But many people who live in or visit a Biosphere Reserve do not know what they are - and many have no idea they are in one. Connexion went along to the EuroMAB 2017 conference in Sarlat, Dordogne, where representatives from the 302 reserves in 36 countries across Europe and North America met up, to ask a simple question: What is a Biosphere?
The Man and the Biosphere (MAB) programme was created in 1971.
It was the brainchild of French scientist Michel Batisse, who worked for Unesco for many years. He came up with an idea to set up areas in which the needs of a local population would be reconciled with ecological conservation.
There are in total throughout the world 669 so-called Biosphere Reserves in 120 countries. Each reserve has three connecting and interrelated zones: a core area, which contains a strictly protected ecosystem; a buffer zone that surrounds or adjoins the core area and is used for activities compatible with ecological practices; and the transition area, where the greatest degree of human activity is allowed.
Didier Babin, President of MAB France, says Biosphere Reserves are very different from National Parks – which exist primarily to protect the natural landscape and the local fauna and flora.
“A Biosphere Reserve is different because it is not just there for nature. It is a place where people live and it is all about finding out how people can improve the way they live in nature. You can have industry and cities in a Biosphere Reserve – but they must show they are taking steps to be environmentally responsible.”
Before an area can win the label it has to show that local government and businesses are working to preserve and improve the environment.
Once an area has been named a Biosphere Reserve it must continue to work towards helping humans and nature to live in harmony, as the status is reviewed every 10 years and the label can be taken away.
Often, a number of initiatives and research studies are put into place in the area to improve the environment.
Residents are encouraged to get involved by applying to win a Biosphere Reserve Award for ecological initiatives.
Associations, businesses, local councils and individuals can apply. Awards have been handed out for a range of projects, including a shared garden set up by an association in Villefort-en-Cévennes, Lozère; an operation to clear agricultural plastic from the River Largue at Reillanne, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence that was initiated by local farmers; and a donkey farm in a clearing in the Forêt de Fontainebleau.
Michel and Monika Brun, who run the Anerie Bacotte, were awarded their trophy for bringing nature into the town.
They live near Fontainbleau and Melun - and only 30 minutes from Paris by train. They have nine donkeys, a mule and a horse and hire them out as beasts of burden to carry baggage for walkers in the forest or further afield from half a day to several days.
Their donkeys are also hired to clear areas or work the land, including their own permaculture garden; carry cameras and equipment for film crews as the Office National des Forêts does not allow mechanised vehicles into the forest; and therapy work with handicapped people.
It is typical of the ecological project backed by the Biosphere Reserves. “We were delighted to receive the award which gave us €1,000 towards a greenhouse,” said Mr Brun.
“They made a film about us and we were invited to the Unesco offices in Paris.
“The Biosphere is a positive initiative – but to be truthful we have set this up due to our own ecological convictions and most visitors don’t really worry whether we have the Biosphere award or not.”
RESERVES IN FRANCE
France's Man and the Biosphere (MAB) reserves are not all on the mainland – and three of them cross borders with neighbouring countries.
The country’s MAB reserves, in alphabetical order, are: the Marais Audomarois, between the Artois region of Northern France and Flanders in Belgium; the Camargue, Bouches-du-Rhône; the Cévennes, south-central France; Bassin de la Dordogne, south-west France; Commune de Fakarava, Polynesia; Vallée du Fango, Corsica; Fontainebleau-Gâtinais, south of Paris; Gorges du Gardon, Occitanie; Archipel de Guadeloupe, Antilles; Iles et Mer d’Iroise, Brittany; Luberon Lure, PACA; Mont Ventoux, PACA; Mont-Viso, PACA and Piedmont, Italy; and Vosges du Nord-Pfälzerwald, Alsace-Lorraine and Palatinate Forest Nature Park, Germany.
There are no special rules allocated to the label and no financial incentive. So what is the interest for an area in being a Biosphere? Germinal Peiro, leader of the Conseil Général and former Deputé for the Dordogne, was behind the initiative to have the whole of the Dordogne Valley – from its source to its confluence with the Garonne – declared an MAB in 2012.
He said: “I agree that not many people living in this region know it has this label or know what it means.
“But for me it is very worthwhile. It is a label of quality and it is the equivalent of having a three-star award for a restaurant.
“It can be used to attract tourists but it should also make inhabitants proud of where they live.”
He says that the Biosphere Reserve label is an important recognition for 25 years of hard work that went on to clean up the river before the label was awarded: “We have been able to ensure migratory fish are now coming back to spawn in the river, among other things, and this work has been acknowledged.”
