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Biosphere reserves: an opportunity for humans and the environment

UNESCO has set up biosphere reserves to promote international nature conservation, aiming to model ways of sustainably combining economic activity with environmental protection.

National parks are found in every country and are set up by governments, who are also responsible for managing them at national, regional or local level. At the same time, there are also international protected areas, such as World Heritage Sites, which must be recognised by UNESCO. A further well-known designation introduced by UNESCO in 1976 and based on the UN's Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme (set up in 1970) is that of biosphere reserve.

The World Network of Biosphere Reserves now comprises 621 model regions from 117 countries, with 15 UNESCO Biosphere Reserves currently located in Germany. These reserves are referred to as learning sites for sustainable development, as humans are intentionally included in the concept. The key questions are: how can economic activity be combined with environmental protection, and how can humans and the environment co-exist?

Biosphere reserves: protected areas with an economic component

Biosphere reserves are areas of protection for animals and plants. These reserves are intentionally designed to combine environmental conservation with economic activity, unlike national parks, most of which have been set up to remain as untouched by humans as possible. The reserve concept usually incorporates local markets, eco-tourism and partnerships with regional firms.  Consequently, biosphere reserves are often set up in cultural landscapes created by humans rather than in inaccessible wilderness regions containing rare plant and animal species.

The reserves typically focus on marketing regional products, revitalising rural areas that people are leaving to go elsewhere and examining ways in which regions can adapt to climate change. At the same time, biosphere reserves place particular emphasis on education for sustainable development, be it through exhibitions, panel discussions or guided tours.

UNESCO reserves the right to revoke biosphere reserve status.

The respective national MAB committees regularly review the situation in their biosphere reserves, once every ten years in Germany's case. If there is a failure to meet the UNESCO criteria, then UNESCO reserves the right to revoke biosphere reserve status. Criteria and regulations vary from country to country. In Germany, for instance, most of the relevant protection areas must also fulfil the criteria for conservation areas, while all of them must meet the requirements for protected landscapes.

At the same time, there are core zones within the reserves that are not used for economic purposes, instead being set aside for environmental monitoring and the protection of endangered species. Eco-tourism and organic farming are permitted in the buffer zones, while transition zones, often constituting the largest areas in a reserve, provide ample space for model projects exemplifying semi-natural and regional economic activities.

Prominent examples of well-functioning biosphere reserves in Germany include Middle Elbe and Schorfheide-Chorin in the east, Rhön, Pfälzerwald and Schwäbische Alb in the south west, and Schaalsee in the north.

Author: Torsten Schäfer

January 2014

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