“The Forest Man of India”: A tale of long-term consistency
Sharing the inspiring story of a man whose decades-long, consistent commitment to saving his home embodies our own values in investment management
Investors are likely to have seen Prudential’s new television commercial that began airing in mid-October, and may be curious about the true story behind its central character, Jadav “Molai” Payeng, a forestry worker and environmental activist from Jorhat, India. Jadav has gained renown as “The Forest Man of India” for his nearly four decades of dedication to transforming barren land in the flood-ravaged area where he lives, in Assam state north of Bangladesh, into a thriving forest that now covers some 1,400 acres.
Recognising the importance of the environment
Jadav grew up in a very poor family, the third of 13 children whose parents sold milk from their herd of cattle and buffalo to make a living. At the age of five, poverty forced his family to leave him with a local magistrate, who oversaw his schooling. However, the death of his parents then obliged him to leave school while still a teenager to tend to the herd in order to support his family.
It was in 1979, after exceptionally fierce flooding of the Brahmaputra river, that Jadav first took to heart the multitudes of small animals washed away by the waters onto the bare and hostile floodplains – they were left dead from exposure in the wake of the retreating water. He was only 16 at the time, but recognised that the absence of vegetation was exacerbating land erosion and endangering animals, including humans, on Majuli island where he lived. Indeed, when he was a child his entire village had been washed away. The world's largest river island was being slowly subsumed by the river.
He decided then that he want to do something to save Majuli. After speaking with the local community, who didn’t share his enthusiasm, he began planting bamboo on one of Majuli's eroding riverbanks on his own. His insight came from a government forestation project he began working on the same year, located five kilometres away, which planted 200 hectares of trees over five years. It was during this project that Jadav learned the proper techniques for sowing the seeds, and the various tree and plant species that would thrive in the tough environment of sand, silt and flooding. He helped complete the project and voluntarily stayed on after everyone else had left to take care of the saplings, while separately making time to plant more trees on Majuli every day.
A daily commitment to doing the right things
Although he asked the government for help in reforesting Majuli, they declined. So every day, working on his own, Jadav would plant new seeds as well as tending to the original bamboo, while also adding more plants and different varieties of trees like teak, custard apple, star fruit, devil’s tree, tamarind, mango, jackfruit, banyan, elephant grass and medicinal plants.
It was a huge commitment, involving a continual search for more seeds, saplings and fertiliser, while also transporting insects like red ants to the area to improve the ecosystem. It also represented a considerable financial sacrifice, since he used the meagre income from his milk sales to buy the seeds, rather than spending it on his family. After five years of hard work, he had spanned one kilometre, and in stages it grew to be covered with dense vegetation. During these years, the locals nicknamed him “Molai”, meaning “forest”, and called his woodland “Molai Forest”.
Jadav has never stopped planting. Even in 2011, when he moved away from Majuli to be closer to schools and basic infrastructure for his children, he continued to grow the forest while still caring for his family’s herd and selling milk. These days he wakes at 3am, cycles for an hour, rows a boat for five kilometres, and then cycles again for 30 more minutes to reach his parents’ original farm. Here he milks the animals and retrieves manure for fertiliser. By 9am, he is able to tend to his forest.
Extraordinary long-term results
Today, nearly four decades since Jadav started planting, his forest on Majuli now covers an expanse of some 1,400 acres, nearly double the size of New York’s central park at 843 acres. Thanks to his sole efforts, the island of Majuli has not disappeared as had been feared.
Apart from expansion, Jadav's goals have evolved to encompass forest conservation and animal protection as well: His forest is now home to five endangered Bengal tigers, a handful of one-horned rhinos, exotic birds, vultures and over a hundred wild boar and deer. There is also a herd of around 100 elephants that visits every year for several months, not to mention the myriad small animals that form a healthy ecosystem.
Given the wealth of animal life, new threats have arisen: Jadav has become very active in helping catch poachers in the area, and in protecting the forest from the encroachment of the expanding human population. He has developed into a well-known conservationist, speaking at gatherings like the International Forum for Sustainable Development. Unsurprisingly, he believes in finding community-based solutions to poaching and environmental degradation, rather than relying on government help.
As word of his accomplishments has spread around India and the world, Jadav has been increasingly recognised for his extraordinary work and dedication. In 2015, he was given the title of “Padma Shri”, the fourth-highest civilian award in India. He has also been honoured by Jawaharial Nehru University, who gave him his popular title of “Forest Man of India”, and by the Indian Institute of Forest Management. Sanctuary Asia has bestowed him with the Wildlife Service Award as well. Not unexpectedly, he has spent his cash awards on creating more forest, while also recruiting and training four new labourers to help him.
Looking to the future
At age 54, Jadav is now looking afield to other barren and threatened areas on which to start planting – aiming to cover another 5,000 acres with forest. He has also turned to educating others, particularly children, and hopes that his achievements will inspire them to take better care of the fragile world around them.
To this end, the Forest Man of India welcomes visitors from around the world to come see his forest. In return, he asks that they plant a tree there and, hopefully, follow his example when they return home.
He talks about ‘planting’ his philosophy in the minds of children. “In India, every child has to learn environmental science. Education should be changed in such a way that each child should plant two trees, thus earning their own oxygen. If a child plants a tree, they will not let anyone cut it down. They will not let anyone harm the birds. They will not let anyone harm the animals. We must implement this in India and all over the world.”
This, he believes, can go a long way to saving the world from the worst effects of climate change. “There will be no more global warming if everyone plants forests,” he says.
As for Majuli, Jadav thinks he can save it in 10 years.
Why Jadav's story of consistency matters
We chose to feature Jadav’s story in our latest television commercial because a decades-long, consistent commitment like his also lies behind Prudential Investment Managers’ success in building wealth for our clients.
We believe that by consistently applying the same tried-and-tested investment approach, no matter what the market conditions, day after day, month in and month out, we will be able to protect and grow our clients’ wealth sustainably over the long term. It's about the small daily gains, built up over time – not spectacular short-term returns.
Our consistent investment philosophy and process, employed every day by a long-standing team of experienced investment professionals, has led to long-term investment success. This is evidenced by Prudential's strong long-term track record.
Jadav's example of long-term commitment and consistency, creating a world of plenty from nothing, is very rare. He has overcome the extremely difficult challenges of a harsh environment, meagre resources and no assistance, to reach his goal of saving Majuli. This makes his story all the more remarkable and one we thought worthy of sharing with South Africans. We hope to inspire our viewers and encourage them to do the same, since this is what Prudential strives for every day, year in and year out, over the long term.