Saving the 'Coral Triangle'

JAKARTA, Indonesia — With the Indonesian government leading the way, six countries signed a landmark agreement over the weekend to conserve one of the most important marine communities in the world.

The Coral Triangle contains three-quarters of all known coral species on Earth but is under attack from over-fishing, destructive fishing techniques, pollution and climate change.

Moreover, 120 million people depend on the triangle’s bounty for their livelihoods, accounting for almost $2.5 billion in income every year. The Coral Triangle is roughly half the size of the United States and is now the subject of the largest marine conservation effort in history.

“The Coral Triangle is the highest expression of marine life in the world — 500 species of coral and thousands of species of reef fish,” said Scott Atkinson, regional manager for the Coral Triangle Initiative for Conservation International, a non-government organization. “The agreement is totally unprecedented, there has been nothing like this ever in terms of marine conservation.”

The Coral Triangle itself, which spans Indonesia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and East Timor, is somewhat unassuming to the untrained eye. To look at it from the Indonesian city of Manado in North Sulawesi is nothing special. And most people who live here have never heard of it.

But it is home to some of the world’s oldest species, and for marine biologists it is the ultimate destination. Yet, like all the world’s reefs, it is disappearing at a breakneck pace. Fisherman decimate the coral using dynamite, cyanide and other poisons, and in the process they are unwittingly destroying their own sources of income.

For millions of people in Indonesia alone, the massive reef provides their only source of income, through coastal and small-scale fisheries — an income that is meager to begin with. A report released during the World Ocean Conference last week showed that if the destruction of the reef was allowed to continue, widespread poverty would be one of the tragic results.

Fortunately, Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has demonstrated an active interest in conservation since taking office several years ago. He organized the first-ever World Ocean Conference, which was held last week and which culminated in the signing of the Coral Triangle Initiative. Representative from around the world were in attendance.

It is the second time in as many years that Indonesia has held a major international conference to address environmental issues such as conservation and climate change. To everyone’s surprise, Indonesia offered to host the United Nations Conference on Climate Change last year. While Indonesia still lags far behind other countries when it comes to protection of the environment, its leaders' willingness to engage and encourage dialogue seems to indicate a shift in attitude. Indonesia has taken a number of steps in recent years to improve its environmental record.

“There has been a great deal of initiative on the part of Indonesia,” Atkinson said. “I have been extremely impressed with what has been accomplished so far and a lot of credit has to be given to Indonesia, as well as the countries who have signed on and pledged resources of their own.”

For Indonesia, the Coral Triangle Initiative could be its most ambitious environmental effort yet.

“In 30 years of conservation work, I have never seen anything like this: six leaders signing a commitment to protect their marine resources for the well-being of their citizens and future generations," said Conservation International’s Chairman Peter Seligmann. "We extend our deepest congratulations as they embark on this unprecedented global initiative to secure human livelihoods and adapt to climate change through the conservation of their individual and shared marine heritage."

Still, the signing of the agreement is only the first step. As the world learned after the signing of the Kyoto Protocol to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, action is the hard part. Despite being more than a decade old, the Kyoto Protocol has not yet led to reduced worldwide emissions.

But the Coral Triangle Initiative has received unprecedented support — including $40 million from the United States alone — and has struck a balance between development and conservation that analysts said might just be the key to making it work.

“People here have always been aware of the value of their resources and the need to protect them, but the development imperative has made it difficult. But the Coral Triangle Initiative is a really good model and I think we really can achieve a great deal,” Atkinson said.

For more on threats to the environment:

US considers 'greening' the tax code

Who will be able to afford to live on the coast?

A climate change collision course