Man and Biosphere: will the Netherlands become more active?

How to achieve a balanced relationship between sustainable economic and social development on the one side and protection of natural life cycles on the other side? This issue lies at the heart of the Man and Biosphere (MAB) programme of UNESCO. The programme relies on a network of Biosphere Reserves (BR). These BR are areas recognised by UNESCO, which resemble natural heritage sites in this aspect, but BR are much more a broader cultural landscape where traditional conservation functions are combined with sustainable regional development.

On January the 30th, the Netherlands National Commission for UNESCO organised a workshop in Utrecht where representatives of Dutch nature areas, NGOs, relevant institutions and ministries exchanged information with representatives of biosphere reserves from Germany and Sweden, specialists of the UNESCO-MAB Secretariat and other MAB experts.

What does the program entail?

For more than 40 years the MAB scientific programme has dedicated efforts to better understand the interaction between man and nature in various ecosystems. The network encompasses 621 BR in 117 countries. Each BR consists of three zones:

  • Core Area(s): one or more areas protected by national legislation (can be a Natura 2000 site or a Ramsar site for example)
  • Buffer Zone(s): they usually surround or adjoin the Core Areas, and
  • Transition or Cooperation Zones: these areas may contain towns, farms, fisheries, and other human activities.

Biosphere Area Zonation

The creation of a BR does not imply that additional new rules are imposed, it rather relies on national legislation, federates already existing structures and adapts to the local reality. The programme is an intergovernmental scientific program, meaning that the proposal for new sites can only be submitted through the government of the Netherlands.

What is the added value of the MAB status?

This was the central question of the workshop. Based on their own experience with the programme, the speakers illustrated how a BR accreditation can be of added value for a (nature) area:

  • Network: in her presentation, Meriem Bouamrane, UNESCO, emphasised how belonging to the MAB network can give access to expertise, research facilities and resources on various themes relevant for the BR (social enterprise, sustainable tourism, wetlands, education for sustainable development, etc.); it also gives access to communication tools and tools to take into account different forms of knowledge (scientific, indigenous, know how);
  • Economic impact: according to Felix Kraus, University of Würzburg, a German study shows that the BR status for a nature area can increase its Unique Selling Point value and that in Germany up to 21% of the visitors specifically come because of the BR label;
  • Sense of belonging: Johanna Mac Taggart from the Swedish BR Lake Vänern Archipelago and Guido Puhlmann from the German BR Mittetelbe illustrated how in their cases the BR nomination process triggered the involvement of all local actors and thereby crystallized a sense of being proud of belonging to an internationally recognized site. For Johanna, ‘the creation of the BR was the motor that made people see they are part of a solution’.

How can MAB relate to the Netherlands?

Henk Siepel (Radboud and Wageningen University) gave a short overview of the similarities between the MAB programme and Dutch nature policy. He explained that MAB specifically underlines the new objectives of this policy to increase involvement of local stakeholders. The Netherlands could also benefit from a more extensive application of the notion of ecosystem services. This was also stressed by Johanna Mac Taggart, who explained that in her BR, when communicating with the public, the focus lies on the functions of nature and their natural resources, rather than on the protection of key species and ecosystems.

Idea and coordination: Dr Lars Wohlers, KON-TIKI – Office for interpretive Planning


Polling the interest of the participants to engage into further steps

Both at the beginning and at the end of the workshop some statements were presented upon which the participants could vote. The proportion of participants who agreed to the statement that ‘Participating in the MAB program can be an added value for the Netherlands’ rose from 50% to 77% while the proportion who thought the contrary rose from 0% to 9%.

These votes show that there is definitely an interest from the Dutch stakeholders to investigate possibilities of collaborating with the MAB programme: 32% are interested to investigate steps towards the creation of a BR, while 45% are interested in international collaboration with the MAB programma. Only 5% showed no interest.

Next steps

  • The participants expressed the wish to identify a national contact point where they could direct their (many) concrete questions;
  • The discussions between the participants led to the proposition of conducting a feasibility study investigating how the MAB programme and concept of BR could be implemented in the Netherlands. 96% of the participants was in favor of such a study.
  • It was suggested to speak about Biosphere Areas or Regions, rather than reserves, because the latter put too much emphasis on the conservation aspect.
  • The federation of Dutch National Parks meets twice a year and would welcome a presentation of the MAB programme in 2014; The MAB strategy 2014-2021 is currently being designed: all participants of the workshop are welcome to make suggestions to it; the first draft will we circulated among the participants when available;

All presentations of the workshop are available here:

For more information on the programme you can contact Sophie Primot at the Netherlands National Commission for UNESCO (via info [at]

Het ‘Mens en Biosfeer’-programma (MAB) van UNESCO ontwikkelt nieuwe wetenschappelijke kennis voor een evenwichtige relatie tussen de mens en zijn natuurlijke leefomgeving. MAB wordt ondersteund door een netwerk van biosfeeregio’s – 669 gebieden in 120 landen (stand 2016) – Unesco's proeftuinen voor duurzame ontwikkeling. Natuurwetenschappen, sociale wetenschappen, onderwijs en economie vinden elkaar in het programma. Nederland telt één Unesco biosfeergebied: de Maasheggen, ingeschreven in 2018.


‘Man and the Biosphere’ is een wetenschapsprogramma van UNESCO dat bestaat sinds 1971. Vanuit wetenschappelijke inzichten wordt gewerkt aan een evenwichtige relatie tussen mens en omgeving in gebieden die een belangrijke ecologische waarde hebben.

Het huidige netwerk telt 660 biosfeergebieden in 120 landen.

Nederland kent één Unesco biosfeergebied, de Maasheggen. Deze status is toegekend in 2018. Daarnaast verkennen enkele regio’s in Nederland momenteel de mogelijkheden om biosfeergebied te worden. 

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