UNESCO Chair: Sustainable heritage and environmental management
New paper in "People and Nature"

50 Years of Experiences in The World Network of Biosphere Reserves

A new paper by the UNESCO Chair group looks back at half a century of experiences in The World Network of Biosphere Reserves (WNBR), of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme. The paper helps distil key learnings emerging from the implementation of WNBR and how these could accelerate our learning for sustainability worldwide. Led by Alicia Barraclough, it was written through a collaboration with top experts in the field of Biosphere Reserves, complemented by a comprehensive literature review. The paper was published in the journal “People and Nature”, a popular British Ecological Society journal focused on relationships between people and nature.

Picos de Europa Biosphere Reserve in Northern Spain
Alicia Barraclough

Main content

“The World Network of Biosphere Reserves is a central research focus of the UNESCO chair group, so it feels great to have what feels like a “reference paper” published on the topic in a widely read journal on human-nature relations” says lead author, Alicia Barraclough. The work marks an important point in her postdoctoral research, as writing a synthesis paper inspired by the UNESCO MAB programme was one of her main objectives working under the UNESCO Chair.

The paper explores the history of the world BR network, presently composed of 738 Biosphere Reserves in 134 countries. Biosphere Reserves try to go beyond just biodiversity conservation, by offering learning spaces for sustainable development, sustainable resource use and capacity building. Their spirit is captured in an old project slogan “Breaking the Glass: opening conservation to Man”, showing their intention to enact an integrated “people and nature” approach to conservation. The authors argue that there is much to learn from these sites, and that reflecting on these insights can help realize the future potential of the network, as well as inform other place-based sustainability efforts. From a review of the experiences in five continents over five decades, six categories of insights are offered:

  1. Site-based sustainability networks need consistent institutional support for partners to collaborate across scales and sectors, with strong coordination of academic, governmental, and intergovernmental organizations; appropriate recognition for solution-seeking transdisciplinary research and action; and adequate resources and funding.

  2. Projects and networks that involve different academic disciplines and diverse sectors raise additional challenges for long-term monitoring and data collection. They therefore require reliable research infrastructure and support.

  3. Moving from knowledge to action in practical terms needs long-term knowledge partnerships where local and Indigenous peoples are responsibly and ethically engaged. This imperative raises important methodological challenges for sustainability scientists.

  4. Multilateral initiatives must establish basic principles supported by legal and institutional frameworks whilst allowing flexibility at national and local levels. This interplay requires striking a balance between compliance monitoring and allowing experimentation and learning to address local sustainability agendas.

  5. Bridging institutions such as Biosphere Reserves facilitate necessary conditions for adaptive governance and management across administrative and political boundaries. Bringing stakeholders together for collective action helps to increase the impact of local initiatives and have global impacts.

  6. The biodiversity crisis cannot be addressed by Protected Areas alone; it also needs institutions to simultaneously address ecological issues and the often-conflicting jurisdictions of social and political processes. To address the biodiversity crisis we must continue to acknowledge and work with the people living within landscapes.


The paper is titled "Global knowledge–action networks at the frontlines of sustainability: Insights from five decades of science for action in UNESCO's World Network of biosphere reserves", and was first publishes in "People and Nature" on 20 July 2023 (https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10515).