Biosphere reserves under UNESCO patronage – An international programme co-initiated by Hungarians aiming to preserve biodiversity was in the limelight at a side event of the World Science Forum

Biosphere reserves are the outcome of a unique endeavour to integrate research, nature conservation and sustainable development. Their past, present and future were explored at a World Science Forum side event co-organized by UNESCO and MTA under the title “Biosphere Reserves: Shining Gems of Natural Ecosystems”.

2022. december 21.

A commemoration by UNESCO in 2021 recalled the establishment of the “Man and the Biosphere” programme 50 years earlier, partly initiated by Hungarian experts. Hungarian botanists and zoologists, Members of MTA, had been to research expeditions where they realized that natural ecosystems were the guardians of biodiversity, and felt they had to raise awareness about their extraordinary values. As human interventions, industrialization and agricultural intensification in particular, had greatly endangered these kinds of ecosystems, an initiative was put forward for their protection. Biosphere reserves are territories identified as sites for nature conservation purposes under the “Man and the Biosphere” programme launched by UNESCO in 1971. In 1995, UNESCO issued the “Statutory Framework of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves”, with the objective of defining biosphere reserves as examples of a balanced relationship between humans and the biosphere. Up to late 2022, 738 sites in 134 countries all over the world have been given the status of a biosphere reserve, out of these more than 300 under UNESCO patronage, including 22 transboundary sites. In Hungary, there are altogether 6 biosphere reserves, a major site being the Five-Country Biosphere Reserve Mura-Drava-Danube, the first biosphere reserve to connect five countries in the world.

South Africa ranks as one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. The side event held on December 6th as part of the latest World Science Forum in Cape Town, South Africa, was convened and chaired by the Hungarian academician, Ervin Balázs. The event included five lectures. Corresponding Member of MTA and Professor of Neumann János University, József Popp, talked about global threats putting biodiversity at risk, the growing importance of biosphere reserves, the interconnection between the environment and sustainability – not forgetting about the trend of greenwashing – and problems in fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals. In her presentation, Doctor of MTA and Professor of Neumann János University, Judit Oláh, argued that a green economic growth could be propelled once circular bio-economy would be gaining more ground. The European Union is championing carbon neutrality, signing up for the scenario to reach net zero emission levels by 2050. Judit Oláh remarked, however, that business models in the circular economy tend to concentrate on highly profitable sustainable economic activities at the expense of considering impacts on society.

Michael W. Bairu, Professor of North-West University (South Africa) and Research Team Manager at the South African Agricultural Research Council, pinpointed the improvement of agricultural biodiversity as the top priority task ahead, in view of the fact that leveraging biodiversity in a sustainable manner is favourable for economic growth and for the alleviation of poverty. Talking about the role and problems of gene banks, Michael W. Bairu stressed in particular that gene banks, when drawing deliberately on biodiversity, contribute to global food security, global medicine and the production of agricultural crops.

Nox Makunga, Professor of Stellenbosch University, focused in her lecture not only on the rich biodiversity characterizing South Africa, but also on the increasing importance of medicinal plants in public health, ranging from their use in traditional African healing methods to their incorporation in pharmaceuticals. The study of medicinal plants – Medicinal Plant Biology – has become a priority in South Africa. The main objective of research work in this field is to provide scientific evidence for the use of plants having medicinal properties, which has generated the new trend in Africa of the application of biotechnological tools in the study of medicinal plants.

Finally, Topher White, the founder and board member of Rainforest Connection, a start-up non-profit organization, gave a presentation about the “outside-the-box” way of thinking behind what Rainforest Connection is doing: they re-use mobile phones as solar-powered acoustic threat detection and monitoring devices in rainforests. Deployed in protected rainforests, the devices can record for instance chainsaw noise and can send real-time alerts to enable real-time intervention, thereby combatting illegal logging and poaching in Sumatra. There are plans to extend the services to rainforest reserves in Indonesia, the Amazonas region and Africa.

A high turnout at the side event indicated that the public was indeed well aware of the importance of biosphere reserves and the concerns raised here resonated well with the audience.