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How Jadav Payeng is tackling climate change by building his own forest

Reforestation has taken on a whole new meaning to one man in India who has been credited with planting his own forest over the course of 40 years.

Jadav Payeng, a 65-year-old environmental activist and forestry worker from India, received the title ‘The Forest Man’ in Delhi in 2010 from the Government of India on World Earth Day.

He has turned a barren land of over 1300 acres into a beautiful foliage filled forest all by himself.

Credit: Twitter

Jadav began planting trees in 1979. He encountered many snakes that had died due to excessive heat after floods washed them onto the treeless sandbar. He planted around 20 bamboo seedlings that day and has continued to plant trees daily ever since.

Wildlife experts say the forest now attracts 80% of the world’s migratory birds and houses Bengal tigers, Indian rhinoceros, over 100 deer and rabbits, monkeys, and a herd of around 100 elephants visit the forest every year.

They have even given birth to ten calves in the forest in recent years.

The forest became known as Molai forest, a term of endearment given to Jadav. He tells The Hindu the name is because ‘as a child, I was fair and had pink cheeks just like the winter radish. So my pet name was Mola (radish in the local language).’

‘As I grew up and started planting trees, people started calling it Mola’r haabi (Mola’s forest). From there, someone conveniently made it Molai forest.’

Despite his tremendous effort Jadav does not take credit for the flourishing forest, instead crediting ‘the birds, cows, deer, wind, water and elephants (that) have helped me.’

Speaking to how his forest has effected the eco-system Jadav proudly says that ‘people want to know my story. I tell them I just plant trees, and I’d like all of you to do so.’

‘Trees are the lifeline of the forest. They don’t just give us shade and oxygen. They feed birds and animals and balance our eco system. If there is no life left, what is the use of all the advancements we have made?’

Since his story went viral in 2012, Jadav has travelled around the world speaking in schools and attending conferences on climate change and environmental issues.

Following multiple visits to speak at schools and colleges, Jadav would like to see a change in how we celebrate World Earth Day.

He explains that it takes around five years for a sapling to turn into a tree and says ‘it will be a beautiful thing if a child is taught to plant a sapling or a seed when he is initiated in school and as he grows up, he or she is taught to take care of it and be responsible for it.’

‘If this had been done 30 years back by all of us, would global warming and climate change have dared to touch us?’

Jadav has been the subject of many documentaries and, in 2012, The Molai Forest was screened at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The critically acclaimed Forest Man, a 2013 documentary short, tells of Jadav’s continued endeavours in environmental activism. He inspired a central character in Prabhu Solomons film released in March 2021.

It is a trilingual work titled Kaadan in Tamil, Haathi Mere Saathi in Hindi, and Aranya in Telugu.

When asked if he was excited about the film, Jadav still brings it back to his mission for the environment.

‘If the movie makes people start loving trees, I will be delighted. I don’t mind if anyone makes monetary gains out of my story or through me.’

Despite being the inspiration for multiple cinematic works, inspiring children’s books, and even being in school textbooks, Jadav does not consider himself a celebrity. He only cares that his story inspires others to take a leaf out of his book.

‘Reading about me is not enough. Do what I do. I want school teachers to follow up on my chapter with tree-planting sessions, and to teach children to nurture and grow them with love and care.’

Sometimes the problem of climate change seems too large to tackle alone, but Jadav is the perfect example of how one person can make a difference to the eco-system around them.

What was previously a barren dessert land is now a forest filled with animals and several thousand varieties of trees. Follow in Jadav’s footsteps, plant one tree, contribute to a reforestation project in your area.

Environmental activism starts with you and perhaps in 40 years you too could have a forest packed with wildlife to show for your efforts.