The FINANCIAL — “And what we’re (at National Geographic) doing is a series of journeys to the ethnosphere where we’re going to take our audience to places of such cultural wonder that they cannot help but come away dazzled by what they have seen, and hopefully, therefore, embrace gradually, one by one, the central revelation of anthropology: that this world deserves to exist in a diverse way, that we can find a way to live in a truly multicultural, pluralistic world where all of the wisdom of all peoples can contribute to our collective well-being.” Extract from the National Geographic Explorer Wade Davis TED 2003 talk “Dreams from endangered cultures”
While listening to Wade Davis, who has been often described as “a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet and passionate defender of all of life’s diversity,” the subject of biosphere reserves came to my mind. This was partly because earlier this year I conducted a series of trainings on this issue with local municipality representatives in the Kakheti region, and partly because, as an economist, I see how valuable biosphere reserves can be to preserve cultural (and of course bio!) diversity. Thus, while listening to Wade Davis’ passionate talk about different indigenous groups like those living in the Amazon or the Penan (nomadic people from Southeast Asia) and their lifestyles, in my mind I drew a parallel with the traditional Georgian ways of agriculture, endangered Kartvelian languages, and the problems of our remote mountainous areas. With this blog I want to highlight how the creation of biosphere reserves can contribute to the development of a multicultural and pluralistic world.
What are biosphere reserves and why are they created?
Biosphere reserves are very interesting sites created under UNESCO’s aegis. Their creation started back in the 1970’s, and they serve as “Science for Sustainability support sites.” UNESCO defines them as “a special place for testing interdisciplinary approaches to understanding and managing changes and interactions between social and ecological systems, including conflict prevention and management of biodiversity.”
In short, a biosphere is an area where people try to harmoniously integrate with nature in order to achieve sustainable development. This is done through multilateral dialogues, knowledge sharing, improving the quality of life and by increasing people’s ability to handle climate change. These are areas in which people try cooperating to preserve their uniqueness, culture, and nature, and to find new ways to ensure sustainable growth.
Biosphere reserves have very distinct features. They are created around a strictly protected area that contributes to the conservation of landscapes, ecosystems, species and genetic variation. Biosphere reserves have three zones: a) the core area, often a national park, where human intervention is prohibited; b) the buffer zone, which surrounds the core and is usually altered or influenced by human use, but provides habitats for animal and plant species characteristic of the landscape; and c) the transition zone, where the greatest activity is allowed, fostering economic and human development that is socio-culturally and ecologically sustainable (you can find the main characteristics and functions of biosphere reserves on the UNESCO web-site). So what people are actually doing in a biosphere reserve is the following: they are preserving the nature around them, engaging in environmentally sustainable businesses, increasing the awareness of the local community about environmental issues, doing research, and showing other parts of the world how societies can develop in harmony with their surroundings and how to profit from such a development.
Successful biosphere reserves and their relevance for Georgia
Currently there are 686 biosphere reserves in 122 countries, including 20 transboundary sites, with highly varying degrees of success. There are many interesting examples relevant for Georgia, like the Rhön biosphere reserve in Germany. The Rhön biosphere reserve is a perfect showcase of how a society can convert a traditionally managed cultural landscape into an asset for tourism and agro-biodiversity, shape the identity of a rural region, and create a widely known and appreciated local brand. The Rhön biosphere reserve, which was created in 1991, has managed to promote bio-quality products and make traditional local production profitable. Several interesting projects have been implemented in Rhön. For example, the Rhön sheep, which was almost extinct in the 1970’s, has been preserved and marketed as a “bio- quality” product (it was chosen as a local mascot for the biosphere reserve). The reserve specializes in the production of top-quality apple juices, cider, sparkling apple wine and apple beer from the local apple – Rhön’s eye. Rhön has also managed to protect European crayfish from crayfish plague as part of a species protection scheme project. The biosphere reserve management, in close cooperation with the private sector, created top-quality gastronomy with the Rhön Umbrella Brand, which is widely known and recognizable, and includes not only exported gastronomy products, but is also used in local restaurants and bars. Most importantly, the local population has embraced the idea of living in a biosphere reserve, mainly thanks to the successful marketing of regional products and the resultant safeguarding of local farms.
