All over the world, we can see growing evidence that our planet is changing. From melting polar ice caps to the smog in Los Angeles, it’s obvious that something needs to be done… and fast.
Unfortunately, because it’s not always seen as an immediate issue, most people continue to go about their daily lives as they normally would. If their homes were in imminent danger of being destroyed, their attitudes would surely change.
This was the case with Jadav Payeng, whose island home on Majuli, India, was rapidly sinking. That’s why he decided to take a stand and do something. Forty years later, everything is different…
Almost four decades ago, a teenage boy in India did something remarkable. It all started on the beautiful island of Majuli. Boasting roughly 150,000 residents, it’s known to be the single largest river island on Earth.
Surrounding Majuli Island is the Brahmaputra River. While beautiful, life so close to the waterside presents a number of dangers to the island’s citizens. The river floods frequently, and it reshapes the terrain by reclaiming bits of the land each time.
In truth, it’s no exaggeration to say that Majuli Island is sinking; the numbers back this up. As recently as the mid-19th century, the island was about 480 square miles. Today, it’s only about 135 square miles, less than a third of what it once was. That’s not all though…
The Brahmaputra River claimed countless home over the past several decades, threatening the natives’ livelihoods—as well as their lives—in the process. There’s even more at stake, however.
Majuli is home to a rich, ancient history, and it’s the birthplace of Neo-Vaishnavite culture. For the past six centuries, worshippers built monasteries known as satras there. Once, there were more than 60 of them across the island. Today, only about 30 remain.
As if that wasn’t dire enough, scientists predict that the entire island could be lost within the next 20 years. Refusing to accept that fate, one teenager named Jadav Payeng took it upon himself to save the island and its treasured culture.
Jadav was just 16 years old when he began his mission in 1979. He’s remained dedicated to his task ever since, serving as an activist and forestry worker committed to fortifying the land with as many trees as possible.
Jadav had another reason, aside from the erosion, for saving the island. For a land that was once so rich in wildlife, the environmental problems had pushed out many animals. The young man hoped that he could bring back the elephants, rhinos, deer, and tigers that once called Majuli home.
Over the next 40 years, Jadav’s dedication didn’t go unnoticed by the rest of the world. He was the subject of a short documentary film called Forest Man in 2013, which won the “Best Emerging Documentary” award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014.
“I have planted everything myself,” explained Jadav in an interview for the documentary. “At first, planting was very time consuming, but now it’s much easier because I get the seeds from the trees themselves.”
“Coconut trees are always straight, and they help prevent erosion if planted densely enough,” Jadav continued. “So it is good for protecting the soil, for boosting the economy and for fighting climate change.”
It’s definitely been hard for Jadav to almost single-handedly alter the landscape, making a dense forest out of nothing. Worse yet, his greatest obstacles often come in the form of other humans.
“When the trees are big it became difficult for me to protect them. The biggest threat was from men. They would have destroyed the forest for economic gain,” said Jadav. For a time, he risked losing everything.
Luckily, for the most part, Jadav has been extremely successful! Despite the challenges, Majuli Island now has plenty of rich forest land. Almost 40 years after one teenager began an important mission, he’s planted several thousand trees!
To get a sense of the scope of this project, consider the fact that Jadav’s forest takes up about 1,400 acres of Majuli. In comparison, New York City’s world-famous Central Park is only 843 acres! That’s a lot of trees.
The general consensus is that Jadav’s excellent environmental work played a huge part in strengthening the land. Better yet, local wildlife, including a few endangered species like rhinos, have started returning to the island.
A herd of nearly 100 elephants made their way to the island, and they have started multiplying. Bengal tigers made a return as well, as have a species of vulture that were long believed to have disappeared from Majuli in the 1970s.
Once again, the island is populated by the wildlife that once thrived there. Still, Jadav warns of the continued fragility of everything he’s built. “There are no monsters in nature, except for humans,” Jadav said. “Humans consume everything until there is nothing left.”
There’s no question that Jadav did some unbelievable work. One could even go so far as to say that he saved Majuli. While he’s accomplished so much, the activist doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
Jadav even went so far as to suggest that he would die for his life’s work. “Cut me before you cut my trees,” he said. It’s clear that this is close to his heart, but it’s even more inspiring to hear him tell his story in his own words…
Hopefully, Jadav will be able to continue working on his mission for many more years to come. With enough attention, his story can inspire others to help the planet too.
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