The Unesco Man and Biosphere Reserve Programme (MAB)

The Unesco Man and Biosphere Reserve Programme (MAB) was established in 1977 to promote an interdisciplinary approach to research, training and communications in ecosystem conservation and rational use of natural resources.

As of December 2009, the World Heritage List includes 890 properties forming part of the cultural and natural heritage which the World Heritage Committee considers as having outstanding universal value. These include 689 cultural, 176 natural and 25 mixed properties in 148 States Parties. As of April 2009, 186 States Parties have ratified the World Heritage Convention.

States Parties are countries which have adhered to the World Heritage Convention. They thereby agree to identify and nominate properties on their national territory to be considered for inscription on the World Heritage List. When a State Party nominates a property, it gives details of how a property is protected and provides a management plan for its upkeep. States Parties are also expected to protect the World Heritage values of the properties inscribed and are encouraged to report periodically on their condition.

Biosphere reserves are sites recognized under MAB Programme, which innovate and demonstrate approaches to conservation and sustainable development. They are of course under national sovereign jurisdiction, yet share their experience and ideas nationally, regionally and internationally within the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

Biosphere reserves are areas of terrestrial and coastal ecosystems promoting solutions to reconcile the conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use. They are internationally recognized, nominated by national governments and remain under sovereign jurisdiction of the states where they are located. Biosphere reserves serve in some ways as 'living laboratories' for testing out and demonstrating integrated management of land, water and biodiversity. Collectively, biosphere reserves form a world network: the World Network of Biosphere Reserves (WNBR). Within this network, exchanges of information, experience and personnel are facilitated.

Each biosphere reserve is intended to fulfil 3 basic functions, which are complementary and mutually reinforcing:

- a conservation function - to contribute to the conservation of landscapes, ecosystems, species and genetic variation;

- a development function - to foster economic and human development which is socio-culturally and ecologically sustainable;

- a logistic function - to provide support for research, monitoring, education and information exchange related to local, national and global issues of conservation and development.

Biosphere reserves are organized into 3 interrelated zones
- the core area
- the buffer zone
- the transition area

The biosphere reserves programme brings some benefits. The biosphere reserve concept can be used as a framework to guide and reinforce projects to enhance people's livelihoods and ensure environmental sustainability. Unesco's recognition can serve to highlight and reward such individual efforts. The designation of a site as a biosphere reserve can raise awareness among local people, citizens and government authorities on environmental and development issues. It can help to attract additional funding from different sources. At the national level, biosphere reserves can serve as pilot sites or ‘learning places’ to explore and demonstrate approaches to conservation and sustainable development, providing lessons which can be applied elsewhere.

In addition, they are a concrete means for countries to implement Agenda 21, the Convention on Biological Diversity (for example the Ecosystem Approach), many Millennium Development Goals (for example on environmental sustainability), and the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.

In the case of large natural areas which straddle national boundaries, transboundary biosphere reserves can be established jointly by the countries concerned, testifying to long-term cooperative efforts.

The programme’s primary output comes in the form of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves - a listing of local units, known as biosphere reserves, found in different countries across all the regions of the world. Biosphere reserves are protected areas that are meant to demonstrate a balanced relationship between man and nature (e.g. sustainable development).

Inclusion in the World Network starts with nominations as prepared by national governments. Benefits gained from being part of the network include the integration of conservation, development and scientific research concerns to sustainably manage the shared ecosystems.

Owing to the program’s focus to man’s relationship with nature, MAB has gradually been seen as Unesco’s, and the United Nations’s, response to the issues raised by succeeding international dialogues dedicated to environmental concerns, such as the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Unced 92 or Rio 92) and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

During the initial years of the program, the designation of biosphere reserves has focused more on the conservation of the environment per se. Hence, among areas that have been included in the network are national parks encompassing isolated wilderness with outstanding biodiversity values. Through the years, the program’s focus has shifted from the idea of isolated natural environs to one that allows for the interaction with man in terms of sustainable living and education. Hence, places where livelihood is sustained, including urban greenbelts have increasingly figured in the World Network.

In 1995, an International Conference on Biosphere Reserves held in Seville formally defined and designated a set procedure in the recognition and inclusion of potential biosphere reserves based on this newfound purpose into the World Network. Criteria have also been rigidly set to ensure that the objectives of the programme will be met.
(Click to download: The Seville Strategy for Biosphere Reserves )

Thus, some biosphere reserves which have been included during the early phase of the program have either been withdrawn from the network or redefined so as to remain relevant to this new setting.

Brazil's properties inscribed on the World Heritage List


1.   Brasilia (1987)
2.   Historic Centre of Salvador de Bahia (1985)
3.   Historic Centre of São Luís (1997)
4.   Historic Centre of the Town of Diamantina (1999)
5.   Historic Centre of the Town of Goiás (2001)
6.   Historic Centre of the Town of Olinda (1982)
7.   Historic Town of Ouro Preto (1980)
8.   Jesuit Missions of the Guaranis (1983)
9.   Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Congonhas (1985)
10. Serra da Capivara National Park (1991)


11. Atlantic Forest South-East Reserves (1999)
12. Brazilian Atlantic Islands: Fernando de Noronha and Atol das Rocas Reserves (2001)
13. Central Amazon Conservation Complex (2000)
14. Cerrado Protected Areas: Chapada dos Veadeiros and Emas National Parks (2001)
15. Discovery Coast Atlantic Forest Reserves (1999)
16. Iguaçu National Park (1986)
17. Pantanal Conservation Area (2000)