Frequently Asked Questions

Find the answers to the most common questions we get asked.

What are UNESCO Biosphere Reserves?

Biosphere reserves are ‘learning places for sustainable development’. They are sites for testing interdisciplinary approaches to understanding and managing changes and interactions between social and ecological systems, including conflict prevention and management of biodiversity. They are places that provide local solutions to global challenges. Each site promotes solutions reconciling the conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use.

Biosphere reserves are nominated by national governments and remain under the sovereign jurisdiction of the states where they are located. Biosphere Reserves are designated under the intergovernmental MAB Programme by the Director-General of UNESCO following the decisions of the MAB International Coordinating Council (MAB ICC). Their status is internationally recognized.

To assist the stakeholders with the designation process, as well as periodic reviews, Technical Guidelines are being progressively created by the MAB International Co-ordinating Council.

Biosphere reserves involve local communities and all interested stakeholders in planning and management. They integrate four main “functions”:

  1. Conservation of biodiversity and cultural diversity
  2. Economic development that is socio-culturally and environmentally sustainable
  3. Logistic support, underpinning development through research, monitoring, education, and training
  4. (In Canada) Reconciliation

These four functions are pursued through the Biosphere Reserves’ three main zones.

  1. Core Areas: It comprises a strictly protected zone that contributes to the conservation of landscapes, ecosystems, species and genetic variation.
  2. Buffer Zones: It surrounds or adjoins the core area(s), and is used for activities compatible with sound ecological practices that can reinforce scientific research, monitoring, training and education.
  3. Transition Area: The transition area is where communities foster socio-culturally and ecologically sustainable economic and human activities.

How many biosphere reserves are there in the world?

There are over 700 biosphere reserves in over 130 countries. There are 19 biosphere reserves in Canada in eight provinces and one territory.

Find out more about the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

How do UNESCO Biosphere Reserves differ from parks and protected areas?

Parks and biosphere reserves share similar mandates around the conservation of ecosystems and native biodiversity. However, biosphere reserves are different in that they use community-based efforts to manage, and where necessary, restore land and other resources to promote stable and sustainable economic activities. Biosphere reserves secure access to ecosystem services and promote sustainable development for the wellbeing of people, the economy, and the environment. National and provincial parks balance conservation with carefully monitored recreational uses and tend to be distributed in, and limited to, specific eco-regions.

Also referred to as bioregions, eco-regions are ecologically and geographically defined regions that host biodiversity which is confined or distinct within their limits. Biosphere reserves, however, occur wherever an area has conservation value, and the surrounding community has pledged to protect biodiversity, cultural heritage and uphold the principles of sustainable development. The zoning system of biosphere reserves (core, buffer, and transition zones) helps to demonstrate the diversity of systems that have already been negotiated through federal, provincial, regional, and municipal law.

Do biosphere reserves have to be a certain size?

There are no specific size requirements for biosphere reserves, and in fact, they vary considerably in size. You can see the variance in size on a map here. Above all, the three land use zones must be large enough and sited to protect biodiversity and ecosystem functions within the core areas and cushion land use in the cooperation areas. The size of the zones and the reserve may also be limited by the complexity of how local institutions and their jurisdictions may overlap.

What is the organizational structure of biosphere reserves?

While UNESCO biosphere reserves are required to have a functional governance and management system, the fact that we are a world network spanning 120 countries and 669 regions makes it impossible to prescribe any one governance or management model. In Canada, each biosphere reserve has its own organizational structure, which is community-based and cross-representational.

Most Canadian biosphere reserves are incorporated as non-profit organizations, some with charitable status. Some work, at least initially, through a steering committee with stakeholder representation and a small number are affiliated with universities. Biosphere reserve program activities are decided locally, but some can be linked to national or international programs.

How can I achieve a biosphere reserve designation for my region?

To become part of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves, individual countries nominate areas which they identify as meeting the requirements of a biosphere reserve. For a biosphere reserve to be nominated, land must already have been set aside for conservation within the area under consideration. It is also essential to have a local proponent group to champion the idea of a biosphere reserve and be involved in its implementation. Ideally, this group should include people that are known and respected within the community. The group should first ensure that the area under consideration meets the three zone criteria and that the organizational potential is there to develop the capacity to carry out the functions of a biosphere reserve.

Find out everything you need to know in our Guide to Becoming a Biosphere Reserve in Canada.

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Community engagement in the Manicouagan-Uapishka Biosphere Region. Photo credit: Jean Sebastien Bouchard