FFF #17 — Brendon Grimshaw and his Seychelles wonder

Posting every Friday at noon is how I act in solidarity with young climate strikers all over the world who want their elders to save their future. 

My friend, Robyn Ryan, posted a story on Facebook a week or so ago about Brendon Grimshaw, who bought a tiny island in the Seychelles, turned it into an interactive arboretum and donated it to be a national park. His work is a strange wonder among the many efforts of conservation and climate change mitigation all over the world.

Moyenne Island

Grimshaw first came to the Seychelles on vacation in 1962. At the time, he was an editor working for some of the biggest newspapers in East Africa. Tanzania had declared independence the year before; Kenya would follow a year later; and Grimshaw, an Englishman, knew his job would soon pass to a local. So he was searching for a new direction that took him closer to nature. He dreamed about owning land in the Seychelles – ideally, he’d buy his own island.

Once in the country  he wondered whether he needed to change his plans. The few islands on the market had jaw-dropping price tags. On the second-to-last day of his holiday, a young man approached him in the Seychelles’ capital, Victoria, and asked Grimshaw if he wanted to buy an island — just like that. They traveled together to Moyenne, a small dot less than 3 miles off of Mahé. He immediately fell in love with its silence and its wild tangle of vegetation. It was close enough to be accessible from the Seychelles’ main island, and yet a world away. He bought it for about $10,000.

He was determined to complete the massive task of restoring the island’s natural beauty. Neglect and heavy-handed human intervention had left Moyenne gasping for air. Weeds choked the undergrowth. The island was so crowded with invasive vegetation, falling coconuts never hit the ground. Birds were noticeably absent and rats foraged in the shadows.

Grimshaw wanted to create a mini-Seychelles, to replicate what archipelago was like before Europeans and tourists came. By his side in the task was a local man named Rene Antoine Lafortune, the 19-year-old son of a local fisherman. The two became inseparable, and together they set about transforming the island, clearing the scrub, planting trees and forging paths through the undergrowth. It was painstaking, back-breaking work – and it became Grimshaw’s life-long obsession. By one estimate, Moyenne now has more plant species per square mile than any other national park in the world due to their work.

Brendon Grimshaw

As tourism grew in the the Seychelles the 1980s and the archipelago became synonymous with a tropical island paradise. Investors turned their covetous gaze towards Moyenne. Grimshaw received offers of up to $50 million (purportedly from a Saudi prince) to sell it. He resisted every overture.

As he grew older, Grimshaw became increasingly aware he had limited time left to protect the island’s future. He had no children to whom he could pass on custodianship of the island. When Lafortune died in 2007, Grimshaw was left alone at 81. He decided to act. He set up a perpetual trust to protect the island and signed an agreement with the Seychelles’ Ministry of Environment which made Moyenne part of Ste Anne Marine Park, and granted it a special status. With that, Moyenne Island National Park became the world’s smallest national park.

The island has no jetty. One wades ashore, barefoot, through the shallows. As you reach dry land and take your first steps along the gently climbing forest trail, the trees close in behind you and you enter another world. Dappled sunlight filters down through the canopy to the forest floor, the temperature is cooler, and the island’s 16,000 trees – mahogany, palm, mango, and pawpaw – planted by Grimshaw and Lafortune, surround you.

Every now and then, you may find your path blocked by one of Moyenne’s nearly 50 free-range giant Aldabra tortoises, which had been on the verge of extinction. You’ll hear the song of 2,000 newly-attracted bird species. Thanks to Grimshaw’s efforts, the once deserted island now hosts two-thirds of the Seychelles’ fauna. An abandoned piece of land has turned into a wonder.

Grimshaw died in 2012 and his grave sits alongside that of his father (who later came to live with him) and the graves of two unknown people which were uncovered during the restoration, usually considered pirates. At his request, Grimshaw’s tombstone reads,

Moyenne taught him to open his eyes to the beauty around him and say thank you to God.

In his last will and testament, he expressed his final wishes:

Moyenne Island is to be maintained as a venue for prayer, peace, tranquillity, relaxation and knowledge for Seychellois and visitors from overseas of all nationalities, colours and creeds.

In 1996, Grimshaw wrote a book about himself and the island, entitled A Grain of Sand. In 2009, a documentary film was produced by the same name. The filmmakers say: “Brendon has provided us with an example of why not all hope is loss in what at times seems an overwhelmingly mad world.” You can watch it on YouTube:

In it you’ll hear Grimshaw say:

“I don’t own the island. God owns the island and I look after it.”

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