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UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Programme in mountain areas

Thomas Schaaf is Programme Specialist at the UNESCO Division of Ecological Sciences which provides the international secretariat for the Man and the Biosphere Programme. He is in charge of mountain ecosystems and arid and semi-arid lands.

An update on the work of UNESCO's longstanding programme of interdisciplinary, environmental reasearch focusing on mountain areas.

The Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme is an interdisciplinary undertaking of environmental research. It was launched in 1972 to develop the basis, within the natural and social sciences, for the rational use and conservation of the resources of the biosphere, and for the improvement of the global relationship between people and the environment. The hallmark of the MAB Programme is its holistic and interdisciplinary approach. Examination of human impacts on a specific ecosystem - that is, the interrelationship between people and the environment - requires studies of both the natural sciences (e.g. climatology, biology, soil sciences and forestry) and the social sciences (e.g. economics, human geography and sociology). Hence, the name of the programme: "Man and the Biosphere".

MAB uses an ecological approach that focuses on mountain ecosystems, on arid lands or on humid tropical forests. Shortly after the programme was launched in April 1973, a panel of experts met in Salzburg, Austria, to discuss the "Impact of human activities on mountain and tundra ecosystems". Its task was to elaborate the scientific content of projects to be proposed under the MAB Programme. The panel recommended study of the following factors (UNESCO-MAB, 1973; Schaaf, 1995):

· human settlements at high altitudes;
· effects of land-use alternatives on mountain ecosystems;
· impact of large-scale technology on mountain ecosystems;
· effects of tourism and recreation on mountain ecosystems.

A working group assembled in Lillehammer, Norway, later in 1973 to define further the scope, objectives, methodologies and possible outputs of studies in areas where problems were acknowledged (UNESCO-MAB, 1974). This meeting led to a more clearly defined identification of thematic and regional problems requiring study, as follows:

· resource development and human settlements in high tropical mountains (i.e. above 2 500 us and between the latitudes 30° north and 30° south), including the tropical Andes, the South Asia mountain complexes and the East African and Ethiopian highlands;

· tourism, technology and land use in temperate mountains in the middle latitudes (approximately latitudes 30° to 60° north and south), where there are distinct winter and summer seasons;

· land-use problems in high-latitude mountain and tundra ecosystems, with special reference to grazing, industrial development and recreation.

In order that study methods and results could be compared, the working group in Lillehammer identified tentative "minimal" research requirements for both natural sciences (e.g. climatology and soil sciences) and social sciences (e.g. sociology and economics). It was considered vital that the results of regional mountain studies in one area could be compared with those elsewhere in an international context.

The variables identified for study in mountain areas may appear obvious and simplistic - air temperature, precipitation and wind velocity, for example, in climatic studies. Nevertheless, considerable efforts were made to achieve international agreement on a uniform and consistent methodology for research on mountain ecosystems within the framework of an intergovernmental scientific programme. Conceptually, the establishment of this catalogue of minimal research requirements was an important step forward in international cooperative research. As a consequence, a large number of case studies were carried out worldwide within the framework of the MAB Programme, in particular in the Andes and the Alps.


In the early 1990s, the MAB Programme entered into a new phase following the decision of its governing body, the MAB International Co-ordinating Council. The three new major thrusts are: scientific capacity building, research on biological diversity and ecological processes, and promoting the World Network of Biosphere Reserves. The third undertaking proved to be particularly successful and there are currently 352 biosphere reserves in 87 countries; of these, over 40 percent are located in mountain regions.

Biosphere reserves are areas of terrestrial and coastal/marine ecosystems where, through appropriate zoning patterns and land management, the conservation of ecosystems and their biodiversity is combined with the sustainable use of natural resources for the benefit of local communities. Thus, they represent a major tool for implementing the concerns of Agenda 21 (such as Chapter 13 on mountains), the Convention on Biological Diversity and other international agreements.

The concept of "biosphere reserve" implies environmental conservation, scientific research and sustainable development. The management of biosphere reserves aims to show that environmental conservation can be used to promote sustainable development based on scientific research findings together with a partnership with the local people (UNESCO-MAB, 1996). This is realized through a specific land-use system which takes into account the topographic, biological, economic and socio-cultural characteristics of each site.

Biosphere reserves have three different, but interrelated, functions:

Conservation. Biosphere reserves provide protection of indigenous genetic resources, plant and animal species, ecosystems and landscapes of value for the conservation of the world's biological diversity.

Development. Biosphere reserves seek to combine conservation concerns with sustainable use of resources through close cooperation with local communities, taking advantage of traditional knowledge, indigenous products and appropriate land management.

Networking. Biosphere reserves are linked through a global network; they provide facilities for research, monitoring, education and training at the local level as well as for comparative research and monitoring programmes at an international or regional level.

While the relative importance of these three basic functions will vary from case to case, it is a combination of their roles that characterizes the distinctive feature of biosphere reserves. The articulation of these roles is translated on the ground through a pattern of zonation. This includes a core area (or areas) that is strictly protected according to pre-established conservation objectives. The core area is surrounded by, or contiguous with, a delineated buffer zone (or zones) where only activities that are compatible with the conservation objectives can take place. Finally, a more loosely defined transition area encircles the core and buffer areas and here cooperation with the local population and sustainable resource management practices are developed (see Figure).

