When Angelique Pouponneau was a child, her dad took her into the ocean and held her in his arms.
They lived in Bel Ombre on Mahé, the largest island in the Seychelles, a tiny archipelago of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean.
A big wave came barreling toward the shore and knocked them over. When her dad recovered his balance, he realized that Pouponnaeu was missing, and frantically searched the surrounding water, looking desperately to the horizon for any sign of where she could have been swept away.
Stricken with fear, he turned around, and saw his daughter safe and calm, sunbathing on the shore.
Now 29, Pouponneau tells this story as a way to illustrate the complexity of the ocean — its vastness, the way no two parts are the same, and both its menacing power and benevolent nature. All of humanity relies on the ocean in one way or another — whether for food, transportation, or economic activity — and the Seychelles in particular is fully dependent on the surrounding water.
The Seychelles legal territory is 1% land and 99% ocean, Pouponneau said, so it’s hard to grow up there without forming an attachment to marine life.
“It influences you as you grow up in ways you don’t think about,” she told Global Citizen. “Yes, it’s your form of recreation, your Sunday event, [but] you know it’s what provides you food, it’s essentially what keeps the economy.”
“It was when I started observing and connecting with what’s under the sea that made me realize there’s no going back — there’s no way you’re throwing a plastic straw in a river after you’ve seen what’s there,” she said.
Pouponneau is a licensed commercial lawyer, and her firm represents businesses in a range of industries such as banking and sales. In recent years, she's shifted gears and now advocates for the oceans and fights for human rights.
She encourages legal efforts waged by ordinary people to hold their governments accountable to global frameworks like the Paris climate agreement, but she believes a more sustainable world will be achieved through people-powered movements that change electoral incentives.
“It’s critically important to make climate change a political issue to the point where candidates are saying where they stand, and the electorate decides to elect a government that acts,” she said.
“People have power not just with going to court but also with the vote,” she added.
Pouponneau is the CEO of the Seychelles Conservation and Climate Adaptation Trust (SeyCCAT), an investment fund that supports ocean initiatives, especially those that benefit women. She’s also the co-founder of SYAH-Seychelles, an organization that holds the country accountable on the United Nations’ Global Goals, and a youth mobilizer who helps children become advocates for their local environments.
She's seen the rapid decline of the oceans first-hand as coral reefs around the Seychelles that once thrived have become barren.
“We’ve seen tremendous bleaching of our coral reefs. The last bleaching event had 90% mortality [in some areas], and of course that affects biodiversity,” she said. “I’ve been snorkeling and diving maybe four years ago, and what was once a rainforest, is now like a desert or a graveyard.”
Coral reefs are vital ecosystems that support economies, protect coastlines, and foster thousands of species. By 2050, the vast majority of the world’s coral could be wiped out.
One of her biggest objectives has been the development of a “blue economy,” which would help to save the reefs.
“A blue economy is healthy, resilient, and productive,” she said. “The basis of any blue economy is that the ocean has to be healthy, it has to be your foundation, and then you build from there the kinds of services you want the oceans to provide, whether it’s absorbing carbon or acting as an economic pillar of fisheries or tourism.”
In the Seychelles, a blue economy would entail efforts to rehabilitate coral reefs, regulations to limit pollution, and fishing quotas to help fish populations recover.
Most importantly, it would involve global cooperation to limit greenhouse gas emissions to curb the warming and acidification of the oceans and establish policies to manage marine life.
Although the Seychelles are severely threatened by climate change as sea levels rise and storms become more extreme, the coastal nation has hardly released any greenhouse gas emissions compared to industrial countries.
For Pouponneau, this arrangement reflects global imbalances and abuses of power.
“It’s a triple cruel irony,” she said. “Slavery built a lot of what exists in a lot of developed nations, then colonization extracted more resources, and that caused climate change, which is now displacing everyone from where they live.”
The nation’s coastlines are eroding and it’s only a matter of time before some islands are submerged. As people become displaced around the world from sea level rise, Pouponneau believes it’s imperative for nations to change how they think about migration. By the end of the century, billions of people could be displaced by climate change.
“How do we ensure that people who are displaced by the climate are moving with dignity?” she said.
Despite the uneven blame for climate change, Pouponneau believes that there’s ample room to work together, and Danny Faure, the president of the Seychelles, agrees. Earlier this year, he filmed an underwater video to call on countries to work together to on marine issues.
He made the dramatic video to bring attention to the plight of the oceans.
These are potentially dire times for defenders of the ocean, but Pouponneau has reason to hope. She’s taking her ideas to New York for World Oceans Day on June 8 as part of an event hosted by the United Nations that features global marine advocates. The theme of this year’s World Oceans Day is “Gender and the Oceans,” and the organization is asking how gender equality can be prioritized in marine conservation and management efforts.
This #WorldEnvironmentDay, we've got exciting news! Today is officially 1 year since @AldabraCleanUp launched in Seychelles and we're sharing the trailer for our upcoming documentary which will come out this summer - watch this space for more info! pic.twitter.com/fkdddGwfpB— Aldabra Clean Up Project (@AldabraCleanUp) June 5, 2019
Gender barriers dominate the high seas, according to Pouponneau, who said that in the Seychelles women have been told that they’re bad luck on fishing vessels. She’s determined to change that narrative by making sure women have an equal say in the development of a blue economy.
The first step involves opening up more spaces for women to play a role.
“I’m a lawyer that’s playing a role in the blue economy,” she said “You don’t have to be a woman scientist, you don’t have to be a marine biologist, you don’t have to be a fisheries vet, [but] you can still have a role to play in the blue economy.”
Join the United Nations and Oceanic Global this World Oceans Day to call for gender equality on the high seas.