A biosphere reserve is an area of land recognized and preserved for its ecological significance. Ideally biosphere reserves contain undisturbed, natural environments that represent some of the world's important ecological systems and communities. Biosphere reserves are established in the interest of preserving the genetic diversity of these ecological zones, supporting research and education, and aiding local, sustainable development . Official declaration and international recognition of biosphere reserve status is intended to protect ecologically significant areas from development and destruction. Since 1976 an international network of biosphere reserves has developed, with the sanction of the United Nations. Each biosphere reserve is proposed, reviewed, and established by a national biosphere reserve commission in the home country under United Nations guidelines. Communication among members of the international biosphere network helps reserve managers share data and compare management strategies and problems.
The idea of biosphere reserves first gained international recognition in 1973, when the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization (UNESCO)'s Man and the Biosphere Program (MAB) proposed that a worldwide effort be made to preserve islands of the world's living resources from logging , mining, urbanization, and other environmentally destructive human activities. The term derives from the ecological word "biosphere," which refers to the zone of air, land, and water at the surface of the earth that is occupied by living organisms. Growing concern over the survival of individual species in the 1970s and 1980s led increasingly to the recognition that endangered species could not be preserved in isolation. Rather, entire ecosystems, extensive communities of interdependent animals and plants, are needed for threatened species to survive. Another idea supporting the biosphere reserve concept was that of genetic diversity. Generally ecological systems and communities remain healthier and stronger if the diversity of resident species is high. An alarming rise in species extinctions in recent decades, closely linked to rapid natural resources consumption, led to an interest in genetic diversity for its own sake. Concern for such ecological principles as these led to UNESCO's proposal that international attention be given to preserving the earth's ecological systems, not just individual species.
The first biosphere reserves were established in 1976. In that year, eight countries designated a total of 59 biosphere reserves representing ecosystems from tropical rain forest to temperate sea coast. The following year 22 more countries added another 72 reserves to the United Nations list, and by 2002 there was a network of 408 reserves established in 94 different countries.
Like national parks, wildlife refuges, and other nature preserves, the first biosphere reserves aimed to protect the natural environment from surrounding populations, as well as from urban or international exploitation. To a great extent this idea followed the model of United States national parks, whose resident populations were removed so that parks could approximate pristine, undisturbed natural environments.
But in smaller, poorer, or more crowded countries than the United States, this model of the depopulated reserve made little sense. Around most of the world's nature preserves, well-established populations—often indigenous or tribal groups—have lived with and among the area's flora and fauna for generations or centuries. In many cases, these groups exploit local resources—gathering nuts, collecting firewood, growing food—without damaging their environment. Sometimes, contrary to initial expectations, the activity of indigenous peoples proves essential in maintaining habitat and species diversity in preserves. Furthermore, local residents often possess an extensive and rare understanding of plant habitat and animal behavior, and their skills in using resources are both valuable and irreplaceable. At the very least, the cooperation and support of local populations is essential for the survival of parks in crowded or resource-poor countries. For these reasons, the additional objectives of local cooperation, education, and sustainable economic development were soon added to initial biosphere reserve goals of biological preservation and scientific research. Attention to humanitarian interests and economic development concerns today sets apart the biosphere reserve network from other types of nature preserves, which often garner resentment from local populations who feel excluded and abandoned when national parks are established. United Nations MAB guidelines encourage local participation in management and development of biosphere reserves, as well as in educational programs. Ideally, indigenous groups help administer reserve programs rather than being passive recipients of outside assistance or management.
In an attempt to mesh the diverse objectives of biosphere reserves, the MAB program has outlined a theoretical reserve model consisting of three zones, or concentric rings, with varying degrees of use. The innermost zone, the core, should be natural or minimally disturbed, essentially without human presence or activity. Ideally this is where the most diverse plant and animal communities live and where natural ecosystem functions persist without human intrusion. Surrounding the core is a buffer zone, mainly undisturbed but containing research sites, monitoring stations, and habitat rehabilitation experiments. The outermost ring of the biosphere reserve model is the transition zone. Here there may be sparse settlement, areas of traditional use activities, and tourist facilities.