Biosphere Entlebuch in Switzerland is another extraordinary case. This biosphere reserve is home not only to nationally protected moors and significant varieties of flora and fauna, but also enjoys a very rich historical and cultural heritage. Together with the implementation of several nature protection projects, Entlebuch provides educational opportunities for guests and local inhabitants. For example, children and young people can spend a week working on a project at the Biosphere School where they attend lessons about farming and enjoy trips around the region. In addition, the regional biosphere topic is integrated into the local school curricula and kids are exposed to local environmental issues from childhood. Biosphere Entlebuch has started to label regional products – like Rhön – and this strategy has been profitable for the region. A 2017 study showed that product labeling can act as an important economic multiplier of biosphere reserve management activities. According to the study, the gross value added generated through labeling is twice the budget of the biosphere reserve itself.
Therefore, besides preserving biodiversity, protected areas are increasingly recognized for generating economic benefits to the people in or near them. Apart from the benefits of tourism in national parks, biospheres are benefiting significantly from the development of alternative food networks (as in Rhön and Entlebuch). What biosphere reserves can do – as the Rhön and Entlebuch cases show – is to offer alternatives to industrial food production, distribution and consumption, by certifying local products with a label that guarantees their regional origin and/or sustainability of production, creating a more direct link and greater trust between producer and consumer. These networks are considered to be important and innovative approaches to promoting sustainable local added-value chains in rural regions.
Of course, not all UNESCO biosphere reserves are as successful as those discussed above. There are a variety of reasons for this. Some, for example, are created artificially and are not able to serve their main functions. A 2006 comprehensive study of 211 biosphere reserves showed that the most important factors for biosphere reserve success are: environmental education of the local population, cooperation of local authorities and local stakeholders, long-term research and monitoring of environmental conditions, and design and implementation of modern nature conservation programmes and laws. Most importantly, biosphere reserves should create an environment that is financially beneficial for the local population. Enabling the stable economic existence of residents in the environment of biosphere reserves is the best way of gaining acceptance of all the use-restrictions induced by nature conservation measures. Locals must be able to earn a living and should have a deep affinity with the region. Without proper economic incentives, biosphere reserves will not be successful.
Currently, the Government of Georgia is exploring the potential and feasibility of a biosphere reserve in the Kakheti region, in the Tusheti and Dedoplistkaro areas. These areas were chosen as most suitable for a biosphere reserve, because of several favorable factors. In particular, the existence of protected territories, ethnic and language diversity (including the Bats language, which is included in the UNESCO endangered languages list), traditional cultural heritage, good potential for eco-tourism, existence of innovative projects in agriculture, and potential for transboundary cooperation are all positive factors. Specialist think that one of the focuses of a Tusheti and Dedoplistkaro biosphere reserve could be a transhumance livestock – the tradition of moving sheep from Tusheti to the lowland, winter pastures of the Shirak-Samokhi valley. This mobile pastoralist system is considered to be one of the ways to preserve biodiversity and an effective climate change coping strategy, which lacks promotion worldwide and is characterized by a decreasing trend.
I believe a properly implemented biosphere reserve could play a very important role for the Tusheti and Dedoplistkaro areas, and beyond. It is promising that local authorities of Akhmeta (which includes the Tusheti area) and the Dedoplitskaro municipality have expressed willingness to support and establish a biosphere reserve. Let’s hope that such a reserve will pave a similar path for the Tushetian sheep breed as it did for Rhön sheep and become as successful as in Rhön. It clearly has the potential to show other regions how communities can take advantage of proper and sustainable regional development practices, preserving their ecosystems and cultural heritages, and gaining huge benefits from the process itself.
Biosphere Reserve structure. Source: GIZ. Biosphere Reserves – inspiring action for Agenda 2030. 2016.