Abstract: UNESCO Biosphere Reserves were first established under the Man and Biosphere Programme of UNESCO in the 1970s. Their mandate has expanded beyond conservation to include sustainable development and local capacity enhancement. As institutions under UNESCO, they also work on “building peace” by seeking to reconcile relations between peoples, and between people and the natural world.

Citation: [AUTHOR (2021). “TITLE”] in Anderson et al. (eds.). Encyclopedia of Sustainability, 2nd ed. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.


Any figures or illustrations or illustrations included here are not finalized for publication. Advance publication date as per post date. Copyright Berkshire Publishing Group.

Back to list of Advance Articles

Biosphere Reserves

Biosphere reserves (BRs) are geographic areas designated by the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) wherein local organizations are convened to fulfil three functions: conservation of biodiversity, sustainable development, and “logistics” – research, learning and community capacity enhancement in support of the first two functions. To become designated, nominators must provide a compelling case that the selected regions are of global ecological, social, and cultural significance, they have a resident population, and that there are sufficient governance structures and processes in place for residents to undertake the functions. In 2021, there are 714 sites in 129 countries that form an international network.

BRs are established under the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme. About once every 10 years, MAB develops an overall program strategy, while the international network  of BRs establishes its own strategic action plan to guide operational priorities for the BRs. Presently, the MAB Strategy (2015–2025) serves as the overall strategy while the Lima Action Plan (2016–2025) specifies goals, objectives, and actions for BRs (see UNESCO 2017).

The present MAB Strategy includes a commitment to advancing the aims of “sustainability science.” The strategy defines sustainability science as “an integrated, problem-solving approach that draws on the full range of scientific, traditional and [I]ndigenous knowledge in a transdisciplinary way to identify, understand and address present and future economic, environmental, ethical and societal challenges related to sustainable development.” It goes on to state, “BRs, particularly through their coordinators, managers and scientists, have key roles to play in operationalizing and mainstreaming sustainability science” (UNESCO 2017, 19). In other words, BR practitioners work with people in academic, and private, public and civil society sectors to learn about and implement actions that support sustainability.

Many international goals and multilateral agreements also shape the activities locally. For example, BR practitioners are required to act on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Increasingly, around the world, BR managers also recognize the rights of Indigenous peoples and the vital role they can and do play in achieving conservation, mitigating and adapting to climate change, and reaching sustainability targets. Hence, local, national and international efforts are being made to reach out to Indigenous peoples, build respectful relationships, and co-create governance and management arrangements that meaningfully engage them. The first Indigenous-led BR—the Tsá Tué BR—was designated in 2016 in Canada’s Northwest Territories.


When the MAB Programme was established in 1971, it was conceived as an international, interdisciplinary and applied research program. Scientists from around the world were invited to undertake research across fourteen thematic “project areas” that focused on human use of the environment. Some themes were geographic such as mountain regions and urban areas, while other themes were cross-cutting such as human perceptions of the environment and the effects of pesticides on humans and the environment.  Originally, BRs were designated to support research across several of these project areas, however, they came to be most clearly identified with project area 8: “Conservation of natural areas and of the genetic material they contain.” This identification would forever “brand” BRs as being tools for biodiversity conservation, despite longstanding efforts to be more than simply another conservation designation. In the 1990s, the thematic project areas were disbanded. Nevertheless, local organizations and countries continued to seek the status of a BR designation and the number of BRs continued to grow. BR organizations came to emphasize their role in undertaking beneficial management practices and supporting local training initiatives rather than as sites for international research and monitoring programs.

Until 1995, the official functions of BRs were biodiversity conservation and applied scientific research. In 1996, MAB created the Statutory Framework of the World Network The Statutory Framework explicitly articulated that “sustainable development” be one of three functions (alongside conservation and logistics) and introduced a decennial periodic review process to ensure that all BRs implemented the three functions. For many BRs created prior to 1996, the Statutory Framework also required them to expand the boundaries of their region and to introduce new measures to meaningfully include local people in their management and governance (UNESCO 1996).

The Statutory Framework also specified that all BRs contain three types of zones: one or more core areas, protected by legislation; one or more buffer zones where research and uses compatible with ecological protection are allowed; and a transition area where sustainable resource use is practiced (UNESCO 1996). Today, in some countries, this transition zone is called a zone of cooperation. Although these zones were previously conceived by MAB, zonation had not been an explicit requirement. Hence, many BRs designated in the 1970s and 1980s did not fully comply with the stated intentions. Today, once a BR has been designated by UNESCO, the Framework states that “organizational arrangements” must be instituted so that “a suitable range of inter alia public authorities, local communities and private interests” implement the functions of a BR (UNESCO 1996, 17).


Across the international network, BRs exhibit a great diversity of governance arrangements (for examples, see Reed and Price 2020).  Designation of a BR does not confer any new level of jurisdiction. Hence, the regional organizations do not have regulatory authority or direct management and decision-making powers. Rather, they must operate within national and sub-national legislative frameworks. In this context, management may involve a range of activities such as implementing regulations introduced by a government authority and/or working with relevant government agencies in cooperative decision-making forums.