Many biosphere reserves have been established in previously existing national parks or preserves. This is especially common in large or wealthy countries where well established park systems existed before the biosphere reserve idea was conceived. In 1991 most of the United States' 47 biosphere reserves lay in national parks or wildlife sanctuaries. In countries with few such preserves, nomination for United Nations biosphere reserve status can sometimes attract international assistance and funding. In some instances debt for nature swaps have aided biosphere reserve establishment. In such an exchange, international conservation organizations purchase part of a country's national debt for a portion of its face value, and in exchange that country agrees to preserve an ecologically valuable region from destruction. Bolivia's Beni Biosphere Reserve came about this way in 1987 when Conservation International , a Washington-based organization, paid $100,000 to Citicorp, an international lending institution. In exchange, Citicorp forgave $650,000 in Bolivian debt, loans the bank seemed unlikely to ever recover, and Bolivia agreed to set aside a valuable tropical mahogany forest. This process has also produced other reserves, including Costa Rica's La Amistad, and Ecuador's Yasuni and Galapagos Biosphere Reserves.
In practice, biosphere reserves function well only if they have adequate funding and strong support from national leaders, legislatures, and institutions. Without legal protection and long-term support from the government and its institutions, reserves have no real defense against development interests.
National parks can provide a convenient institutional niche, defended by national laws and public policing agencies, for biosphere reserves. Pre-existing wildlife preserves and game sanctuaries likewise ensure legal and institutional support. Infrastructure—management facilities, access roads, research stations, and trained wardens—is usually already available when biosphere reserves are established in or adjacent to ready-made preserves.
Funding is also more readily available when an established national park or game preserve, with a pre-existing operating budget, provides space for a biosphere reserve. With intense competition from commercial loggers, miners, and developers, money is essential for reserve survival. Especially in poorer countries, international experience increasingly shows that unless there is a reliable budget for management and education, nearby residents do not learn cooperative reserve management, nor do they necessarily support the reserve's presence. Without funding for policing and legal defense, development pressures can easily continue to threaten biosphere reserves. Logging, clearing, and destruction often continue despite an international agreement on paper that resource extraction should cease. Turning parks into biosphere reserves may not always be a good idea. National park administrators in some less wealthy countries fear that biosphere reserve guidelines, with their compromising objectives and strong humanitarian interests, may weaken the mandate of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries set aside to protect endangered species from population pressures and development. In some cases, they argue, there exists a legitimate need to exclude people if rare species such as tigers or rhinoceroses are to survive.
Because of the expense and institutional difficulties of establishing and maintaining biosphere reserves, about two-thirds of the world's reserves exist in the wealthy and highly developed nations of North America and Europe. Poorer countries of Africa, Asia, and South America have some of the most important remaining intact ecosystems, but wealthy countries can more easily afford to allocate the necessary space and money. Developed countries also tend to have more established administrative and protective structures for biosphere reserves and other sanctuaries. An increasing number of developing countries are working to establish biosphere reserves, though. A significant incentive, aside from national pride in indigenous species, is the international recognition given to countries with biosphere reserves. Possession of these reserves grants smaller and less wealthy countries some of the same status as that of more powerful countries such as the United States, Germany, and Russia.
Some difficult issues surround the biosphere reserve movement. One question that arises is whether reserves are chosen for reasons of biological importance or for economic and political convenience. In many cases national biosphere reserve committees overlook critical forests or endangered habitats because logging and mining companies retain strong influence over national policy makers. Another problem is that in and around many reserves, residents are not yet entirely convinced, with some reason, that management goals mesh with local goals. In theory sustainable development methods and education will continue to encourage communication, but cooperation can take a long time to develop. Among reserve managers themselves, great debate continues over just how much human interference is appropriate, acceptable, or perhaps necessary in a place ideally free of human activity. Despite these logistical and theoretical problems, the idea behind biosphere reserves seems a valid one, and the inclusiveness of biosphere planning, both biological and social, is revolutionary.
[Mary Ann Cunningham Ph.D. ]
Dogsé, P, and B. Von Droste. Debt-for-Nature Exchanges and Biosphere Reserves. Paris: UNESCO, 1990.
Biosphere Reserves: Proceedings of the First National Symposium, Udhagamandalam, 24-26 Septemeber 1986. New Delhi: Ministry of Environment and Forests.