What is a Biosphere Reserve?

What is a Biosphere Reserve?

Biosphere Reserves are important ecosystems that are internationally recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Man and Biosphere (MAB) program.  They serve as a demonstration of areas where communities combine conservation of biodiversity with sustainable community development.

 

There are 651 World Biosphere Reserves in 120 countries, with 16 in Canada.  It is important to note that Biosphere Reserve designation does not bring with it any new authorities over lands, water or resources.

Each biosphere is intended to fulfill 3 basic functions:

  • A conservation function to contribute to the conservation of landscapes, ecosystems, species and genetic variation;
  • A development function to foster economic and human development which is socio-culturally and ecologically sustainable;
  • A logistic function to provide support for research, monitoring, education and information exchange related to local, national and global issues of conservation and development.

The Origin of Biosphere Reserves

The origin of Biosphere Reserves goes back to the Biosphere Conference organized by UNESCO in 1968, the first intergovernmental conference to seek to reconcile the conservation and use of natural resources, thereby foreshadowing the present-day notion of sustainable development.  The aim was to establish terrestrial and coastal areas representing the main ecosystems of the planet in which genetic resources would be protected, and where research on ecosystems as well as monitoring and training work could be carried out for an intergovernmental programme called for by the Conference.  This Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme was officially launched by UNESCO in 1971.  One of the MAB projects consisted of establishing a coordinated world network of new protected areas, to be designated as Biosphere Reserves, in reference to the programme itself.

In 1995, the International Conference on Biosphere Reserves, held in Seville, Spain, confirmed that Biosphere Reserves offer such examples.  Biosphere Reserves therefore have a new role to play at the global level.  Not only will they be a means for the people who live and work within and around them to attain a balanced relationship with the natural world; they should also explore ways to meet the basic needs of society towards a more sustainable future.

Today, MAB has over 45 years of experience, with 651 Biosphere Reserves in 120 countries, testing and demonstrating approaches to sustainable development.

How Are Biosphere Reserves Selected?

Biosphere reserves cover the great variety of natural areas of the biosphere, going from high mountains to greatly human-impacted plains, from coastal regions and islands to vast inland forests, from the deserts of the tropics to the tundra of the polar regions.  To qualify for designation as a biosphere reserve, an area should normally:

  • be representative of a major bio-geographic region, including a gradation of human intervention in these systems;
  • contain landscapes, ecosystems or animal and plant species, or varieties which need to be conserved;
  • provide an opportunity to explore and demonstrate approaches to sustainable development within the larger region where they are located;
  • be of an appropriate size to serve the three functions of biosphere reserves mentioned above;
  • have an appropriate zoning system, with a legally constituted core area or areas, devoted to long-term protection; a clearly identified buffer zone or zones and an outer transition area

Biosphere Reserve Design

Biosphere Reserves are important ecosystems that are internationally recognized by UNESCO, where communities combine conservation of biodiversity with sustainable development.  They are nominated by communities within a shared landscape to demonstrate how people can live and work in better harmony with nature.

Biosphere Reserves are designed to meet one of the most challenging issues that the world is facing today: How can we conserve the diversity of plants, animals and micro-organisms which make up our living biosphere and maintain healthy natural systems while, at the same time, meet the material needs and aspirations of an increasing number of people?  How can we reconcile conservation of natural resources with their sustainable use?

Establishing a biosphere reserve obviously poses an enormous challenge, namely to set up an appropriate mechanism, for instance a steering committee, to plan and co-ordinate all the activities that will take place there.  This human dimension of biosphere reserves makes them special, since the management essentially becomes a pact between the local community and society as a whole. Management of a biosphere reserve needs to be open, evolving and adaptive.  Such an approach requires perseverance, patience and imagination.  But it will allow the local community to be better placed to respond to external political, economic and social pressures, which would affect the ecological and cultural values of the area.

How Are Biosphere Reserves Organized?

To carry out the complementary activities of nature conservation and use of natural resources, biosphere reserves are organized into three interrelated zones, known as the core area, the buffer zone and the transition area.

It is important to note that biosphere reserves respect existing jurisdictional arrangements, including private property; municipal, provincial and federal lands; and are neutral regarding any land claims or Treaty issues there may be concerning aboriginal rights in the region.  Biosphere reserves take a regional approach to encourage cooperative social and economic development.

