A Lifetime Of Planting Trees On A Remote River Island: Meet India's Forest Man : Parallels A humble farmer from a marginalized tribal community takes on a solo mission to reforest an island in Assam, India.
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A Lifetime Of Planting Trees On A Remote River Island: Meet India's Forest Man

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A Lifetime Of Planting Trees On A Remote River Island: Meet India's Forest Man

A Lifetime Of Planting Trees On A Remote River Island: Meet India's Forest Man

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Deep inside Northeast India, a forest has come bounding back thanks to one man. He's a farmer. NPR's Julie McCarthy traveled to see him, and she has this report.

JULIE MCCARTHY, HOST:

We've come to one of the most geographically isolated parts of India, the Northeast, nestled along the borders of China, Bhutan and Bangladesh.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

MCCARTHY: We arrange ourselves in a boat for a short journey to a river island in Assam, a state famous for tea, the mighty Brahmaputra River we're crossing and the Forest Man.

JADAV PAYENG: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: Jadav Payeng, a 58-year-old farmer, keeps the hours of an insomniac. By 4:30 a.m., we're gliding across a moonlit channel. A pink sky pushes out the stars. The slap of his oar is all that breaks the predawn tranquility.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

MCCARTHY: We alight on an island of some 250 families from the Mishing tribe that lives along the river banks, and Jadav begins the daily trek to his vegetable fields and his life's mission, reviving the ecosystem here. It's now become full of grasslands and plants and a forest. When Jadav was young, the son of a poor buffalo trader, this strip of land in the middle of the river was attached to the mainland. Erosion from the river severed it. Jadav of picks up a handful of earth and explains how the landscape has changed.

PAYENG: (Through interpreter) Earlier, this was all sand. No trees, no grass, nothing was here. Only driftwood.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS MOOING)

MCCARTHY: Now pastures nourish cows. Cotton trees stand straight in rows as far as the eye can see. Jadav planted them, his hands transforming this once barren island the size of Martha's Vineyard.

PAYENG: (Through interpreter) First with bamboo trees. I kept planting all different kinds of trees.

MCCARTHY: He says once a tree seeds, the wind, the birds, the entire ecosystem knows how to sow them. Jadav started planting here in 1979, stirred by a freakish sight, snakes piled on the sand in scorching heat. They'd perished from lack of shade.

PAYENG: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "When I saw it," he says, "I thought even we humans will have to die this way in the heat. In the grief of those dead snakes, I created this forest." Local tribesmen advised Jadav of to plant tall grasses to protect the reptiles.

PAYENG: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: Over the course of nearly four decades, Jadav says he's planted so many trees he's lost count.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOREST NOISES)

MCCARTHY: Barefoot, this Mishing tribesman prunes plants as he guides us to some of his oldest trees. He leans against a 30-year-old teak tree and points to scratches on the bark. A tiger has sharpened its claws.

PAYENG: (Foreign language spoken). Eighty-five cow. Ninety-five buffalo.

MCCARTHY: Jadav is saying that he's lost 85 cows and 95 buffalo to tigers who have eaten them, killed them.

PAYENG: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: He describes coming face to face with one of the big cats.

What went through your head? Were you scared to death?

PAYENG: (Through interpreter) No, no. I wasn't scared. I know that tigers have half the courage of women. This one killed a buffalo, saw me and slinked off.

MCCARTHY: He says, unafraid of the wild elephants that cross the river to roam his forest, island villagers complain the herd tramples their rice fields and homes. But Jadav defends the animal and says it is man that must adjust to these woods.

Jadav has received one of India's highest civilian awards. The dense forest bears his name and now sprawls over 1,300 acres. India's Forest Man personifies dedication to a dream, rising at 4 a.m., paddling across the river nearly every day for almost 40 years.

Certainly most people, if they acted on it, wouldn't stick with it for 40 years. How did you do that? How do you do that?

PAYENG: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "No one sees God," says Jadav Payeng. "I see God in nature. Nature is God," he says. "It gives me inspiration. It gives me power." Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Assam, India.

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