What is a UNESCO Biosphere?

What is a UNESCO Biosphere

If you are reading this and you live in the Isle of Man, congratulations. You are a citizen of a UNESCO Biosphere.

If you are reading this and you live in the Isle of Man, congratulations. You are a citizen of a UNESCO Biosphere, along with 277 million other people across the planet.

UNESCO is the educational, scientific and cultural arm of the United Nations. Both were formed in the immediate aftermath of World War Two, to bring about unity and understanding.

UNESCO has a number of programmes, perhaps the best known being World Heritage Sites (think Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal, the Great Barrier Reef).

The UNESCO Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme is a sister programme to World Heritage Sites, Creative Cities and Global Geoparks.

The MAB Programme designates areas that have special characteristics worth cherishing and enhancing - and have a population committed to making the most of them, for the benefit of that area and the planet as a whole.

These sites are Biosphere Reserves, or simply Biospheres as we tend to say (the word 'reserve' somehow implying that something is fenced off or inaccessible).

Although there are 748 Biospheres in 134 countries, the Isle of Man stands out as the only ‘entire nation’ Biosphere, land and sea (the sea, out to our 12-mile territorial limit, is actually almost nine tenths of our Biosphere).

But what does the Isle of Man’s UNESCO designation mean for us as a population and what benefits does it bring us? And how can you get involved in what is your Biosphere.

Globally, Biospheres deliver three functions – sustainable development, conservation and learning.

Biospheres are sometimes simply called ‘sites for sustainable development’. That's an easy way to remember what a Biosphere is.

The MAB Programme balances the need to grow economically, and to live, work, travel and consume, as we all must, with the requirement to conserve special attributes, be they landscapes, habitats and built heritage, culture and language to less tangible attributes such as our ‘sense of place’ and how we feel about where we live.

The programme encourages learning, by way of research and education at all levels, about ways of living that balance the needs of sustainable development and conservation.

With Biospheres spanning six continents and covering 5% of the earth’s surface, it follows that they are all very different, politically, economically, geographically, culturally and in terms of their environments and ecosystems, (the name for the variety of life-giving features that fall within them) and have different priorities.

UNESCO therefore encourages its Biospheres to create their own local aims and ambitions, complementary to, and feeding in to, the MAB Programme’s three global aims. These are enshrined in management strategies.

The Isle of Man Biosphere’s aims and ambitions appear in our strategy ‘Working Together for a Sustainable Future’, which sets out a vision where people and the rest of nature have a sustainable future.

We must remember that people are part of nature, not separated from it or superior to it.

The MAB Programme, now 53 years old, is rooted in the environment that keeps us alive and UNESCO Biosphere Isle of Man’s two officers are based at the Department of Environment, Food and Agriculture, where they work closely with custodians of the land, those charged with protecting it, and those who deliver climate policy, etc.

But our Biosphere’s strategy was devised by UNESCO Biosphere Isle of Man’s Stakeholder Partnership Group, chaired by the Chief Minister and with a membership from 15 public, private and third sector bodies representing a huge variety of local interests and viewpoints.

Our Biosphere’s aims and ambitions are set out under five Es – economy, education, engagement, enjoyment and environment.

Whether picking us out as a place with a conscience to new residents, promoting sustainable tourism and local produce or encouraging people to connect more with culture, our Biosphere status brings us economic benefit.

At a time when there are well-publicised threats to it, encouraging people to take an interest in, value and act for our environment can only assist it.

Educating ourselves about how we can live more sustainable lives is the first step to making the decisions we need to, to help our planet.

Engaging our community in Biosphere and its possibilities and demonstrating how they can play their part, individually or collaboratively, is another important aim.

And finally, encouraging people to enjoy life in the Island and celebrate all it offers is another ambition. This feels especially important as we resume life after lockdowns that have seen us isolated and have impacted wellbeing.

We would encourage everyone to visit our website and take a look at our five Es in full. We hope there is something there that everyone can engage with and get involved in.

You can see all our existing projects under 'Our Projects' (note these change all the time), check out 'Who's Involved' and also take advantage of the growing 'Resources' section of the site.

And we would encourage everyone to connect with, and collaborate across, our Biosphere, with your own positive projects and initiatives.

There is wonderful work going on already, right across our community, and we hope the fact we are a Biosphere encourages still more.

Our collaborative efforts will be judged by the MAB Programme when it conducts what is known as our periodic review 10 years into our life as a Biosphere. That review will look at how we have all embraced the principle of being a Biosphere, for the betterment of our people and the planet.

Of course, ‘Working Together for a Sustainable Future’ complements Isle of Man Government and other organisations’ policies and targets, covering climate change, biodiversity, single-use plastics reduction, food and drink, culture, the arts, heritage – to name but a few.

Biosphere designation, and its global functions, are a basis for considered decision-making – right across our community, as individuals, organisations and Government.

Biosphere designation is not a hallmark of perfection. Nowhere is perfect. There is no prescriptive list of what you can and cannot do in a Biosphere, as they are all so different. And actions will be judged 'in the round' at the periodic review. Every Biosphere will have areas it is doing better in than others as we learn to live more sustainably.

You can read more about the periodic review process in the FAQs section of our website and, locally, preparation is already well under way.

It’s always encouraging to hear people say ‘we should/shouldn't do this because we are a Biosphere’ because it means we value and respect our hard-earned status and want it to be a true 'site for sustainable development'.

Matters will always be subjective. And bringing together and hearing different opinions and finding a 'sustainable way' is often part of a Biosphere's role when it's fully embraced by a community such as ours.

Please visit our website www.biosphere.im, follow us on facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube and feel free to contact us via Biosphere@gov.im

Photo by Catharine Devine, one of Our Photographers.

This article was first published in September 2021 and has been updated.

Posted up on 15th January 2024


If you love the Isle of Man and want to help keep it special, there are a variety of ways to get involved in UNESCO Biosphere Isle of Man projects. Here are a few suggestions.

Please help us spread the word about Biosphere Isle of Man!