In 1980, the social forestry wing of the Assam state forest department in northeastern India launched an experimental programme that aimed to measure how well tree cover could protect against rapid and catastrophic floods and erosion. Over the course of five years, thousands of trees were to be planted on a 200-hectare (494-acre) plot of land on Aruna Chapori, a barren sandbar in the middle of the Brahmaputra River.

Three years later, funds ran out. Unpaid and disgruntled labourers abandoned the trees, and the scheme was discontinued.

However, one of the labourers, a young man in his late teens, chose to stay behind on the island. Jadav Payeng, now 58, took it upon himself to tend to the trees planted under the scheme, and continued planting new ones.

Over nearly four decades, Payeng’s lone but unrelenting efforts have resulted in the creation of a 550-hectare (1,360-acre) forest on Aruna Chapori. Known as Mulai Kathoni, this forest is now a wholesome ecosystem that hosts iconic and threatened species like Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris tigris) and greater one-horned rhinoceroses (Rhinoceros unicornis). The forest also has a rich diversity of flora, including more than 100 species of trees and medicinal plants.

In addition, Mulai Kathoni supports nearly 250 families who live in several clusters of 10 to 12 huts. Most of these families belong to Assam’s indigenous Mishing community, a riparian tribe scattered across the state’s fluvial landscape.

Jadav Payeng lives in a humble, traditional Mishing house in his native village of Kakilamukh, 3.1 miles off Mulai Kathoni. Photo Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya
Jadav Payeng lives in a humble, traditional Mishing house in his native village of Kakilamukh, 3.1 miles off Mulai Kathoni. Photo Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya

Payeng is himself a Mishing tribesman, hailing from Kokilamukh, a village five kilometers (3.1 miles) off Mulai Kathoni. Payeng said his zeal for planting trees stemmed from two things: his love for nature and his commitment to the Mishing community that’s been threatened by the river’s erosion.

“We Mishing people are connected to the river. The river’s bounty has blessed us. But erosion caused by the river has posed a serious threat to our existence. I’ve planted several hundred trees on the sandbar to stop soil erosion,” said Payeng, who has been dubbed the “Forest Man of India” for his conservation efforts.

According to Assam state government figures, from 1950 to 2017 the state lost 4,270 square kilometers (1,650 square miles) of land to erosion, 7.4% of the state’s total area. The National Flood Commission of India categorises about 40% of Assam’s land, nearly 32,000 square kilometers (12,350 square miles), as flood-prone, and therefore vulnerable to erosion.

To control erosion and floods, the Assam government’s Brahmaputra Board, a body responsible for flood management in the state, has adopted measures such as construction of dikes and embankments. But these are largely area-specific, short-term structural measures, and have met with limited success.

Nevertheless, Payeng, with his lifelong experience of witnessing the river’s surge and erosion, believes “more than anything else, growing vegetation on the riverbank and sandbars could stop erosion.” And with this conviction, he has been planting trees since 1980, transforming the barren sandbar of Aruna Chapori into a vast expanse of green.

A view of the forest cover on Aruna Chapori from across the river. Until the 1980s, it was a barren sandbar without any vegetation. Photo Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya
A view of the forest cover on Aruna Chapori from across the river. Until the 1980s, it was a barren sandbar without any vegetation. Photo Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya

A ‘people’s forest’

Although Payeng is credited with single-handedly planting Mulai Kathoni, he likes to call it a “people’s forest.” Because, he said, the forest not only shelters rhinos and other wildlife but also provides crucial ecosystem services to the people living nearby, ensuring their livelihoods and food security. “Villagers get food, fodder, firewood, medicinal herbs, and timber for domestic use from the forest,” Payeng said. “In fact, many families came to settle on Aruna Chapori only after the forest had transformed the sandbar. Earlier this was all sand and only a few families lived here.”

The people living around Mulai Kathoni are mainly livestock farmers, who earn a living selling milk. Thickets of grass that intersperse with the trees inside the forest serve as grazing sites for the cattle raised by the locals and Payeng himself. “Without the forest it would have been very difficult for us to keep cattle and survive here because earlier it was a mere sandbar,” said Tarun Taye, a local Mishing tribesman who’s lived on Aruna Chapori since 1999. “The forest Payeng has planted benefits the whole community.”

