Jadav Payeng, known as "Mulai" to his friends and neighbours, has spent the last 30 years single-handedly planting and caring for a huge 550-hectare forest on a sandbar in the middle of the Brahmaputra River in Assam, India.
In 1980, Assam's Jorhat district's social forestry division launched a tree-planting initiative on 200 hectares of the land. After five years, the project was completed and the labourers left — except for Payeng. He stayed behind, living alone on the sandbar.
"Mulai was one of the labourers who worked in our project which was completed after five years. He chose to stay back after the completion of the project as others left,"
assistant conservator of forest Gunin Saikia tells The Asian Age.
Payeng chose a life of isolation on the sandbar where he cared for the trees and continued to plant thousands more of them.
First, he transformed the sandbar into a bamboo thicket.
"I then decided to grow proper trees. I collected and planted them. I also transported red ants from my village, and was stung many times. Red ants change the soil's properties. That was an experience," Payeng tells the Times of India.
He still lives in the forest's vicinity, in a hut with his wife and three children. He earns money by selling cow and buffalo milk.
The forest, home to thousands of varieties of trees, is now known as "Mulai Kathoni," or "Mulai's forest." Payeng's dedication to the land didn't just cultivate thriving plants, it provided a home for wildlife, including endangered animals.
"There are about four tigers, three rhinos and more than a hundred deer, rabbits and apes. There are innumerable varieties of birds who call this place home, as well. A herd of about 100 elephants is known to visit the place every year for six months," Oddity Central reports.
Forestry officials were only made aware of the huge forest in 2008.
"We were surprised to find such a dense forest on the sandbar. Locals, whose homes had been destroyed by the pachyderms, wanted to cut down the forest, but Payeng dared them to kill him instead. He treats the trees and animals like his own children. Seeing this, we, too, decided to pitch in," Assistant Conservator of Forests, Gunin Saikia tells the Times of India. "We're amazed at Payeng. He has been at it for 30 years. Had he been in any other country, he would have been made a hero."
There is now talk of Mulai's forest being declared a wildlife sanctuary. If the government proves itself capable of caring for the land, Payeng will start planting elsewhere.
"If the Forest Department promises me to manage the forest in a better way, I shall go to other places of the state to start a similar venture," Payeng told The Asian Age.