Away from the cacophony of urban life, most of us look for respite in sites with natural beauty, lush greenery, and peaceful surroundings. As the tourist season approaches, it is no surprise that while we search for unpolluted spots to explore, unconsciously our consumption of single-use plastic, in particular plastic water bottles, will also significantly increase. With 80% of all tourism taking place in coastal areas, would you call it a relaxing vacation if you found discarded plastic bottles while taking a stroll on the beach?
In the Island of Principe Biosphere Reserve, Sao Tome and Principe in Africa, schoolchildren have been equipped with stainless steel bottles for drinking water, so the daily production and consumption of single-use plastic bottles can be completely avoided. Acting as pockets of hope in the face of the climate crisis, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) biosphere reserves are hidden oases, protecting biodiversity, reducing pollution, and enhancing climate resilience. They are living jewels of land, coastal and marine ecosystems, scattered across the globe, where nature and humans come together creating a symphony of life.
In aid of conservation
World Biosphere Reserve Day is celebrated on November 3 each year to raise awareness of the importance of biosphere reserves and to promote their conservation and sustainable use. In the heart of each biosphere reserve lies the strictly protected core zone, providing habitat for flora and fauna, and protecting water, soil, air, and biota as a whole ecosystem. There is a buffer zone surrounding the core zone, where people live and work in harmony with nature; a zone that also functions as a laboratory for scientists to study nature, and for training and education. The outermost edge is the transition zone where communities practise socio-culturally and ecologically sustainable human activities.
Designated by UNESCO to promote the conservation of biodiversity, sustainable development, and research, biosphere reserves are also supported by other United Nations agencies, for example the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Environment Programme, as well as the International Union for Conservation of Nature. According to UNESCO, there are currently 748 biosphere reserves across 134 countries, including 22 transboundary sites, enhancing the friendly cooperation between neighbouring countries. They impact the lives of more than 250 million people in 134 countries; 12 sites can be found in India alone.
Biosphere reserves are vital for the future of our planet. They are a living testament to the resilience of nature, that even amidst human activity, finds a way to flourish. They are home to a wide variety of ecosystems — from tropical rainforests to alpine deserts, and thereby provide home to countless unique and endangered plants and animals species. In addition to playing a vital role in the protection of biodiversity and ensuring the sustainable use of natural resources, they also provide opportunities for sustainable economic development. In recent years, biosphere reserves have become crucial in our fight against climate change, as these areas are home to many of the world’s carbon sinks helping to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Carbon sinks, like forests and the ocean, provide solutions in implementing adaptation strategies to fight climate change.
At the local level
There have been significant advancements in the conservation of biosphere reserves on the local level. For example, in the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve in India, local communities are working together to manage mangrove forests and protect the biodiversity of the region. In the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve in India, local communities, including women, are contributing towards conservation efforts by forming self-help groups, while the youth are getting engaged in eco-tourism.
Recently recognised with the UNESCO Michel Batisse Award for Biosphere Reserve Management 2023, the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve Trust has also introduced the concept of ‘plastic checkpoints’. Community members check all vehicles and tourists for plastic waste, which is collected, recycled and used for the construction of roads. In times of global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss and sustainable development, the role of biosphere reserves becomes even more important. Despite these sites being the most vital ecosystems protecting nature, these oases are not without threats such as deforestation, invasive species and land use changes such as mining. With increasing urbanisation and constant growth of the world population, exploitation by humans is ever increasing.
The Asian meet in Chennai
On this second anniversary of World Biosphere Reserve Day, it is important to reflect on the progress that has been made in conserving and sustainably using these vital ecosystems. In this context, UNESCO in partnership with the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change and the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management, concluded the 10th South and Central Asian Biosphere Reserve Network Meeting (SACAM) in Chennai, India (November 1-3). With the theme “Ridge to Reef,” the SACAM provided a platform for exchanging knowledge and fostering collaborations in the realm of sustainable environmental practices in the South and Central Asia Region.
The UNESCO Man and the Biosphere (MAB) programme enhances the human-environment relationship through combining natural and social sciences to improve livelihoods, safeguard ecosystems, and promote sustainable economic development.
Benno Böer is the Chief of the Natural Sciences Unit, UNESCO New Delhi Regional Office for Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Srishti Kumar is Natural Sciences Intern, UNESCO New Delhi. Stephanie Murr is Natural Sciences Intern, UNESCO New Delhi