On 14 June 2016, the United Nations General Assembly made a resolution aimed at redrawing the geopolitical map. An International Day of the Tropics was instigated, to be held on 29 June each year, in recognition of the growing importance of the region, which includes most of Africa, South America and northern Australia. “The health of the tropics is significant to our global success,” said Australia’s ambassador to the UN, Gillian Bird.

The resolution was in response to the landmark State of the Tropics Report, published by James Cook University, Australia. “Arguably, the future belongs to the tropics,” says Professor Sandra Harding, Vice Chancellor of the teaching and research institution in Queensland. “By 2050, it will be home to most of the world’s population and two-thirds of its children. The decisions made now will affect things on a global scale for a long time to come.”



Since it was established in 1960, James Cook University (JCU) has done more to put the tropics on the map than almost anyone since its eponymous 18th-century explorer. It was founded specifically to create a brighter future for the region, with campuses in Townsville, Cairns and Singapore complemented by regional study centres.

“Our location is our laboratory,” says Professor Harding. “We have a research station on the Great Barrier Reef and another in the rainforest north of Cairns. Everything we do speaks to our tropical agenda.”

Ranked in the top 2 per cent of universities worldwide, its influence was demonstrated by its leadership of the State of the Tropics project. “We joined forces with 11 other institutions based in the tropics or engaged in it, like the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine,” says Professor Harding. “We wanted to shine a spotlight on the power and potential of the region and, ultimately, to shift the global dynamic.”

The report tackled the question, “Is life in the tropics getting better?”, by looking at indicators such as health, the environment, education and governance. “Tropical populations are highly urbanised and are developing faster than those in the rest of the world,” says Professor Harding. “We need to ensure a planned approach to this or we’re going to create the very worst living conditions, dire poverty and disadvantage. That is what drives the work of James Cook University.”



For its 23,000 students, teaching is split into four areas: ecosystems and the environment; industries and economies; people and societies; and health, medicine and biosecurity. Research is generously funded – last year, the university received more than $50 million in grants.

“We have incredible people on the faculty, doing astonishing work,” says Professor Harding. Current projects include a drought experiment that will deliver crucial insights into how rainforests will be affected by climate change. Another project is charting the environmental impact of roads in developing countries, in order to devise models to reduce the ecological cost.

“Many of the greatest challenges in the world are playing out in the tropics,” observes Professor Harding. “We need to think differently about what happens here, not just to ensure the health of our planet, but the future of humanity.”