The role of local people’s traditional ecological knowledge was crucial in creating Mulai Kathoni, another reason why Payeng calls it a people’s forest. He employed indigenous methods of soil preparation, planting seeds, and irrigation. “I used cow dung and organic matter as manure to improve soil fertility; to water the saplings, I employed an indigenous drip irrigation method that uses dripped earthen pots placed on bamboo platforms; and I also released earthworms to prepare the soil,” Payeng said. “Earthworms burrow into the silt-hardened surface, making it porous and arable. They feed on withered leaves and convert them into organic matter that facilitates plant roots to go deep and feed on.”

In countries such as Uganda and Nicaragua, small-scale, community-led reforestation efforts have shown promise ecologically as well as in terms of providing economic benefits to local communities. Payeng’s reforestation efforts, too, have been both an ecological success and a boon for local peoples’ livelihoods. “Payeng’s decades-long reforestation efforts, which resulted in the creation of Mulai Kathoni, have served multiple purposes,” said Naveen Pandey, a conservationist with the Corbett Foundation, who is based in nearby Kaziranga National Park. “It’s helped [in] reducing erosion and led to biomass and carbon sequestration, in addition to providing economic benefits to local communities. Local residents eking out a living from livestock farming and apiaries largely depend on the forest.”

A herd of domesticated buffalo roams on a sandbar of the Brahmaputra. Photo Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya
A herd of domesticated buffalo roams on a sandbar of the Brahmaputra. Photo Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya

However, not everybody speaks so positively about the forest. Many local farmers contend Payeng invited trouble for them by allowing Mulai Kathoni to grow unchecked. Since 2008, a herd of elephants has frequented the dense and expanding forest. The herd established a pattern of rampaging through the rice paddies that abut the forest, prompting many local farmers to take up alternative livelihoods. “It’s become impossible to get along with paddy farming,” said Shiv Kumar, a former paddy farmer who’s now shifted to livestock farming. “The elephant herd’s regular crop raids leave little for us to harvest. Therefore, I’ve stopped growing paddy altogether and taken to livestock farming.”

Exasperated farmers also threatened to cut down the forest in a bid to keep the elephants away. “When the elephants first damaged their crops, the farmers were very angry. They even planned to cut down the forest,” Payeng said.

He said he succeeded in stopping disgruntled farmers from clearing the forest by making them realise its value. “I constantly reminded them of the benefits they’re getting from the forest and how it helps stop erosion on Aruna Chapori. I explained to them that clearing the forest will only weigh against them, given the ecosystem services they’re procuring from it. At first they would not listen and would hurl abuse on me, but finally they understood. Now they’ve adapted to sharing the forest with elephants,” he said.

A greater one-horned rhinoceros in nearby Kaziranga National Park. Mulai Kathoni plays host to animals straying out of the park, but some question how vulnerable they are to poaching. Photo Credit: Anuwar Ali Hazarika via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
A greater one-horned rhinoceros in nearby Kaziranga National Park. Mulai Kathoni plays host to animals straying out of the park, but some question how vulnerable they are to poaching. Photo Credit: Anuwar Ali Hazarika via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Rhino security in Mulai Kathoni

According to Payeng, Mulai Kathoni is also home to three rhinos: two adults and a calf. He said the forest plays host to animals straying out of Kaziranga National Park, Assam’s famed rhino park that hosts more than 2,400 individuals of the valued species.

“Rhinos from Kaziranga National Park sometimes make it to Mulai Kathoni – particularly when annual seasonal floods inundate the park, and grasslands dry up in the months of December and January,” said Kaziranga divisional forest officer Rohini Ballav Saikia, explaining the importance of the man-made forest as a temporary rhino habitat.

But conservationists think danger lurks for the rhinos in Mulai Kathoni. A recent incident of rhino poaching on a sandbar near Mulai Kathoni has kindled the fear that poachers might find easy targets in the unguarded forest.