Despite ambitious goals, many BRs around the world struggle because they are not well supported financially or logistically by their local or national governments (see Reed and Price 2020). In some countries (e.g., France and Germany), core funds are provided by government authorities, whether regional or national, and may be leveraged through projects or social enterprises. Indeed, in France and Germany, universities have also developed programs to train BR managers. In other cases, BRs must obtain project-level funds to implement local or regional conservation or sustainability initiatives; partner with educational institutions to deliver training programs; undertake educational and demonstration projects and provide logistical support for scientific research. In these cases, BRs rely, to a large degree, volunteer labor to advance their aims. Notwithstanding these examples, in many countries the success of BRs in meeting their mandates is predicated on the initiative and skills of a small number of people who often dedicate years and much volunteer labor to demonstrating the links between environmental protection and sustainable development.

Importantly, since 1994, BRs have not been considered protected areas under IUCN’s classification (Dudley 2008; Stolton et al. 2013). Core areas and, sometimes, buffer zones match some IUCN categories, but transition areas do not. Hence, BRs share some of the privileges and some of the criticisms of protected areas. The term “biosphere reserve” has likely contributed to this confusion. The word “reserve” often has a negative connotation, harkening back to the creation of protected areas that excluded local and Indigenous peoples from use. In some countries (e.g., Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Norway, Sweden), the word reserve is being replaced by more general terms such as region, area, or park. Informally, these may also be referred to as “biospheres” (as in the UK). In other countries, new terms are being used nationally (e.g., “eco-park” in Japan). Nevertheless, the MAB Programme maintains the use of “biosphere reserve” in international documents.

Importantly, as part of the UNESCO ‘family’, BRs share the commitment to build peace internationally through education, science, and culture. This commitment is evident in different ways across the international network. For example, following years of civil war in Lebanon, practitioners in BRs adapted sustainable development to address local needs. They focused their efforts on projects that would support income generation and natural and cultural values rather than environmental protection per se (Matar & Anthony 2020). It is worth noting that there are currently twenty transboundary BRs shared between two or more countries, often in parts of the world characterised by past civil or international conflict (Fall 2005).

Where BRs are located in territories held or managed by Indigenous peoples, the commitment to peace can be seen in reconciliation efforts that bring Indigenous and settler inhabitants together, learn from each other, and work collectively towards ecological and cultural regeneration (Shaw et al. 2020). In Canada, that has meant that ‘settler’ practitioners have had to learn how to work honourably with Indigenous peoples to ensure that Indigenous practices, knowledge and institutions are both included and safeguarded. Such efforts have required practitioners to learn about and recognize past harms to Indigenous peoples and their institutions arising from environment and development programs or campaigns, collaborate meaningfully in projects to ensure mutual benefits, and restructure governance arrangements in individual BRs and in the national network. Practices that recognize Indigenous rights and seek to reconcile through shared understanding and initiative are also evident where BRs operate throughout the Americas and Australia.

BRs have also worked to translate sustainability concepts into action on the ground. For example, the Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Region in Canada reports bi-annually to residents about the state of “vital signs” in their community. This report provides key local indicators that track the ecological and social health of the region. Since 2018, these reports have explicitly reported on progress towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. These reports have informed community conversations related to key local issues such as sustainable tourism and youth engagement. Data from the reports have informed decisions by regional authorities about local development and regional funding priorities.

The World Network of Biosphere Reserves can provide practical lessons about conservation and sustainability that can be shared and taken up across sites and beyond the boundaries of individual BRs. They help translate lofty ideals such as sustainability into practical activities on the ground. They have often been a neutral forum to bring uncommon allies together to address regional challenges. BR practitioners can also teach us lessons about how to build peace between different peoples and societies, and between peoples and the natural world. The mandate to build peace makes BRs unique model regions in a world where multiple types of protected areas and sustainability initiatives exist and demonstrates their contribution to conservation and sustainability where no one is left behind.

Maureen G. REED, School of Environment and Sustainable Development, University of Saskatchewan, Canada

See also Biodiversity; environmental management; sustainable development.

Further Reading

  • Dudley, Nigel. (Ed.). (2008). Guidelines for applying protected area management categories. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.
  • Fall, Juliet. (2005). Drawing the line: Nature, hybridity and politics in transboundary spaces. Surrey, UK: Ashgate.
  • Matar Diane, A. & Anthony, Brandon P. 2020. Sense and sustainability: The story of biosphere reserves in Lebanon. In Reed, Maureen G., & Price, Martin F. 2020. (Eds.) UNESCO BRs: Supporting biocultural diversity, sustainability and society. Oxon, UK: Earthscan/Routledge.
  • Reed, Maureen G., & Price, Martin F. 2020. (Eds.) UNESCO BRs: Supporting biocultural diversity, sustainability and society. Oxon, UK: Earthscan/Routledge.
  • Shaw, Pam; Shore, Monica; Haine Bennett, Eleanor; & Reed, Maureen G. Perspectives on growth and change in Canada’s 18 UNESCO BRs. In Reed, Maureen G., & Price, Martin F. 2020. (Eds.) UNESCO BRs: Supporting biocultural diversity, sustainability and society. Oxon, UK: Earthscan/Routledge.
  •  Stolton, Sue; Shadie, Peter; & Dudley, Nigel. (2013). IUCN WCPA Best practice guidance on recognising protected areas and assigning management categories and governance types. Best practice protected area guidelines series no. 21. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.
  • UNESCO. (2017) A new roadmap for the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme and its World Network of Biosphere Reserves. UNESCO Paris. Retrieved from https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000247418
  • UNESCO. (1996). Biosphere reserves: The Seville Strategy and the Statutory Framework of the World Network. UNESCO, Paris. Retrieved from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0010/001038/