Planting a forest to save a disappearing island
It’s 1979, a teenage Jadav Payeng digs a small hole into the earth on Mājuli Island in Northern India. It’s an action that he will repeat millions of times over the next 39 years, although he doesn’t know it yet. Right now, he just wants to save his home, one tree at a time.
That monsoon season, he’d seen hundreds of snakes and other creatures wash ashore in the flooding, all dying of exposure. His heart broke.
"The snakes died in the heat, without any tree cover. I didn’t want this to happen to all the animals and people who live on the island,” he says.
The animals were left exposed in the harsh sun because erosion had scrubbed sandbars around the island of all vegetation. The same erosion meant that every time the Brahmaputra river flooded, more and more of Mājuli Island was being washed away. It’s something that had impacted Jadav before - as a child, his village had been washed away by the river.
In fact, by the time Jadav got started on his mission, Mājuli had already lost nearly three-quarters of its land mass. He knew that if he didn’t do something to protect it, home to over 150 000 people, it could soon be a distant memory.
Leaving school, he set up camp on a desolate sand bar and got to work planting trees. His insight came from a nearby government forestation project, where he learned the correct techniques for sowing the seeds and tending the plants, and the various species that would thrive in the harsh environment of sand, silt and flooding.
He was on his own.
Although he asked the government for help and tried to engage the local villagers, no one would assist.
Initially, Jadav started small, planting around 20 bamboo saplings on a sandbar. On their own, those saplings would have made little difference. They were, however, the foundations of an investment that would one day pay massive dividends.