stability and water management. Ostensibly, the clear-cut land was to be used for agriculture to increase the food supply, but without enough land devoted to the region’s soil and water management, it wound up being an agricultural nightmare from which the country has still not fully recovered.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Alex Rio Brazil.

A similar thing almost happened to a large part of Brazil, but preservation and reforestation efforts seem to have that situation under control.

And now, with that in mind, we come to a similar but quite unique situation: to the Brahmaputra River that runs through Northern India, and a very large sandbar island within it in the country’s northeast corner: Majuli.

Images credit: William D. McMaster, via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HkZDSqyE1do.

Without sufficient vegetation to stabilize the soil — plant life with large, complex root systems — the river has not only been eroding the island, but the rate of erosion has increased in recent years. As of today, less than half the initial land area of the island remains, and without any intervention, the entire island could be gone by 2030. Or rather, could have been, if it weren’t for one remarkable person.

One of the young, nearby residents, Jadav Payeng, noticed something odd back in 1979: in the aftermath of a fierce flood, a large number of impressive reptiles washed up, all dead, on the sandbar island. He cried for a long time, mourning what he felt were their unnecessary deaths, reasoning that if there were large trees on the island — as there were in the surrounding environs — the snakes could have climbed them, and would have survived the raging flood.

Image credit: William D. McMaster, via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HkZDSqyE1do.

So he began doing something about it, starting at the age of 16: planting them. After working on a tree planting project from the social forestry division from 1980–1985, where they planted a total of 200 hectares with trees. (A hectare, for those of you wondering, is a square hectometer, or a region of land 100 meters by 100 meters in size. It’s the same as 2.47 acres, and 100 hectares is a square kilometer.)

After the other workers left, nominally going on to other things, Payeng stayed behind, continuing to plant more trees, and taking care of the forest. To date, he’s personally restored more than 550 hectares (1,360 acres) of forest, or an area some 50% larger than New York’s Central Park.

Images credit: William D. McMaster, via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HkZDSqyE1do.

Animals that hadn’t been seen on the island in decades began to return, including a herd of more than 100 elephants, as well as rhinos, deer and tigers. Most recently, as of 2012, vultures have returned, a first in more than 40 years! And this was not simply something he built freely, but something he had to fight to keep. In his own words:

When the trees grew big, it became difficult for me to protect them. The biggest threat was from men. They would have destroyed the forest for economic gain, and the animals would be vulnerable again.

But although the story is far from over, the Molai Forest — named after Jadav “Molai” Payeng — looks to be in outstanding shape, and the prognosis looks excellent for the island of Majuli. You see, in 2008, forest and wildlife authorities were following a herd of more than 100 elephants, when they appeared to vanish! They tracked them to the island, and it was there that they discovered the forest. And, of course, they found Jadav there protecting it, and planting his trees. Ever since, he’s been honored across his country for his environmental efforts, and has been dubbed the Forest Man of India.

Enjoy this fabulous documentary about him and his forest, Forest Man, in full, below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HkZDSqyE1do

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