Man continues to fight for forest he planted by hand over nearly four decades

This is the remarkable story of a man whose extraordinary vision allowed him to see the forest for the trees.

Over the span of 36 years, Jadav Payeng has dedicated his life to nurturing a once barren land to the point where animals, birds and insects are again calling it home.

Nicknamed the Forest Man for his incredible efforts, Payeng single-handedly built a forest in northeastern India that is more than one-and-a-half times the size of New York City’s Central Park.

Payeng’s fixation for the land began in 1979, when he was 16, after he found a large number of dead snakes that had washed ashore following a flood. Erosion was washing away trees and bushes that normally provide shade and nutrients so the island’s wildlife was being forced to flee.

Payeng took his concerns to authorities who suggested he try growing bamboo, which he did to great success. That prompted him to try other native species such as teak. He also relocated red ants, earthworms and other insects to the area to help the soil. He watered. He pruned. Endangered animals such as the one-horned rhino and Royal Bengal tiger started appearing. Migratory birds began flocking to the forest.

Today that once harsh environment is 550 hectares (nearly 1,360 acres) of lush sanctuary for elephants, deer, vultures and many species of flora and fauna.

But up until 2009, Payeng’s efforts were largely unknown throughout India and the rest of the world. That is until his work was discovered by Jitu Kalita, a nature photographer and journalist who was scouting for material to photograph when he fell upon Payeng’s forest.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Kalita says in a short film called Forest Man. “I had found a dense forest in the middle of a barren wasteland.”

Kalita followed Payeng and was astounded to learn his story. He wrote an article in the local newspaper, which Payeng describes as a turning point in his life since it garnered him wide recognition. The former president of India, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, officially bestowed Payeng with the title Forest Man of India. This year, he was honoured with the fourth highest civilian award in India, the Padma Shri. He has been the subject of a number of documentary films, including 2013’s Forest Man, directed by Canadian filmmaker William McMaster, which garnered a prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

Today at 52, the Assamese dairy farmer is every bit as fervent about his forest, despite impending environmental and human dangers. Located on Majuli Island, which lies in the Brahmaputra River in the remote state of Assam, Payeng’s forest may not exist 20 years from now, say scientists, thanks to erosion which is eating away large chunks of land. At 1,200 square kilometres, Majuli was once considered the world’s biggest river island but today it is just 400 square kilometres. Payeng also worries about poachers and people encroaching on the land for economic gain.

His work has been credited for helping fortify Majuli and local governments have tried to get the island listed as UNESCO World Heritage site but their applications have been rejected.

As a gesture of gratitude to Payeng’s effort and dedication to the land, the Assam government named the forest after him. It’s called Molai Kathoni (Molai's woods) after Payeng's nickname, Molai.

“My dream is to fill up Majuli Island and Jorhat with forest again,” Payeng tells us in Forest Man. “I will continue to plant till my last breath. I tell those people cutting those trees will not get you nothing. Cut me before you cut my trees.”