FIGURE - Zonation pattern of a biosphere reserve-each zone has a specific function

Many biosphere reserves are in mountain areas where they act as focal points for conservation, research and development. The Southern Appalachian Biosphere Reserve in the United States comprises land in six federal states. Under the auspices of the Southern Appalachian Man and the Biosphere (SAMAB) Programme, research projects include the reintroduction of the red wolf into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and a habitat assessment for neotropical migratory birds. The biosphere reserve cooperative is successfully promoting public awareness through the development of educational material for schools and public education programmes.

In the Manu Biosphere Reserve, which extends to 4 000 us in Peru, rural development in the buffer zone around the protected areas is considered essential for the viability of conservation measures. It is known as the Manu Project and has been led by the Peruvian Foundation for the Conservation of Nature since 1989. Here, emphasis has been on the development of sustainable agricultural systems and on health and education services for settlers (mainly Quechuas from the highlands) and indigenous people (Amazonian) living in the buffer zones. The development of environmentally sustainable agriculture was introduced so that the available resources could be used more intensively in a small area and the pressure on the national park, the biosphere reserve's core zone, would be reduced.

In southwestern China, Xishuang-banna Biosphere Reserve, with its highest peak at 2 429 us, is often called the "kingdom of biodiversity". There are more than 200 species of butterfly throughout the forests of Xishuangbanna, and butterfly farming has become an important economic asset and an option for sustainable development and species conservation by the local people. Ethnobotany as a discipline in China originated in Xishuangbanna: plant ceremonies, flower-eating, use of plants for communication and knowledge of herbs by the minority people (especially the Dai) are currently being studied.

In Europe collaboration extends across national boundaries in mountain biosphere reserves where species inventory and land management have become significant issues in recent years. Twinning arrangements have become a reality or are under way between the Vosges du Nord Biosphere Reserve in France and the German Pfälzerwald Biosphere Reserve; between the Polish Tatra Biosphere Reserve and the Slovakian Tatry Biosphere Reserve; and the Polish, Slovakian and Ukrainian Carpathian Mountains, all of which have been nominated as biosphere reserves.


In its efforts to develop new approaches to environmental conservation, UNESCO-MAB has recently introduced an initiative which will base environmental conservation on traditional beliefs and cultural values. Is it possible to strengthen the conservation of legally protected areas (such as national parks) by the introduction of complementary efforts that take into account cultural aspects?

Natural sacred sites are recognized by most cultures of the world. Certain mountains or hills have a sacred connotation or spiritual significance. Access to these sites is frequently forbidden or restricted to particular types of people, such as priests and pilgrims. Consequently, a very rich diversity of animal and plant species is often preserved in sacred sites that contrast dramatically with the surrounding degraded and even denuded areas.

Sacred sites may be considered as plant genetic reservoirs and wildlife sanctuaries since plant gathering and hunting are often prohibited on holy ground. For environmental researchers, sacred sites provide valuable information as they can serve as indicator sites for potential natural vegetation. Furthermore, the species found in sacred sites are of native (perhaps even endemic) origin and are well adapted to the local climatic and edaphic conditions.

As demonstrated in an earlier UNESCO project on sacred groves in the northern savannah of Ghana, these sites can also provide genetic material for afforestation and agricultural cultivation in an effort to restore degraded environments.

By basing environmental conservation on traditional beliefs and cultural values, this new UNESCO initiative will also offer interdisciplinary research opportunities for environmental scientists and anthropologists, thus bridging the gap between natural science and culture at large. The new research is currently in its preparatory phase and will be applied to several sacred sites in the mountains of Africa, Asia and Latin America.


Droste, B. & Schaaf, T. 1991. Der Mensch und die Biosphäre (MAB) - ein internationales Forschungsprogramm der UNESCO. Geographische Rundschau, 4: 202-205.

Price, M.F. 1995. Mountain research in Europe - an overview of MAB research from the Pyrenees to Siberia. Paris, UNESCO and Carnforth, UK, Parthenon Publishing Group.

Schaaf, T. 1995. UNESCO-MAB: integrated mountain research and environmental conservation. In A. Breymeyer, ed. Conference Paper No. 21 of EuroMAB IV Symposium on Mountain Zonality Pacing Global Change, p. 9-16. Institute of Geography and Spatial Organization, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw.

Schaaf, T. 1997. Der Beitrag der UNESCO zur Förderung des internationalen Naturschutzes. In K.-H. Erdmann, ed. International Naturschutz, p. 47-59. Heidelberg, Germany, Springer-Verlag Berlin.

UNESCO-MAB. 1973. Expert Panel on Project 6 - Impact of Human Activities on Mountain Ecosystems. Final Report. MAB Report Series No. 8. Paris, UNESCO.

UNESCO-MAB. 1974. Working Group on Project 6 - Impact of Human Activities on Mountain Ecosystems. Final Report. MAB Report Series No. 14. Paris, UNESCO.

UNESCO-MAB. 1996. Biosphere Reserves: the Seville Strategy and the Statutory Framework of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves. Paris, UNESCO.

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