UNESCO Biosphere Reserves: An international network for sustainable development learning
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The concept of biosphere reserve has evolved since its origin in the 1970s to fully embrace the notion of sustainable development, but integration of the CBD's objectives into sustainable development has not been an easy task.

The World Network of Biosphere Reserves could help integrate the three objectives of the CBD into land/seascape-level sustainable development practices.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) promotes collaboration for attaining three important global objectives: (i) conservation of biodiversity; (ii) sustainable use of its components; and (iii) equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the access and utilization of genetic resources and transfer of relevant technologies. The adoption in 2010, the International Year of Biodiversity, of a new protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) to promote international co-operation with regard to objective (iii), will open a new era for international co-operation on biodiversity policy and practice to demonstrate that conservation and use of biodiversity are necessary conditions for sustainable development.

The World Network of Biosphere Reserves, now counting 564 places in 109 countries, has been developed by the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme of UNESCO, which commemorates its 40th anniversary in 2011. The biosphere reserve concept originated in the 1970s within epistemic communities of ecosystem ecology and park management. Although its origin was within the milieu of conservation of natural areas, including genetic resources contained therein, the concept of biosphere reserve has evolved since then to fully embrace the notion of sustainable development. UNESCO’s adoption, in 1995, of the Seville Strategy and Statutory Framework for the World Network of Biosphere Reserves (WNBR), established biosphere reserves as land/seascapes of resident human communities, a mosaic of land and resource uses and ecosystems and biodiversity of local, national and/or global significance. The Madrid Action Plan for Biosphere Reserves (2008-2013) now under implementation aims to make all biosphere reserves become learning places for sustainable development practice.

Nearly 20 years after its adoption in 1992, the CBD enjoys near universal membership of Nation States. Most countries now have biodiversity policies and strategies for implementing the Convention. However, as evidenced by the mixed results of the efforts of States to significantly minimize biodiversity loss by 2010, integration of the Convention’s objectives into sustainable development has not been an easy task.

A recent study (Persha et al, 2011)1compared data sets from 84 sites in 6 countries from East Africa and South Asia to draw conclusions and lessons on conditions that promote joint improvements in biodiversity conservation and forest based livelihoods. This socio-ecological study demonstrated that reliable land tenure for forest communities is an important condition for generating concomitant benefits for both biodiversity and livelihoods.

During the international decade of biodiversity (2011-2020), integrating the three objectives of the CBD into land/seascape-level sustainable development practices would require similar comparative studies based on a global network of places. WNBR could well be such a network. Individual biosphere reserves strive to link conservation of biodiversity with socio-economic improvements for communities. Participatory and action research, monitoring, education, stakeholder dialogue and collaborative management tools and approaches are used for building those links between conservation and human wellbeing. Emerging financial arrangements such as reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) and reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries, and conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of carbon stocks (REDD+), as well as broader carbon and ecosystem services markets, are attracting the attention of biosphere reserve administrators as opportunities for their efforts to forge links between conservation of biodiversity, human wellbeing, and learning and knowledge construction for sustainable development.

The added value that WNBR offers for international collaboration on comparative studies for sustainable development may be self-evident, but its realization could be made much easier if country-level UN strategies and plans, under frameworks such as “One UN” and the UN Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF), provide incentives to Governments, NGOs, private sector and other stakeholders to use these sites as experimental areas. For example, the Rio+20 Conference due in 2012 will discuss, amongst others, institutional arrangements for sustainable development. Comparative studies in biosphere reserves with a variety of arrangements in given political and cultural contexts could generate significant lessons and insights into ways and means of attaining the three objectives of the CBD within the broader framework of regional sustainability. A post-2012 era of closer co-operation among bi- and multi-lateral development agencies and emerging private sector and civil society initiatives for using biosphere reserves as learning laboratories could generate information, knowledge and experience for simultaneously improving the prospects for biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation and adaptation and sustainable development.

1Persha, L., Agrawal, A., & Chhatre, A. 2011. Social and ecological synergy: local rule making, forest livelihoods and biodiversity conservation. Science, 331, pp 1606-1608. 25 March 2011.