The Molai Woods – One Mans Forest

The Molai Woods are a phenomenal achievement for human kind.  Why?  Because the 1360 acre forest was planted and cared for by just one man; Jadav ‘Molai’ Payeng.  His huge accomplishment shows what one person can achieve in their lifetime if they have the passion to fully commit themselves.

The forest is located in India’s Assam region, on the Jorhat sandbar in the Brahmaputra River. Now in his mid-fifties, Payeng has spent over 30 years of his life changing the landscape of 1360 acres of India, on a barren sandbar.  The woods have aptly been named the Molai Woods, after its creator’s nickname.

Brahmaputra River Map

Brahmaputra River Map

His motivation came in 1979, when he was just 16 years old.  Huge floods had washed a great number of snakes onto the sandbar but when Payeng found them, they were all dead.  He noted that the snakes had died of dehydration and overheating due to lack of tree cover and, in his words, he “sat down and wept over their lifeless forms”.  A devastated Payeng then alerted the forest department to request that they grow trees there, but they insisted nothing would grow and asked Payeng to attempt to grow bamboo there instead.  As he recalls “It was painful, but I did it.  There was nobody to help me.  Nobody was interested”.

Bamboo Thicket

Bamboo Thicket

He painstakingly planted seeds by hand, watered them every morning and evening, pruned and cultivated the land until it was a huge bamboo thicket.  He then began to collect and plant a wide range of tree species, but his commitment didn’t stop there, Payeng transported red ants from his village to the sand bar as they change the soils properties.  Despite the constant stinging, discomfort and long travels he persevered.  He shows a deep understanding of the ecological balance of life which has enabled him to create this incredible self-functioning forest.

Red ants, India

Red ants, India

Payeng never stopped growing.  Despite the pain, the slowness and the solitude he continued and has never stopped since.  Thanks to Payeng, this once barren sand bar is now a sprawling forest with an astounding level of biodiversity.  The forest consists of several thousand varieties of trees, flora and fauna as well as a multitude of bird species including vultures and migratory birds which flock here, hundreds of apes, deer, cattle and rabbits, three rhinos including the endangered one-horned rhino and four tigers including the endangered royal Bengal tiger.  Every year a herd of approximately 100 elephants enter the forest for 6 months at a time and sometimes even give birth to their calves here.  All because of one man’s efforts.  Some of these animals are endangered due to habitat loss in the first place, Payeng has worked his whole life and thanks to his commitment can work on reversing this trend, and provide a safe haven for these animals.

One-Horned Rhino, Assam, India

One-Horned Rhino, Assam, India

White Rumped Vulture, Assam, India

White Rumped Vulture, Assam, India

Male Swamp Deer, Assam, India

Male Swamp Deer, Assam, India

King Bengal Tiger, India

King Bengal Tiger, India

Elephant Herd, Assam, India

Elephant Herd, Assam, India

Payeng lives a life of isolation in order to cultivate his forest.  He began this life as a teenager and never looked back.  He is not totally alone though, he shares his small hut with a wife and three children.  They make their living selling cow and buffalo milk.

Another amazing factor in this story is that Payeng’s forest was only heard of by officials from Assam’s State Forest Department in 2008!  This was only because a herd of around 100 wild elephants strayed into the forest after hassling villages nearby. The Assistant Conservator of Forests, Gunin Saika says “We were surprised to find such a dense forest on the sandbar” he states that it could potentially be the world’s largest forest in the middle of a river.

Map of India

Map of India

Locals living near Molai have however caused problems and heartache for Payeng and his forest.  At one time locals wanted to cut down the forest due to the larger animals such as the rhinos and elephants destroying their homes and land nearby, but Payeng dared them to kill him instead.  Of course they did not and the forest remains.  However locals also killed a rhino in the forest which bothered Payeng, after all the forest is his doing and he wants its inhabitants protected.

Officials have begun to pitch in recently, and the forest continues to grow.  Saikia explains the reason for Assam State’s forest department stepping in to assist Payeng ‘He treats the trees and animals like his own children.  Seeing this, we, too, decided to pitch in.  We’re amazed at Payeng.  He has been at it for over 30 years.  Had he been in any other country, he would have been made a hero.’  The government are now focusing efforts into this area and are planning to extend the forest by another 1235 acres.  Previously Payeng had no assistance outside of himself, not from the government, not from anyone other than his local ministry which occasionally donated saplings.  There is also pressure on the government by Payeng and his supporters to declare the Mulai forest as a small animal sanctuary.  Payeng has stated that if this occurs, and he has definite assurance that his forest and its inhabitants will be protected, then he will move out and commence creating a new forest ecosystem elsewhere, wherever it is required.

The Indian government tells a different version of events to Payeng’s which goes as follows.

According to assistant conservator of forest Gunin Saika, during the 1980’s the districts Social Forestry Division of Assam’s Golaghat District was working on a project to plant 494 acres of trees in this location.  He claims that Payeng was one of the labourers who worked on this project which was completed in 5 years, after which all labourers left; except for Payeng.  He stayed behind to continue to expand the forest.

Whichever version of this story is the truth, no one can doubt that this man, Judav ‘Molai’ Payeng, has and is dedicating his entire life to the cultivation and subsequent protection of this unique jungle on a once desolate and lifeless sandbar in India.  He is a remarkable man and can show us what we are capable of with the right amount of passion and commitment.

Jadav 'Molai' Payeng

Jadav ‘Molai’ Payeng

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