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Man and the Biosphere Reserves (MAB) programme


The MAB programme was launched in the early 1970s, and was substantially revised in 1995 with the adoption by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) General Conference of the Seville Strategy and the Statutory Framework of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves (WNBR). The MAB programme proposes an interdisciplinary research agenda and capacity building initiative aiming to improve the relationship of people with their environment globally.

The Statutory Framework of the WNBR (the Statutory Framework) defines Biosphere Reserves as “..areas of terrestrial and coastal/marine ecosystems or a combination thereof, which are internationally recognised within the framework of UNESCO’s Programme on Man and the Biosphere (MAB), in accordance with the present statutory framework”

These sites are designated by the International Coordinating Council of the MAB Programme at the request of the State concerned. Individual biosphere reserves remain under the sovereign jurisdiction of the state where they are situated. Collectively, all biosphere reserves form a world network in which participation by states is voluntary.

Biosphere reserves are much more than “protected areas”. They should not be viewed as islands isolated from its surroundings, but rather as an integral part of a regional planning and development strategy aimed at promoting sustainable development. Physically they contain three elements as follows:

  • Core areas: are securely protected areas for conserving biological diversity, monitoring minimally disturbed ecosystems, and undertaking non-destructive research and other low-impact uses( education) e.g. national parks, nature reserves, world heritage sites and Ramsar sites
  • Buffer zone: usually surrounds or adjoins the core areas, and is used for cooperative activities compatible with sound ecological practices, including environmental education, recreation, ecotourism and applied basic research; and
  • Transitional area: contains a variety of agricultural activities, settlements and other uses in which local communities, management agencies, scientists, non-governmental organizations, cultural groups, economic interest and other stakeholders work together to manage and sustainably develop the area’s resources.

Each biosphere reserve is intended to fulfill three basic functions, which are complementary and mutually reinforcing. These functions are the following:

  • ‘conservation’ (conserving genetic resources and ecosystems and maintaining biodiversity)
  • ‘logistics’ (an international network of areas related to MAB field research and monitoring accompanied by education and training); and
  • ‘development’ (associating environmental protection with resource development)


The value of biosphere reserves to the South African protected area system

South Africa has a fragmented system of protected areas which pose an enormous management challenge in terms of an effective institutional and legislative framework to ensure the allocation of both financial and human resources for law enforcement and compliance.

Communities are today characterised by often diverse and at times conflicting interests. Priorities may also differ between industries, individual landowners, conservation authorities, and sectors of government. This results in a significant number of areas being over planned, with limited and in a number of areas, non-implementation of plans. The MAB concept serves as a framework to re-coordinate all the different programmes and projects within a certain area to focus all efforts towards the enhancement of people’s livelihoods and also to ensure environmental sustainability.

Policy makers are thus faced with the challenge to consider these interests, while forging policies which are fair and encourage the community’s long term wellbeing. This is even more difficult as many communities and the economy at large excessively exploit local natural resources for both local uses and global markets, consequently jeopardizing the resource base for future generations. In summary, biosphere reserves add value to the existing protected areas network as follows:

(a)International level

  • Provide practical ways to resolve land use conflict and to protect biological diversity
  • Provide opportunities and share ideas for education, recreation and tourism to address
    conservation and sustainability issues
  • Cooperate on thematic project based topics (e.g. agricultural practices or climatic change) or on ecosystem types (e.g. fynbos)
  • Create a connection among people and cultures worldwide on how to live in harmony with the environment and each other
  • Promotes an integration approach towards the implementation of the Convention on
  • Biological diversity through the application of the ecosystems approach

(b) Local level

  • Help create and maintain a healthy environment for people and their families
  • Maintain productive and healthy landscapes
  • Reduce conflict among people
  • Encourage diverse local economies to revitalise rural areas
  • Increase the involvement of communities in land use decisions and thus the connection to the land
  • Support and facilitate interconnected scientific studies and monitoring
  • Celebrate cultural diversity and provide opportunities to maintain existing traditions and
  • The MAB programme therefore targets to reconcile the conservation of biodiversity, the quest for economic and social development and the maintenance of associated cultural values of communities. It uses its World Network of Biosphere Reserves as vehicles for knowledge sharing, research and monitoring, education and training, and participatory decision-making.


Institutional arrangements for the MAB programme

The MAB programme is managed by UNESCO through the International Coordinating Council of the Man and the Biosphere Programme (ICC). It is composed of 34 elected representatives of Member States of UNESCO. The Council normally meets once every two years, usually at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Although each member state has only one vote, it can send as many experts or advisers as it wish to the council sessions.

The role of the ICC is to:

  • Guide and supervise the MAB programme;
  • Review the progress made in the implementation of the programme (cf. Secretariat report and reports of National MAB Committees);
  • Recommend research projects to countries and to make proposals on the organisation of regional or international cooperation;
  • Assess priorities among projects and MAB activities in general;
  • Co-ordinate the international cooperation of Member States participating in the MAB Programme;
  • Co-ordinate activities with other international scientific programmes; and
  • Consult with international non-governmental organisations on scientific or technical questions.
  • To date (2011), there are 580 sites in over 114 countries listed on the World Network on Biosphere Reserves.


South Africa currently boasts six Biosphere Reserves namely:

Name and designation Date
Kogelberg 1998
Cape West Coast 2000
Kruger to Canyons 2001
Waterberg 2001
Cape Winelands 2007
Vhembe 2009


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