Posted by Duika Burges Watson
June 9th is Coral Triangle Day. The Coral Triangle is a region in South East Asia that covers just 1% of the world’s surface but contains 30% of its coral reefs, 76% of coral reef-building fish species, 9 of the 10 species of giant clam and is home to 100 million people. Celebrating Coral Triangle Day might not sound like an important public health issue for people in the UK, but my reading tells me it is fundamental. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to demonstrate how, as recipient of the 2012 Neville Schulman Challenge Award (with Dr Johanna Wadsley), through our Indonesian research exchange and expedition, Hugging the Coast.
Sometimes topics in public health leap out at you because you are motivated by an issue or concern that really grabs you. Hugging the Coast is a title that resonates on so many levels, and it is one that clearly touched not just us but the many supporters and sponsors that have provided gear, money, expertise, and time to help make the expedition possible.
In August 2012, our international team of six women sea-kayakers and social scientists will traverse the 250km length of the volcanic islands that reach from the northern tip of Sulawesi, Indonesia, to Sangihe in the Celebes Sea - at the edge of the Coral Triangle. We will be documenting and engaging with life in one of the world’s ‘liminal zones’, confronting key contemporary public health issues in relation to climate change and sea level rise, food security and ecology, and how what we ‘do’ at home is not isolated from what happens in other parts of the world.
Our project resonates with the major challenge to public health that is presented in Lang and Raynor’s recent publication Ecological Public Health: Reshaping the Conditions for Good Health. At its core, they argue that public health needs a major overhaul, we need to transform relationships between people, circumstances and the biological world of nature and bodies. They stress that we need better ways to understand and account for major transitions – be they demographic, epidemiological, urban, energy related, economic, nutritional, biological, cultural or political; any conditions involving interactions between human eco-systems and health.
Scenarios developed for the Coral Triangle suggest that in the next century the biological diversity of this ‘Amazon of the seas’ may be destroyed, the resilience of coastal environments will deteriorate and food security – already an issue with climate change and El Nino events – will force migration, urbanisation and even greater depletion of environmental resources. In Hugging the Coast we will confront the lived experience of transitions related to climate change.
But part of the Coral Triangle Initiative, and what Coral Triangle day is there to celebrate, is that there are opportunities to avoid this worst-case scenario – reducing greenhouse gas emissions and building resilience back in with new approaches to agriculture and aquaculture; international investment to ensure that economic growth, food security and natural environments are maintained. On this, a key focus for our expedition and research is the role that seaweed farming might play as an exemplar of ‘climate smart’ agriculture: as an alternative livelihood, reducing fisheries pressures and for carbon sequestration.
The seaweed farmed in the Coral Triangle, is not used there. The product ‘carrageenan’ is extracted from the seaweed and, amongst other uses, is employed in processed foods and fat-reduced products, in toothpaste, as an active ingredient in HIV/AIDs prevention technologies, as an anti-viral agent to protect against HPV and swine flu, and to encapsulate important drugs (for example for novel diabetes drugs). In many applications, public health is a driver of use. In Hugging the Coast we will be exploring a ‘liminal’ zone between land and sea, but also one between the global East and West.
Hugging the Coast offers us an opportunity to map out interactions between human eco-systems and health; to ‘test drive’ an ecological public health approach. It will inevitably be a complex picture, and one that you can follow and contribute to on our blog or on twitter @hugindo