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Climate change and risks 5 min

For Freddy Rey, nature holds practically all the answers

As a research director at INRAE’s Mountain Ecosystem and Society Laboratory (LESSEM) and a specialist in ecological engineering, Freddy Rey leads a professional life where basic science and targeted research sit side-by-side against a backdrop of public policy.

Published on 30 August 2021

Small things can alter the course of our lives. In Freddy’s case, it was reading a book. Admittedly, not just any book, but a 1990 essay on the riddle of human evolution by Josef Reichholf, the influential and controversial German evolutionary ecologist.  It was a revelation for the teenage Freddy who could see himself doing ‘that’ as a career, the ‘that’ in question being the reconstruction of a historical narrative from a set of clues to gain an understanding of past events beyond our own experience.

So the trainee detective set off on his chosen trail, with studies in forestry and water engineering and a PhD in physical geography before going on to work as a research scientist at Irstea, now INRAE.

From restoration ecology to Nature-Based Solutions

In 2005, Freddy Rey’s first research projects took him deep into the French Alps to work on the restoration ecology of degraded lands. His interest in the subject has been enduring and he continued to refine his thinking on it as he worked to consolidate his knowledge and skills in this area.

Nowadays, Freddy describes his research as a set of carefully constructed building-blocks (he is, of course, the master builder). You first lay the foundations by developing an understanding of the relationship between vegetation and erosion processes in torrential environments. On top of that comes the knowledge of how to establish this vegetative cover on eroded terrain using the tools of soil and water bioengineering and ecological engineering. Once these blocks are in place, you can begin to construct your Nature-Based Solutions (or NBS), paying particular attention to the co-benefits that are inherent to this concept.

Nature-based Solutions are ‘actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural and modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits’ (Source, IUCN, 2016).

Whether in the form of soil and water bioengineering, ecological engineering or Nature-Based Solutions, a common thread runs through Freddy’s work – the fostering of natural processes to help the living world, processes that are carried out ‘by and for life’.

It is this principle that drives the work of Freddy and his colleagues from the LESSEM COMPET team, where they start with a fundamental question: ‘How can we find ways to weave the differing demands of protection against natural hazards, nature-based solutions, ecology and spatial planning requirements into an integrated management approach to ecosystems, water and land use?

Freddy’s own answer can be seen in his work on Action 8 of the Durance Basin Multi-Use Plan, produced by the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur regional Prefect at the request of the government ministers responsible for ecology, the economy, infrastructure and agriculture. The goal of Action 8 – Reduce river-transported sediment volumes while controlling the erosion of the black marl hill slopes (2010-2013) – Freddy tells us, ‘was to manage fine sediments, which increase flood risk, and to combat local land degradation. Around 2000 structures were installed and monitored over the project period. The structures are made up of living palisades and brush layers on wooden dams. They act as vegetative filters and provide a useful way to hold back the fine sediments while re-vegetating denuded soils. As living structures, they continue to grow.’

These methods are also currently being used in modified form for a mine restoration project in New Caledonia, INNER-MINE, which acts as a demonstration site for ecological engineering techniques to restore lands that have been degraded as the result of open-cast mining, particularly in ravines (CNRT, 2019-2022). The purpose of the project is to test, demonstrate, develop and promote proven and innovative ecological engineering techniques, with a particular focus on their application in a mining setting in a tropical climate. Which might be more easily said than done, unless you are Freddy Rey. Whereas in Europe, vegetation is introduced largely by means of cuttings, in the French overseas territory of New Caledonia, seeds and seedlings are being tested for their suitability, which of course means that you first have to research which varieties to use. Too great a task? Not in the least. For Freddy, it’s all the more reason to get to work!

A bridge between science and the community

Freddy’s quest for new knowledge with real-world applications and his commitment to the creation of links between testing and demonstration have long led him to chart a course between research and engineering. His current activities are no exception, as he spends his working days moving seamlessly between the acquisition, application and communication of knowledge, with a particular fondness for sharing what he knows with others.

By and for life

At institutional level, Freddy Rey is involved among other things in the strategic decision-making for ACT (Actions and Transitions), his own scientific division, in the areas of biodiversity and nature-based solutions. Away from the boardroom, you will find him offering scientific leadership and inspiration, spreading the word on scientific advances and projects, kick-starting new initiatives, and constantly striving to find ways to make practical use of previous projects and research.

A member of the French Committee of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Freddy Rey heads up the Committee’s ecosystem management group having long run the working group on NBS.  He has been tireless in developing new project proposals that maintain the pace of actions to support the conservation, restoration and sustainable management of ecosystems in France; his work in this area includes the development of Nature-Based Solutions and their adoption by national government, not only in mainland France but in its overseas territories, maintaining links with international initiatives from the IUCN.

Freddy is always quick to roll up his sleeves and share his convictions – whether this takes the form of teaching, writing popular science books and working on reports for socio-economic actors, managers and decision-makers,  or spreading the good word to professional bodies such as AGéBio  (French Association for Bioengineering) and A-IGEco (French Federated Union of Engineers and Ecological Engineers) of which he was founder and (co-)organiser for a number of years before handing over to his successors.

In his element(s) when he is working between the worlds of science and society, Freddy is a councillor for the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, holds the water cycle portfolio for the Voiron inter-communal group of 31 communes and is Mayor of Saint Nicolas de Macherin (30km from Grenoble), dealing with the practical everyday issues of local land and water management.  Evidence of this can be seen in the disappearance of the hard mineral playground at the Saint Nicolas de Macherin village school, to be replaced by trees, landscaping and a planned vegetable garden, while stone terraces serve as an outdoor teaching area – a small salute from the world of learning to the living world.

Catherine Foucaud-Scheunemanntranslated by Teresa Bridgeman


Freddy Rey Mountain Ecosystem and Society Laboratory (LESSEM)



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