“There is no provision in place to ensure the security of rhinos and other wildlife in Mulai Kathoni. As it is not an officially protected forest, the forest department hasn’t allotted guards to it,” said the Corbett Foundation’s Pandey. The absence of forest guards could easily lure poachers to the forest, he said, exposing the rhinos to a greater risk of poaching.

In 2012, poachers killed an adult rhinoceros in Mulai Kathoni, the only one living in the forest at that time.

Currently, Payeng and five of his fellow tribesmen keep a round-the-clock vigil on the forest. All of them are subsistence livestock farmers by occupation. In addition to tending to their cattle that graze in Mulai Kathoni, they work for the upkeep and safety of the forest.

But conservationists like Pandey think this is not enough to protect rhinos and other wildlife in the forest. “Government should intervene and arrange for proper security measures,” he said.

Pros and cons of protected status

To ensure the security of Mulai Kathoni and its rhinos, conservationists have also demanded protected status for the forest under Indian forest laws. “Getting a legally protected status for the forest is the first step towards its protection. Because once it has legal sanction, the government can map the forest and accordingly chalk out a strategy to ensure its security,” said Dharanidhar Bodo, a former park ranger and conservationist in Kaziranga.

However, Payeng doesn’t favor the idea of according protected area status to Mulai Kathoni. He fears if the forest is formally declared a protected forest under Indian forest and wildlife regulations, the local residents’ access to the forest resources could be restricted or curtailed. This, he said, goes against the grain of his conservation ethos and the conservation model he’s been envisioning and trying to achieve in Mulai Kathoni.

“I’ve always envisaged Mulai Kathoni as a space to be shared by wildlife and humans,” Payeng said. “I believe it’s possible, and we’ve seen it happen in Aruna Chapori. Local residents are sharing the forest and its resources with wildlife. But once it is declared a government-protected park, the forest regulations could restrict local residents’ access to Mulai Kathoni.”

India’s 2006 Forest Rights Act recognises local communities’ traditional and customary rights over the resources in a protected forest. But multiple studies have shown that the implementation of the law has been poor across the country. Many contend that conservation strategies in protected areas such as Kaziranga National Park have undermined the Forest Rights Act, and customary rights of forest-dwelling peoples are being violated.

A traditional Mishing tribal house, called a chang-ghar, close to Mulai Kathoni, Aruna Chapori. Photo Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya
A traditional Mishing tribal house, called a chang-ghar, close to Mulai Kathoni, Aruna Chapori. Photo Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya

Given this, Payeng is worried: if Mulai Kathoni is declared a protected area and the Forest Rights Act is not properly implemented, it could bring troubles to the forest.

Instead of declaring Mulai Kathoni a protected forest in a bid to ensure its security, he favors educating villagers and helping them understand the value of forests and wildlife. “The forest I’ve planted here is a peoples’ initiative. I believe the interplay between conservation and peoples’ livelihoods in Mulai Kathoni has so far been a sustainable one,” Payeng said. “In fact, the forest is a lifeline to the people living here. So, the local people are already aware of its value. Only if we can enhance their appreciation of the forest and wildlife and involve them in safeguarding it, we’ll be able to protect it from poachers and lumberjacks. Peoples’ awareness will ensure rhinos’ safety in Mulai Kathoni.”

A 2002 amendment to India’s 1972 Wildlife Protection Act presents a possible middle ground, creating a category of protected areas known as “community reserves.” This designation can be assigned to any private or community land where a community or an individual has volunteered to conserve wildlife and its habitat.

“This Act mandates community reserves be managed by a community reserve management committee, the majority of whose members are nominated by the local village administration,” said Bodo, the former ranger. “This shields local villagers’ power in the control and management of a community reserve. In Mulai Kathoni, a community reserve model may just strike a balance.”

Payeng embraced the proposition: “If the community reserve model serves both purposes, conservation and indigenous peoples’ forest rights, I’ll certainly welcome it.”

Payeng said he prefers traveling by bicycle rather than relying on polluting vehicles that use fuel. Photo Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya
Payeng said he prefers traveling by bicycle rather than relying on polluting vehicles that use fuel. Photo Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya

This article first appeared on Mongabay