Feature Story

Forests and passion: a hero's guide to resisting climate change

November 8, 2019

Photo of Victorin Laboudallon
It’s unknown how the Seychelles will adapt to climate change. More than 16 percent of the nation’s land is below 5 meters above sea level, yet a study in the journal Nature suggests Antarctic ice alone could increase sea levels by 15 meters by 2500. The waters of this tourist paradise are crystal-clear, but the future is anything but. Photo: UNEP/Aidan Dockery.

For many people, retirement is a chance to take a break. Not so for Victorin Laboudallon, a grandfather from the Seychelles who spends his days planting forests to fight climate change.

Wherever there’s a forest fire in the Seychelles, you can be sure you’ll find Laboudallon ready to fight back, armed with seeds and shovels.

“Protecting nature makes me very happy in life,” says Laboudallon. “We need to protect it as much as we can, so other generations can enjoy it like I did when I was a kid.”

Laboudallon, 65, has built a network of volunteers, from children to retirees, whom he calls upon to help him with replanting.

“If tomorrow we have another fire, we are ready to go back and plant.”

Laboudallon is widely known across the Seychelles for his decades of environmental action and his big personality. While planting trees in the wet dirt, barefoot and laughing, he says his surname means “friend of the mud” in his local Creole language.

“I’m not somebody who lives under the big concrete. I live under the beautiful trees,” he says, pointing above at the iconic coco-de-mer palm.

The Seychelles is a nation of 115 islands—known for glistening beaches and stunning biodiversity—off the east coast of Africa. Here climate change is not a distant prospect, but a daily reality.

Sea levels are rising and many of the islands are low-lying. As the waters creep higher, the shoreline crumbles away and floods devastate people’s land. 

“We’ve got the sea rising,” says Laboudallon. “You can see places where there used to be houses. Now there are none. There is something on this planet going wrong.”

It’s unknown how the Seychelles will adapt. More than 16 percent of the nation’s land is below 5 meters above sea level, yet a study in the journal Nature suggests Antarctic ice alone could increase sea levels by 15 meters by 2500. The waters of this tourist paradise are crystal-clear, but the future is anything but.

Nature enthusiasts like Laboudallon have taken matters into their own hands. While giving a tour of his tree nursery, he explains how different types of trees offer different services when adapting to climate change. For the Seychellois, mangroves are fundamental.

“If the mangroves are gone, the nation of Seychelles will be gone,” says Laboudallon. “Our protection for human life is the mangroves.”

Mangroves defend against the impacts of rising seas and coastal erosion by drastically reducing the height and force of the waves before they hit the shoreline. In fact, if all of today’s mangroves were lost, the global damage from flooding would be an extra $82 billion per year.

This strategy of using nature—and the services it provides—to adapt to climate change is known as ecosystem-based adaptation. It’s often cheaper than concrete infrastructure. Not to mention that it simultaneously creates a space for nature.

For conservationists like Laboudallon, this is a win-win. Communities can adapt to climate change while protecting biodiversity. It is no longer a choice between people or nature. Considering the Seychelles’ economy is inextricably dependent on ecotourism, ecosystem-based adaptation is seen as a promising approach.

“Year after year, we are seeing more evidence of how nature can protect us from climate disasters,” says Jessica Troni, Head of the Climate Change Adaptation Unit at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). “In a major report, the Global Commission on Adaptation states that restoring mangroves for flood defenses is 2–5 times cheaper than engineered structures.”

Back at a mangrove reforestation site, Laboudallon enthusiastically explains there’s even more to these trees than meets the eye. Mangroves not only protect the land from the sea, but also protect the sea from the land.

After the fire season comes the monsoon, which washes all the ash and debris from the forests into the ocean. The layers of dirt fall on the reef like a deadly blanket.

“It sits on the surface of the coral and kills it. Then the fish are gone,” says Laboudallon. “Mangroves are used like a strainer. They stop all the debris coming from the hill, making sure only clean water goes out to sea.”

“Mangroves also provide a breeding ground for fish,” he says. “If the population of mangroves is still in good health, then fishermen are in good health.”

This power of mangroves to protect both the land and coral, whilst generating income for local fishermen, is precisely why UNEP refers to these trees as a ‘super solution’ to climate change.

Under a global adaptation project called Ecosystem-based Adaptation South, or EbA South, the government of Seychelles has been working with leaders like Victorin Laboudallon. Funded by the Global Environment Facility, the project is using nature to defend against climate impacts in three ecosystems—coastal habitats in Seychelles, dry deserts in Mauritania and mountainous forests in Nepal.

Projects like these are vital for the transfer of lessons on ecosystem-based adaptation. For instance, in the Seychelles crabs were eating the mangrove seedlings planted by the project. Using plastic tubing to protect the trees resulted in litter sprawled across the landscape when floods washed them away.

Applying the approach of nature-based solutions, local tree planters began using biodegradable tubing made from sugarcane. Through the project these lessons were transferred to other regions of the world.

Victorin Laboudallon planting mangroves
Victorin Laboudallon uses compostable tubing made from sugarcane to protect the mangrove seedlings from crabs. Photo by UNEP/Aidan Dockery.

EbA South was executed by the National Development and Reform Commission of China, through the Chinese Academy of Sciences. By increasing collaboration between countries in the global south and sharing solutions for adaptation, the project is seeking to create the next generation of Victorin Laboudallons.

The official International Day for South-South Cooperation is celebrated on 12 September.

Back on Praslin Island, Laboudallon is getting ready to go home after a long day of tree planting. His efforts have been widely recognized in his home country, having received national awards and honours.

With a smile he tells me there’s even a local species of fern named after him—Ptisana laboudalloniana. It turns out they’re both quite rare.

This story was originally published by the United Nations Environment Programme.