He said the fact that the area’s MAB status will be up for review after 10 years also means that they cannot stand still and be satisfied with what they have achieved so far: “There is still a lot to do. I have told the Conseil Général that I want the water from pipes which lead into the river to be checked so we know exactly what is going into our river.
“I am inspired to keep on going because I want us to keep this label.”
Gorges du Gardon
The Gorges du Gardon, in Occitanie, is the most recent biosphere.
It was awarded in 2015 in recognition of the efforts of local public authorities and inhabitants to preserve the area known for its gorges formed in the limestone plateaux by the River Gard.
There are over 1,700 animal and plant species including a number of endangered species. 10% of the country’s Bonelli eagles, live here.
There is also the Roman viaduct, Pont du Gard, which attracts 1.5m visitors a year.
Tourism is good for the local economy but its management is one of the challenges for the environment.
A total 25% of the surface is still agricultural but in 10 years that has been reduced by 11% - however one of the aims is to maintain farming which is seen as positive for the conservation of landscapes and biodiversity.
Iles et Mer d'Iroise
Iles et Mer d’Iroise include the islands of Ouessant, Sein and Molène off the Brittany coast.
They host a number of rare species including the Marsh Harrier, Dartford Warbler, Red-billed Chough and they are a stopover and nesting place for sea birds, in particular Storm Petrels.
There are grey seals and bottlenose dolphins. The current challenge is to maintain balance in the various ecosystems of the reserve in the face of developing human activities on the larger islands and at sea. Efforts are being made to encourage eco-responsible fishing and tourism.
The Camargue is a well-known national park in France, but it has also been a biosphere since 1977 and this status was extended to cover the Gard in 2006.
There is plenty of human activity in its low-lying lagoons, salt steppes and reed marshes, with areas used for breeding bulls and horses, former marshes converted into rice fields, lagoons developed for salt production, and fruit and vegetable crops and vineyards on the dune ridges.
The environmental challenge is to preserve the natural landscape and its rich bird population which boasts 75% of all bird species identified in France in the face of the development of extensive livestock farming, agriculture and salt production, leisure and industrial activities.
Projects supported by the Biosphere Reserve are scientific studies to measure changes in the Camargue, the creation of detailed maps, educational talks in schools and the drafting of documents to outline the terms of contracts between farmers and the state to ensure biodiversity is maintained.
Fontainebleau et Gâtinais
Fontainebleau et Gâtinais is 60km south-east of Paris and is made up of three zones, including the famous forest (oak, Scots pine and beech), the Seine Valley to the east and an agricultural area to the west.
It is rich in flora and fauna with more than 5,000 plant species and 6,600 animals registered so far and has a diverse geography with wetlands, heathland, open rocky areas, ancient woodland and peatland.
With its woodland and the Château de Fontainebleu it has an exceptionally high number of visitors due to its proximity to Paris and one of the main challenges is to manage this influx of people. Tourist operators have signed up to a Biosphère Ecotourisme charter where they work to reduce their environmental impact.
Cévennes National Park
The Cévennes National Park and the Biosphere Reserve occupy the same area and share the same management of this region, which is located in the south of the Massif Central.
It has striking, contrasting landscapes, from the limestone plateaux of the Causses, to the granite formations of Mont Aigoual and Mont Lozère to the schist slopes of the Cévennes. Some 2,400 animal species live there and it accounts for 40% of France’s plant diversity.
Agricultural and grazing activities are encouraged because they allow people to make a living and stop scrubland growing back.
Fakarava is the most exotic of France’s biospheres. It is made up of seven low-lying coral island and atolls in French Polynesia.
It was created in 1977 and expanded in 2006 and has a population of just 1,575 people who depend on the natural environment and its resources for their livelihood such as fishing, coconut cultivation and the sale of handicrafts made from natural products.
Not many studies have been carried out in this remote but stunningly beautiful area and so those related to human activity have been given priority.
There is a study to identify shell fish as the shells are used in local crafts and a study on a particular fish, the Kito, to find out actual numbers and assess the impact
The coconut groves are also being cleared and replanted with non-hybrid coconuts.
Bassin de la Dordogne
The Bassin de la Dordogne is by far the largest biosphere and its shape and position on the map has given it the nickname “the smile of France”.
With no major cities or industry it has remained the cleanest river in France and the aim is to keep it that way and make sure the habitats of rare or threatened species such as the European sturgeon, the eel and the otter are maintained.
Hydro-electric dams, agriculture and tourism are the biggest threats.
The region has eight eco-friendly aims: return land below the dams to a more natural state, improve water quality, restore river banks, reclaim humid zones, retain the diversity of landscapes, maintain a thriving agriculture and productive forestry, promote an environmental policy throughout the region and support and initiate research in the area.