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Biosphere Reserves as living laboratories for sustainable development

What does sustainable development look like? If sustainable development is possible, where are the places that we are most likely to see it? Where will we be able to observe it, and to measure it? Among participants at a recent conference in Lima, Peru, one resounding answer was: Biosphere Reserves.

The 4th World Congress of Biosphere Reserves was held on March 14 to 17 in Lima, Peru. Over 1,000 participants from 105 countries were in attendance, and the overarching theme was the role for Biosphere Reserves to serve as test cases for how people can balance economic needs with the health of ecosystems.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s  Man and Biosphere (MAB) Programme was created in 1971 to “establish a scientific basis for the improvement of relationships between people and their environments.”  A key element of the MAB Programme is its World Network of Biosphere Reserves, now comprising 669 sites in 120 countries. Biosphere Reserves range from arctic seas to temperate forests and mountains to tropical coastlines to dense urban centers. Their area ranges from tens of thousands to millions of hectares.

While the conservation of biodiversity in these sites is usually a priority, Biosphere Reserves are typically not designed to function as pristine wilderness areas or nature reserves. Millions of people live in Biosphere Reserves and many host a wide range of tourism, development and extraction industries. Biosphere Reserves are unique because they are meant to be “sites of excellence” where scientists and local leaders can explore and demonstrate a balance between economic development and biodiversity conservation. As such, if managed properly by a wide range of stakeholders, Biosphere Reserves have the potential to serve as models for sustainable development.

Aligning with the Sustainable Development Goals

On January 1, 2016, the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development officially came into force. The SDGs focus on global challenges such as ending poverty, mitigating climate change and conserving biodiversity. While the SDGs are not legally binding, governments have accepted responsibility to take action and review their progress towards achieving the goals.

Biosphere Reserves hold tremendous potential to serve as living laboratories and monitoring sites for these goals, as well as other global policy processes such as the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In fact, many Biosphere Reserves are already the sites of long-term research programmes. They include studies of ecology in the island and coastal Biosphere Reserves in South Korea and in mountain Biosphere Reserves in Spain, the German Alps, the Peruvian Andes and the Russian Altai.

At the Lima meeting, speakers presented examples of sustainable development already underway from a number of Biosphere Reserves. For example, in the Miankaleh Biosphere Reserve in Iran, residents and natural resource managers co-designed management plans for their pomegranate forests. As a result, income from these non-timber forest products increased, while the local people gained an understanding of the need to limit harvest to ensure future growing seasons. In the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve in South Africa, managers are developing a research portal and scientific network with the potential to link scientists across the entire African continent. This network could provide the much-needed research cohesion among Biosphere Reserves in Africa.

There is also great potential for collaboration among the MAB Programme, Future Earth and the International Long Term Ecological Research (ILTER) Program — a global network of research sites located in a wide array of ecosystems that can help understand environmental change across the globe. In Lima, the ILTER program offered to serve as a platform for data sharing among Biosphere Reserves.

The scientific community and policy-makers must develop coordinated research agendas to harmonize the various research programmes among these globally recognised areas into one large research network, or a worldwide “network of networks.” That will allow the scientific community to standardise how they study these sites and combine datasets from multiple sites. Such a coordinated approach could feed in directly to global policy processes, providing evidence that sustainable development is possible.

In addition to aligning with the SDGs, there is great potential to align the MAB Programme with Future Earth. Biosphere Reserves are already well coordinated with each other through the World Network of Biosphere Reserves (WNBR), regional networks such as AfriMAB, EuroMAB and ArabMAB and thematic networks such as the World Network of Island and Coastal Biosphere Reserves. Nevertheless, there were many calls during the Congress for better networking and better communication among Biosphere Reserve managers, researchers and other stakeholders.

Future Earth’s Knowledge-Action Networks have the potential to serve as additional platforms on which researchers working in Biosphere Reserves, or those who wish to, and other stakeholders can collaborate to address key sustainability challenges. This year, Future Earth launched a Knowledge-Action Network that specifically focuses on bringing researchers and others together to develop new ways of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Lima Declaration and Action Plan, which emerged out of the recent conference, now serve as the roadmap that can focus the MAB Programme on achieving sustainable development. However, sustainable development will not be achieved without a concerted scientific research effort. It was clear throughout the 4th World Congress that scientific research needs to be a higher priority in the management and action plans of individual Biosphere Reserves. Research will be needed not only to weigh options for the best paths toward sustainable development but also to monitor and evaluate management decisions and generate the scientific evidence that sustainable development is working. While some successful examples of long-term studies in Biosphere Reserves exist, there needs to be additional work done to motivate and incentivise scientific research, within both social and natural science disciplines, in Biosphere Reserves.

More information on the Congress is available at these links including working documents, news and updates:

UNESCO web page

Conference website