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UNESCO Biosphere History   

Close on two decades ago, three of the world's most influential environmental agencies - the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) -jointly published the World Conservation Strategy. In this document these international agencies warned that humanity had no future unless nature and natural resources were utilised wisely. It was also emphasised that successful conservation depended on sensible development to alleviate poverty and misery that inflicted millions of people living in and adjacent to protected areas and important ecosystems around the globe.

A closer examination of what influenced these world conservation bodies and the development of new conservation thinking reveals that the starting point for this global movement was the watershed conference held in Paris - the Intergovernmental Conference of Experts on the Scientific Basis for Rational Use and Conservation of the Resources of the Biosphere organised by the United Nations Environmental, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1968 and actively participated in by the United Nations, UN-related bodies and other global institutions at the time.

Known as the Biosphere Conference, it was held four years before the UN Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm and was the first world-wide meeting at the intergovernmental level to adopt a series of recommendations concerning environmental problems and to highlight their growing importance and their global nature. Perhaps the single most original feature of the Biosphere Conference was that utilisation and conservation could go hand in hand. This concept was recognised and advocated at the highest politicallevel -24 years before the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

In 1992 the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) brought these issues again to the attention of the world's leaders at the Earth Summit, reaffirming the Declaration of the United Nations Conference on Human Environment adopted in Stockholm in 1972 and echoing the Biosphere Conference of 1968. The message that was sent out to the world was that change will only be possible if it comes from ordinary people and if global alliances are formed.

Key agreements adopted at Rio were Agenda 21, the Global Biodiversity Strategy, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Rio Declaration itself. The Biodiversity Convention stated that conservation strategies must be aimed at accommodating cultural, economic, and political circumstances at local and regional levels. This integrated approach was referred to as Bioregional Management.

In a recent Policy Document produced by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, A Bioregional Approach to South Africa's Protected Areas, the Department revealed for the first time in South Africa that a strategic framework was being put in place which had adopted the broad principles of the Rio Declaration, the Global Biodiversity Strategy and the Convention on Biological Diversity and more specifically its bioregional approach to conservation and development. Further in this regard, significant new biodiversity legislation is also about to be drafted in efforts to meet their obligations under the convention. This comes nearly a decade after Rio and just in time as South Africa hosted the World Summit in 2002.

More recently and significantly the Biodiversity Convention adopted the ecosystem approach as the primary framework for action under the Convention. UNESCO's World Network of Biosphere Reserves philosophy and actions associated with the ecosystem approach have many shared concerns. Biosphere reserves are said to have been evolving alongside the evolution and principles of the ecosystem approach and are now an principal agent for its implementation.