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A quick look at South Africa’s UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Reserves

Published at: 31 August 2015


With South Africa’s demands for economic growth the strain on our natural resources intensifies annually. Striking a balance between the economy, the environment and the quality of life of communities and future generations can be a task fraught with complexity. The key is finding a sustainable solution that goes beyond simply ticking off points on the so-called triple bottom line (people/planet/profit). Communities are characterised by often diverse and at times conflicting interests. As poignantly pointed out by The Economist, “One problem with the triple bottom line is that the three separate accounts cannot easily be added up. It is difficult to measure the planet and people accounts in the same terms as profits—that is, in terms of cash”.

Established in 1971, long before the ‘triple bottom line’ phrase was coined, or sustainability became part of the corporate economic lexicon, UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB) is an intergovernmental scientific programme that aims to promote a scientific basis for the improvement of relationships between people and their environments. The MAB concept serves as a framework to re-coordinate all the different activities within a designated area towards environmental sustainability and the enhancement of people’s livelihoods. MAB is a multidisciplinary management approach that combines the natural and social sciences, economics, and education that promotes innovative approaches to economic development that are socially and culturally appropriate, and environmentally sustainable. MAB creates an important means for communities to be involved in the management of their area and decisions about its future development and conservation.

Biosphere reserves are nominated by their governments for inclusion to the MAB programme. South Africa has been a proud participant in this initiative since 1995 and boasts eight biosphere reserves: Kogelberg (proclaimed in 1998), Cape West Coast Extension (2003), Waterberg (2001), Kruger to Canyons (2001), Cape Winelands (2007), Vhembe (2009), and Magaliesburg and the Gouritz Cluster (both latter proclaimed in 2015). The MAB initiative provides a solution to South Africa’s fragmented system of protected areas, which otherwise poses an enormous management challenge in terms of effective institutional and legislative frameworks, law enforcement and compliance and the allocation of both financial and human resources.

The MAB initiative is starting to receive more attention locally, and has recently been celebrated with the release of dedicated coin series by the South African Mint (SA Mint). The Cape Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve coin set is the first in SA Mint’s Biosphere Region series. It is also the world’s first coin series dedicated to the MAB initiative and the start of an eight year partnership between the SA Mint and UNESCO.

For a history of the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme in South Africa, click here.

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