Over 30 years ago, a teenage boy named Jada “Molai” Payeng started planting seeds on a deserted sandbar on the Brahmaputra river in the Assam region of India. It started in 1979, when floods had washed a large amount of snakes onto the sandbar. Payeng, being only 16 at the time, found them all dead. This would mark a turning point in the young man’s life.
“The snakes died in the heat, without any tree cover. I sat down and wept over their lifeless forms. It was carnage. I alerted the forest department and asked them if they could grow trees there. They said nothing would grow there. Instead, they asked me to try growing bamboo. It was painful, but I did it. There was nobody to help me. Nobody was interested,” said Payeng, to The Times of India.
Payeng accepted a life of isolation, and chose to live on the sandbar as he began work to create a new forest. He would plant seeds, water plants, and prune them when needed. Payeng even demonstrated his understanding of ecological balance, by personally importing red ants from his village, as red ants are known to alter soil properties. After several years, the sandbar was converted into a bamboo copse.
Now over three decades later, the seedlings Payeng had planted on that arid, deserted sandbar have flourished into a 1,360-acre forest, which is a safe haven for several thousands of varieties of trees and wildlife. The forest reserve is called “Molai Woods”, named after him, and houses Royal Bengal tigers, Indian Rhinoceros, hundreds of deer, rabits, apes, birds, and vultures. Herds of elephants have been found to regularly visit each year, even giving birth in recent years. There are also thousands of trees from valcol, arjun (Terminalia arjuna), ejar (Lagerstroemia speciosa), goldmohur (Delonix regia), koroi (Albizia procera), himolu (Bombax ceiba), and bamboo.
Surprisingly, the Assam state forest department initially found out about Payeng’s forest in 2008 when a herd of elephants wandered into it after pillaging through nearby villages. They have also assisted Payeng in disrupting poachers trying to trap the animals by seizing their equipment. According to the Assistant Conservator of Forests, Gunin Saikia, the Molai Woods is perhaps the biggest forest in the middle of a river.
Payeng belongs to the Mising tribe in Jorhat, India. He lives in a small hut on his farm in the forest with his wife and three children. He sells milk from cattle and buffalo to make a living. He has goals of venturing to new places and starting similar ventures, and also spreading his forest to another sandbar nearby.