UNESCO Chair: Sustainable heritage and environmental management
Visions and realities of sustainable development

Global survey on biosphere reserves

This project investigates how Biosphere Reserve (BR) visions are being implemented across the shifting landscape of global challenges, and it is the continuation of a 12 yearlong study of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves (WNBR).

Landscape photo of Picos de Europa Biosphere Reserve in Northern Spain
Picos de Europa Biosphere Reserve, crossing Castilla y León, Asturias, and Cantabria regions in Northern Spain.
Alicia Donnellan Barraclough
Photo of biodiversity exhibition
Exhibition on biodiversity at the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve Visitors Centre.
Alicia Donnellan Barraclough
Photo of researcher Alicia Donnellan Barraclough
Researcher Alicia Donnellan Barraclough at an exhibition on UNESCO Biosphere Reserves at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.
Alicia Donnellan Barraclough

Main content

What is the background of this project?

We study the dynamic interactions that link ecosystems and human societies (social-ecological systems).  We are interested in exploring examples of “biosphere stewardship”, a concept that helps us understand how people act in pursuit of sustainability through values of caring. UNESCO Biosphere Reserves (BRs) are a form of stewardship, constituting model areas for sustainability implementation that explicitly work to combine conservation and development, acknowledging the importance of humans and biocultural diversity.

We think that understanding different forms of BR implementation can provide a deeper insight into how biosphere stewardship works, studying links between management and outcomes for both biodiversity conservation and sustainability objectives. In this project we are particularly interested in examples of “adaptive co-management” (ACM), which is a resource management model that helps navigate the complicated, and sometimes difficult, relationships between people and nature. ACM combines a “learning-by-doing” approach tailored to specific places with a collaborative community outlook that connects multiple stakeholders.

This project builds on a survey of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves that was first conducted in 2008 and then in 2013, by Dr Lisen Schultz (Stockholm Resilience Centre) with colleagues at the Stockholm university. The survey was followed by a range of case studies in Sweden, Canada, Paraguay, Ecuador, South Africa, Spain, Australia and Israel.

What has our work shown so far?

Past work of our research team members has shown that  BRs are making efforts to shift towards approaches like ACM, for example by establishing shared and long-term visions, successfully combining conservation and development objectives, becoming brokers in collaborative networks of actors working together, and having high levels of indigenous people and local community involvement in the development of management plans or monitoring activities (Schultz et al. 2011, 2015, 2018, Plummer et al. 2017, Baird et al. 2018, 2019, Mohedano-Roldan et al. 2019). This work also shows that stakeholder participation helped improve the success of BR development objectives, with no negative effect on conservation goals (Schultz et al. 2011), dispelling the idea that people’s involvement in conservation areas is typically negative. Most recently we have found that young people in BRs play important roles in the implementation of ACM within their native territories (Donnellan-Barraclough et al. in review).

What is cooking?

The third wave of the BR survey is currently underway with responses trickling in, providing us with a unique insight into how BR management has evolved over past 10 years.  We hope this new survey wave will help us understand how BRs are continuing to work under global change, giving us a clearer picture of the shifting landscape of threats BRs must navigate to achieve their visions and goals.

A new twist to this survey is to study how land-use change, the major driver of global biodiversity decline, is impacting BRs. We will relate changes in self-reported BR success to shifting land-use, mapped through satellite data of land-use/land cover of the past 10 years. We hope to link these changes to biodiversity outcomes, providing a clearer picture of how BRs might be contributing to halt biodiversity loss worldwide.

Want to be involved?

We welcome student projects and Biosphere Reserve case studies within this project. For further information, please contact Alicia Donnellan Barraclough Alicia.barraclough@uib.no

Team Members:

Alicia Donnellan Barraclough – Postdoctoral Researcher at the UNESCO Chair, University of Bergen
Inger Måren – Associate Professor and UNESCO Chair at the University of Bergen.
Lisen Schultz – Research fellow, Dep. Director of trandisciplinarity at Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm university, and UNESCO Chair Professor II at the University of Bergen


Schultz L., West S., Juaréz Bourke A., d’Armengol L., Torrents, P., Hardardottir, H., Jansson, A. and A. Mohedano Roldán. 2018. Learning to live with social-ecological complexity: an interpretive analysis of learning in 11 UNESCO Biosphere Reserves. Global Environmental Change 50: 75–87 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2018.03.001

Armitage, D., A. Dzyundzyak, J. Baird, Ö. Bodin, R. Plummer and L. Schultz. 2018. An approach to assess learning conditions, effects and outcomes in environmental governance. Environmental Policy and Governance 28: 3–14 https://doi.org/10.1002/eet.1781

Plummer, R., A. Dzyundzyak, J. Baird , Ö. Bodin, D. Armitage, L. Schultz. 2017. How do environmental governance processes shape evaluation of outcomes by stakeholders? A causal pathways approach. PLOS ONE 12(9): e0185375. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0185375

Plummer, R., Baird, J. Armitage, D., Bodin, Ö., and Schultz, L. 2017. Diagnosing Adaptive Co-Management Across Multiple Cases. Ecology and Society 22(3):19.

Plummer, R., Baird, J. Dzyundzyak, A., Schultz, L., Armitage, D., and Bodin, Ö. 2017. Is adaptive co-management delivering? Examining relationships between collaboration, learning and outcomes in UNESCO Biosphere Reserves. Ecological Economics, 140: 79-88. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2017.04.028

Baird, J., Schultz, L. Plummer, R., Armitage, D. and Ö. Bodin. 2019. Emergence of collaborative environmental management: what are the causal mechanisms? Environmental Management. 63 (2): 200-214 10.1007/s00267-018-1105-7

Baird, J., Plummer, R., Schultz L., Armitage, D. and Ö. Bodin. 2019. How Does Socio-institutional Diversity Affect Collaborative Governance of Social–Ecological Systems in Practice? Environmental Management. 63 (1): 16-31. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00267-018-1123-5

Baird, J., Plummer, R., Schultz L., Armitage, D. and Ö. Bodin. 2018. Integrating Conservation and Sustainable Development Through Adaptive Co-management in UNESCO Biosphere Reserves. Conservation & Society. 16 (4): 409–419  https://doi.org/10.4103/cs.cs_17_58

Mohedano Roldán, A., Duit, A. and L. Schultz. 2019. Does stakeholder participation increase the legitimacy of nature reserves in local communities? Evidence from 92 biosphere reserves in 36 countries. Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning 21 (2) 188–203 https://doi.org/10.1080/1523908X.2019.1566058

Schultz, L., A. Duit. and C. Folke. 2011. Participation, adaptive co-management and management performance in the World Network of Biosphere Reserves. World Development 39(4): 662–671 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2010.09.014

Schultz, L., and Lundholm, C. 2010. Learning for resilience? Exploring learning opportunities in Biosphere Reserves. Environmental Education Research 16(5): 645–663 https://doi.org/10.1080/13504622.2010.505442

Stoll-Kleemann S, de la Vega-Leinert A.C, Schultz. L. 2010. Extent and impact of community participation in the effectiveness of UNESCO Biosphere Reserve management: Evidence and reflections from two parallel global surveys. Environmental Conservation 37:227–238 https://doi.org/10.1017/S037689291000038X