New biosphere reserves in Poland and UkraineParis - Two new natural areas on the borders of Poland and Ukraine - poised to be merged into a trans-frontier biosphere reserve - were added by UNESCO's Man and Biosphere (MAB) Programme to its World Network of Biosphere Reserves on Friday 22 March, at the close of its two-yearly Council meeting in Paris.
The new sites are adjacent wetland areas in West Polesie (Poland) and Shatskiy (Ukraine). They feature a unique landscape of rivers, lakes, moors and forest and are a melting pot of inhabitants of different cultures, nationalities and religions. They area haven for birdlife. Regional social and economic changes are creating opportunities to develop this sparsely populated area, but this in turn poses challenges for conservation. The longer-term aim is to merge the two sites into a single biosphere reserve, possibly by the end of this year. This would make the merged site the sixth trans-frontier biosphere reserve worldwide.
The choice of site highlights how the concept of biosphere reserves is evolving from focusing on nature conservation and scienceto one that actively includes local communities in their management and economic development. For this reason, at the same meeting, the UK decided to withdraw four remote sites that it considers no longer meet these new criteria for a working biosphere reserve, even if they can remain sites of natural beauty. The two additions and four withdrawals bring the total number of reserves, world-wide, to 409. "This is a living network," stresses MAB Secretary, Peter Bridgewater. "It's not like sticking stamps into a stamp album."
Negotiations for the merger of the new biosphere reserves are being prepared at the ministerial level between Poland and Ukraine. "Hopefully they will be joined later by a third site in neighbouring Belarus," says Bridgewater. "The idea is to foster co-operation between the three countries to streamline the use and management of the shared natural resources." UNESCO's biosphere reserve concept is being used as a framework to accommodate the different interests and users of the cross-border ecosystem, including nature conservation, improving livelihoods for local inhabitants and carrying out scientific research and education.
In a spirit of maintaining quality in the management of biosphere reserves, countries in the World Networkof Biosphere Reserves are invited to carry out periodic reviews of existing sites. "The criteria for biosphere reserves have evolved over the years," says Mr Bridgewater, "so that some sites designated in the early part of the MAB Programme no longer conform to the criteria today."
One change, since 1995, is to give more emphasis to community involvement in the planning and management of biosphere reserves - the "Man" of MAB. This cannot be achieved in sites in very remote areas, with very few inhabitants. "Countries in the World Network are invited to withdraw such non-functional sites," explains Mr Bridgewater. "This increases the credibility and importance of the Network as a whole."
As part of this process of evolution, the UK has decided to withdraw four sites, following "an exemplary review of its 13 old sites." The four sites are the Islands of Rhum and St Kilda, off the west coast of Scotland and Claish Moss and Caerlavaerock, also in Scotland.
The World Network of Biosphere Reserves covers areas or territories which encompass terrestrial or coastal ecosystems, and are intended to reconcile biodiversity conservation with the rational use of biological resources. The reserves are very diverse. Some of them are well-known, such as Ayers Rock-Uluru in Australia, the Pantanal in Brazil and the Cevennes in France.
The Biosphere Reserves of the MAB Programme reflect a modern vision of nature conservation which systematically includes human participation, and which attempts to reconcile conservation with sustainable use of biological resources. Long before expressions such as "biodiversity" and "sustainable development" became popular, the first reserves were laying the groundwork in this direction. As such, they are "working models" for countries to respond to Agenda 21 on the environment and development, adopted at the 1992 Rio Conference. Some countries have several biosphere reserves: the Russian Federation has 25; China, 21; Spain, 20; Germany, 13; Australia, 12; Mexico, 12; Argentina, 10; and France, 10.
The World Network of Biosphere Reserves was created in 1976 by UNESCO's Man and Biosphere Programme, an international programme of research, education, and dissemination of data concerning the biosphere. Launched in 1971, the MAB Programme operates through more than 100 national committees of scientists and decision-makers. Member States join the Programme on a voluntary basis. The programme reflects the realization that human survival on Earth hinges on the rational exploitation ofthe planet's resources. It seeks to establish a culture and a philosophy of harmony between man and his environment.