India Man Plants Forest Bigger Than Central Park

to Save His Island
From National Geographic and NPR

Since 1979, Jadav Payeng has been planting hundreds of trees on an Indian island threatened by erosion. In this film, photographer Jitu Kalita traverses Payeng’s home—the largest river island in the world—and reveals the touching story of how this modern-day Johnny Appleseed turned an eroding desert into a wondrous oasis. Funded in part by Kickstarter, "Forest Man" was directed by William Douglas McMaster and won Best Documentary for the American Pavilion Emerging Filmmaker Showcase at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014.

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On a journey to the little known Northeast region of India, you may encounter a dizzying array of traditional tribes, rugged beauty and wildlife, including the rare white rhinos. It's here we discover perhaps an even rarer creature: the "Forest Man of India." A humble farmer from a marginalized tribal community, Jadav Payeng has single-handedly changed the landscape in his state of Assam.

Payeng, 58, is reclaiming an island in the mighty Brahmaputra river where increased flooding has changed the flow and built up sandbars along the long stretch of the river that runs through the middle of Assam.

Geographically separated from the Indian subcontinent, the northeast juts toward China, and is nestled along the borders of Bhutan and Tibet.


Payeng keeps the hours of an insomniac. We arrange ourselves in a boat for a short passage with him to his river island. By 4:30 a.m. we're gliding across a moonlit channel. A fish jumps — making perfect ripples on the water's still surface.

We alight on Payeng's island as the pink sky begins to push out the stars. The riverbanks are home to some 250 families from the Mishing tribe. Payeng explains that they have inhabited the area for eons, and there are no deeds or titles to land.

He hauls his boat ashore, unloads his bicycle and begins the daily 2-mile trek to his vegetable farm and his life's mission: reviving the ecosystem here.


Left: The sun rises over the Brahmaputra river, which hosts innumerable tiny islands within its ever-shifting riverbanks, a feature hydrologists call "braiding." Right: Jadav Payeng rowing his boat across a channel of the Brahmaputra, past sandbars and rare Gangetic dolphins, to reach the forest that bears his nickname, Molai.

When Payeng was a boy, the son of poor a buffalo trader, this strip of land in the middle of the river was attached to the mainland. Erosion from powerful river waters of the Brahmaputra severed it. He bends down to pick up a handful of earth to explain how the island's landscape has changed.

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