UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme


In 1971, UNESCO launched the Man and the Biosphere Programme to study our impact on nature and how it could be minimized. 40 years later, the programme continues to shape the future of sustainability and contribute to new global governance on ecology.


In 2011, the MAB celebrated its 40th anniversary at an international conference “For life, for the future, biosphere reserves and climate change” in Dresden. MAB is short for the Man and the Biosphere Programme, an intergovernmental scientific programme launched by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1971. Not only was it a landmark for international efforts on sustainability, but it has also contributed to the emergence of a “world government” on these issues. Let’s see how.


The genesis of MAB


In 1968, UNESCO, together with FAO, WHO and the United Nations, organized the “Biosphere Conference”, a Paris-based intergovernmental gathering of experts who were called to reflect on “the scientific basis for the rational use and conservation of the resources of the biosphere”. At the time, it was the first worldwide meeting, at a governmental level, to address environmental issues and to adopt a series of recommendations. The late 1960s, and to an even greater degree the early 1970s, were a time of growing awareness – and concern – regarding mankind’s impact on the environment. In 1972, the first Earth Summit was held in Rio, as public concern started to build regarding the pressure that a growing world population was putting on the planet’s resources. While some advocated a reduction in our demographic growth, others claimed that the main problem was in fact how much the developed world was consuming, and the means of production it used to satisfy consumerism’s appetite. In any case, it was now obvious that something had to be done to curb biodiversity loss.

The “Biodiversity Conference” and its recommendations, and the International Co-ordinating Council that was formed afterwards, advised that panels of experts should be convened in the member States and biosphere reserves established in various places around the world, all of which prepared the ground for the MAB programme, officially inaugurated by UNESCO in 1971.


40 years of work on biodiversity


Originally, the aim was to establish biosphere reserves, areas that would host the planet’s main ecosystems so that they could be studied and protected. 40 years later, 563 biosphere reserves in 110 countries worldwide constitute a World Network of Biosphere Reserves (WNBR). But the overall objective has progressively widened to “reconciling the conservation of biological diversity with socio-economic needs and cultural integrity – in short, sustainable development”. In other words, the MAB programme works for better cohabitation between man and biosphere. To achieve that, it leads scientific and international research programmes that tackle

the ecological, social and economic dimensions of biodiversity loss and the reduction of this loss

in many different countries. It is a science-based Intergovernmental Scientific Programme drawing on several disciplines, such as natural and social sciences, economics and education, and also leads communication work on sustainability to make people aware of their own impact. For 40 years now, MAB has been promoting “interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral collaboration, research and capacity-building”, on different scales: local, sub-national, national, regional and global. The MAB today brings together 34 member States, each of which has a MAB National Committee implementing the programme nationally. And the biosphere reserves ensure its presence in 110 countries worldwide.


Towards a world government?


For all these reasons, it is fair to say that the Man and the Biosphere programme, 40 years ago, had already chosen values that are today at the heart of sustainability initiatives: transversality, co-creation with many different actors, dialogue on a global level between the North and the South, etc. In that respect, the MAB has remained valid and pertinent through the decades. But it also focuses, by essence, on the future, which makes it all the more necessary:

it predicts the consequences of today’s actions on tomorrow’s world and thereby increases people’s ability to efficiently manage natural resources for the well-being of both human populations and the environment.

Science with conscience… Alongside other international entities, the MAB also contributes to creating a “world government” for sustainability issues: from the Kyoto Protocol to the Rio +20 Summit (taking place in June), from the recommendations of the Brundtland Report to the Millennium Development Goals, an international governance of ecology has been shaped over the last four decades. We can only hope for more and more integration in the future, so that one day the entire world can unite to face the challenges of our relationship with the biosphere.

Photo © Shutterstock / Wojciech Lisinski

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