Maureen G. Reed and Merle M. Massie
Biosphere reserves were first created in 1976 to help scientists, managers, and communities better understand how to conserve biodiversity and improve human–environment interactions. Since then, biosphere reserves have evolved from a primary focus on ‘ecological learning’ to a broader orientation that includes ‘social learning’.
The purpose of this paper is to trace how this shift became intertwined with changing expectations about the purpose and philosophy, criteria for site selection, and assessment of effectiveness of biosphere reserves as exemplars of conservation and sustainable development.
Drawing on academic reports, policy and other archived documents from the international and Canadian programs, and interviews of key participants, this paper examines how international priorities changed and became expressed on the ground in designation processes and research practices of Canadian biosphere reserves.
Our research indicates that social dimensions of learning have been added to earlier ecological objectives. This addition has had a dual impact. While laudably broadening perspectives on research, learning, and learners to include social scientists and local people more effectively, a heightened emphasis on social dimensions has increased the complexity of anticipated outcomes tied to governance and social goals.
Biosphere reserves must now establish research and management approaches that encompass both ecological and social dimensions of learning reflecting collaborative and interdisciplinary research and practice that include local perspectives and assessment goals. These changes may require improved clarity for determining where future biosphere reserves should be created and how they should be managed.