Over the last 30 years, Jadav Peyang in Assam has single-handedly transformed a barren sandbar into a lush forest thriving with wildlife

This story is not just about environmental conservation but about creating possibilities where none exist, and about the ultimate triumph of the human spirit. It is about a tribal man called Jadav Payeng from Assam who single-handedly created a forest by toiling incessantly for thirty years.

The forest created by Jadav (nick-named Molai) is called Molai Kathoni by the locals. Jadav, belonging to the Missing tribe of upper Assam, decided to leave his commune to live with nature when he was just 19-year-old. A vast expanse of barren land (located near Kokilamukh, Jorhat) left behind by the Brahmaputra became his abode. For company he had but a few cows.

In those early days of self-discovery, the ‘eureka’ moment came when, consequent to a flooding episode, the receding waters left behind swarms of water snakes that gradually became shriveled under the blazing sun. The sight moved Jadav as he realised that the solution lay in planting trees. But greening the 1,200 hectare sandbar with no resources at hand seemed an impossible proposition.

After wondering for some time, Jadav approached the State’s Forest Department. But it meant the life to Jadav Payeng. He wandered about and finally picked the courage to approach the forest department. The expected taunts came his way, but one official helpfully remarked that he could consider starting with planting bamboo.

For the next 15 years, Jadav lived in solitary confinement on this sandbar, planting sapling after sapling in his incessant pursuit of turning the hostile sand into an oasis. With the help of red ants (brought there physically by Jadav), bird droppings and cow manure, the land slowly became fertile and grew trees of many species, including those whose fruits are relished by elephants and grasses which rhinos love. With such meticulous planning, the sandbar gradually transformed into a forest and openly invited elephants, rhinos and even tigers from the nearby Kaziranga into its luring environs.

The fertile land also attracted people with little means who gradually settled on the fringes of Molai’s forest. They planted sugarcane, paddy and vegetables; slowly the village at the edge of the forest — Aruna Chapori — swelled to its present size of over 200 families. It even has a primary school now.

As the sandbar transformed into a forest, attracting all manner of small and large animal species, and providing shelter for wandering seeds of herbs, grasses and ferns to take root, Jadav remained its determined caretaker. Even the animals seem to know this since he has never been attacked by any animal.

While the young forest was quickly noticed by poachers, the Forest Department remained completely oblivious of it. The forest was first reported in 2009 by Jitu Kalita working with the Assamese daily Dainik Janmabhoomi. His reports were recently picked up by a national English daily, following which Jadav has begun to receive national and international recognition.

One has to cross two small streams by boat to reach Aruna Chapori from Missing Gaon. A tractor ride there onward takes one to the edge of Molai Kathoni. Trekking into the dense forest is a wondrous experience with Jadav pointing to a tree here, a grass or herb there that is the favourite of one or the other of his animals. In the moist mud, he shows the footprint of an elephant, and his droppings nearby. Reaching a watering hole he peered on the ground to find fresh pugmarks of a tiger! In the middle of the forest is his hut where he sometimes spends the night.

Currently he is planting orchids on the barks of some of his trees. At the edge of the forest the plantation drive continues to cover the remaining sand.

(The writer is a professor at the School of Environmental Sciences, JNU)