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Developing sustainability indicators for UNESCO Biosphere Reserves

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Colin Tucker, a Stellenbosch University student, is conducting research on developing sustainability indicators for two Biosphere Reserves in the Western Cape.

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The Cape West Coast Biosphere Reserve includes the West Coast National Park and Langebaan Lagoon (Picture: Colin Tucker)

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Biosphere reserves include humans and their activities in the areas in and around the core conservation areas. Pictured here is the Palmiet River in the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve (Picture: Colin Tucker)

- Colin M. Tucker, MSc student, Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology, Stellenbosch University

At the heart of UNESCO biosphere reserves management, is the Man and Biosphere (MAB) concept in which there is no separation of people from nature.

In line with this the three main functions of biosphere reserves, as identified by UNESCO, are: 1) the conservation of nature, 2) economic and human development that is socially, culturally and environmentally sustainable and 3) logistical support for research, education and monitoring.

In order for a biosphere reserve to be effective, progress towards achieving the above goals needs to be measured so that management decisions and actions can be adapted according to changes in aspects such as land use, the global economy, the plants and animals, and the human population.

Measuring progress towards sustainability

Within a biosphere reserve, sustainability indicators can be used for this purpose. As the name suggests, this tool can measure how effective a biosphere reserve is in its progress towards sustainability. For example, a measure of a biosphere reserve’s effectiveness towards social development would be the percentage of the population of the biosphere reserve that has HIV/AIDS. This could then be linked to another indicator such as the number of HIV/AIDS awareness talks that are presented to communities within the biosphere reserve.

Since only a handful of biosphere reserves worldwide have developed and implemented sustainability indicators, this study will place the Kogelberg and Cape West Coast Biosphere Reserves at the forefront of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

In terms of the environment, water quality could serve as an indicator of the levels of pollution. Economically, it could be useful to measure the amount of money being spent by tourists visiting the biosphere reserve. By regularly evaluating trends in these indicators, the management of a biosphere reserve can make adjustments such as providing more resources for certain activities, or make recommendations to land owners regarding the management of their land.

The development of sustainability indicators for the Kogelberg and Cape West Coast Biosphere Reserves is currently underway. A workshop with a variety of local stakeholders has been held in each of these biosphere reserves which produced a list of preliminary indicators.

Refining preliminary indicators

Colin Tucker, an MSc candidate in the Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology at Stellenbosch University is now refining these preliminary indicators through focus groups with local experts in social, economic and environmental fields. Using local stakeholders and experts in the development process will ensure that the sustainability indicators are relevant to the specific biosphere reserve circumstances, needs and goals.

Since only a handful of biosphere reserves worldwide have developed and implemented sustainability indicators, this study will place the Kogelberg and Cape West Coast Biosphere Reserves at the forefront of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

This project is currently being funded by SAEON and the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve. The project supervisors are Dr Andrew Knight, Professor Karen Esler and Dr Nicky Allsopp, Manager of SAEON’s Fynbos Node.

Contact Colin

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