[From the series 'Bajau Laut: Last of the Sea Nomads' | Image by James Morgan]
It covers over 5.7 million square kilometres - which is still just 1.6% of the planet's oceans - and contains 76% of all known coral species, 37% of all known coral reef fish species, 53% of the world's coral reefs, the greatest extent of mangrove forests in the world, and spawning and juvenile growth areas for tuna and other globally-significant commercial fish species. There are also, significantly, 130 million people living within 10km of the coastline.
I was aware of the Coral Triangle - or 'Amazon of the Seas' as it is sometimes known - but had no idea just how breathtakingly biodiverse the region was until I started doing some nature-based tourism research for a multi-partner project I'm currently involved in.
The Coral Triangle is a scientifically defined area situated across 6 countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste. It is not only a biodiversity hotspot in the true sense of the phrase, but the marine and coastal resources in the Coral Triangle are also a cornerstone of the economies and societies of the 6 countries that make up the region.
With the rapid development of coastal areas for tourism, unsustainable fishing practices, land-based sources of marine pollution, coastal habitat conversion and climate change (to name just some), these resources are under increasing pressure. Given the size of the human population in the area as well, the challenges are interconnected and complex.
The multi-country nature of the Coral Triangle has also been a significant challenge in the past - the 6 countries could certainly be called diverse when looking at their underlying characteristics and make-up.
In spite of all this, a deep-rooted commitment has slowly developed between these countries to try to find ways to safeguard the region's marine and coastal biological resources. This commitment is most obviously demonstrated through the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security (CTI-CFF).
Formed in 2007, the CTI-CFF is a multilateral partnership between the Governments of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste that is looking to find long-term, sustainable development pathways for the Coral Triangle region, whilst balancing the differing demands of each individual country.
Since it's establishment it has also involved a number of development partners who have provided significant support and investment to help get the initiative up and running. These partners include NGOs like the WWF, Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy, National Governments like those of the USA and Australia, and institutions like the Global Environment Facility and Asian Development Bank.
The problems faced by the Coral Triangle are not unique - human development placing pressure on finite resources, with the likely impact of climate change adding additional long-term pressures. The biodiversity and food chain significance of the Coral Triangle region is pretty unique however, and makes the efforts of the CTI-CFF particularly important and relevant for other parts of the world.
If the CTI-CFF can enable 6 diverse countries to grapple successfully with the complexity inherent in balancing human development with finite resources whilst trying to deal with the underlying trend of climate change, then many other parts of the world are likely to be able to learn from the approach and apply it to their own complex challenges.
The road ahead for the Coral Triangle remains a rocky one. The challenges in the region are deep-rooted and complex. The countries involved will have differing views on how things should be done. Climate change is not going to bring linear, smooth change - it will be disruptive and highly damaging to communities in the area. Mistakes will be made and the solutions will rarely be simple or clear cut.
However, the very fact that the countries are now joined together by the CTI-CFF; the very fact that economic solutions are being actively sought to help address societal AND environmental issues; the very fact that funding is committed (not enough yet, but still significant); the very fact that the Coral Triangle is such an inspiring part of the world and still relatively unknown; all these (and a host of other reasons) provide real grounds for optimism that the transformation can be (at least partly) achieved.
From overdeveloped and under-pressure biodiversity hotspot with climate change impacts bearing inexorably down on it, to a multi-country sustainable development success story - at scale - that helps provide one small example of the kind of solutions we will need a lot of to survive the climate change driven transition ahead of us.
As overwhelmed by the challenges as I am, I also feel exceptionally privileged to be just one very small part of the work going on to try to make that transformation more likely.
For more detail on the inspiring work going on in the Coral Triangle - or for ways to help it succeed - please contact me.