The core area needs to be legally established and give long-term protection to the landscapes, ecosystems and species it contains.  It should be sufficiently large to meet these conservation objectives.  As nature is rarely uniform and as historical land-use constraints exist in many parts of the world, there may be several core areas in a single biosphere reserve to ensure a representative coverage of the mosaic of ecological systems.  Normally, the core area is not subject to human activity, except research and monitoring and, as the case may be, to traditional extractive uses by local communities.

A buffer zone (or zones) which is clearly delineated and which surrounds or is contiguous to the core area.  Activities are organized here so that they do not hinder the conservation objectives of the core area but rather help to protect it, hence the idea of buffering.  It can be an area for experimental research, for example to discover ways to manage natural vegetation, croplands, forests, fisheries, to enhance high quality production while conserving natural processes and biodiversity, including soil resources, to the maximum extent possible.  In a similar manner, experiments can be carried out in the buffer zone to explore how to rehabilitate degraded areas.  It may accommodate education, training, tourism and recreation facilities.  In buffer zones, emphasis is on sustainable use of the natural resources for the benefit of local communities.

An outer transition area, or area of co-operation extending outwards, which may contain a variety of agricultural activities, human settlements and other uses.  It is here that the local communities, conservation agencies, scientists, community groups, private enterprises and other stakeholders must agree to work together to manage and sustainably develop the area’s resources for the benefit of the people who live there.  Given the role that biosphere reserves should play in promoting the sustainable management of the natural resources of the region in which they lie, the transition area is of great economic and social significance for regional development.

Why Do We Need Biosphere Reserves?

To help conserve biological diversity.  Human pressures on land and water resources are drastically reducing the diversity of genes, plant and animal species, ecosystems and landscapes of the planet.  This threatens human welfare, since this biodiversity is the potential source of foods, fibers, medicines, and raw material for industry and building.  It constitutes an irreplaceable wealth for research, education and recreation for the whole of humankind.  The core areas and buffer zones of biosphere reserves serve as repositories to safeguard samples of the biodiversity of the world’s major biogeographical regions, and as reference and study sites to help improve our knowledge on biodiversity.

To maintain healthy ecosystems.  Biosphere Reserves, which may represent large areas of land and water, contribute significantly to the maintenance of the life support systems which serve to avoid soil erosion, maintain soil fertility, regulate river flow, recharge aquifers, recycle nutrients, and absorb air and water pollutants.

To learn about natural systems and how they are changing.  Research may be conducted on the structure and dynamics of the minimally disturbed natural systems of the core areas of biosphere reserves, and compared with the functioning of human-affected landscapes in the buffer and transition areas.  Such studies, when carried out over the long term, show how these systems may be changing over time.  Setting up similar long-term monitoring plots, and harmonizing methods and measurements allows comparison of results regionally and worldwide.  The information thus obtained allows us to better understand global environmental changes.

To learn about traditional forms of land-use.  People in many parts of the world have devised, over a long period of time, ingenious land-use practices which do not deplete the natural resources and which can provide valuable knowledge for modern production systems.  Biosphere reserves are areas where such peoples can maintain their traditions, as well as improving their economic well-being through the use of culturally and environmentally appropriate technologies.

To share knowledge on how to manage natural resources in a sustainable way.  Research to find land-use practices that improve human well-being, without degrading the environment, is a central purpose of biosphere reserves.  The lessons are learned at the local level through on-the-spot training and demonstrations. They can then be applied in the transition area and in the region beyond.  Government officials, national and foreign scientists, visitors, as well as local community leaders, all benefit from this experience.  The biosphere reserve serves to share knowledge and skills at the local, national and international levels.

To co-operate in solving natural resources problems.  A major obstacle to reconciling environment with development is the division of our institutions.  Biosphere reserves provide places where conflicts of interest can be debated by all the stakeholders concerned: local officials, landowners, nature conservation associations, government leaders, scientists, local farmers, fishermen, private enterprises, etc.  All must work together to find appropriate co-ordination mechanisms to plan and manage the biosphere reserve.  Biosphere reserves therefore provide opportunities for open discussion, information sharing and conflict resolution which could be applied in other development issues.

More Information…

For more information about World Biosphere Reserves visit the United Nation’s Website.

[Updated: February 2016]