Biosphere Frequently Asked Questions:


What is the biosphere?

The biosphere is a scientific term that covers all life on land, in the water and the air.


What is a Biosphere Reserve?

A Biosphere Reserve is an area that has been recognised by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) - yes the United Nations! - for its unique mix of plants and animals, valued environment and sustainable way of life of the people who live and work within the Biosphere Reserve. The Biosphere Reserves are chosen by but rely on local cooperation to ensure the careful management of the resources within Biosphere Reserves that allow development without harming the area for future generations.


Is the Isle of Wight really that special? 

In one word, YES!

We have a special mix of the best wildlife sites found anywhere in England, landscape that is nationally important, a rich culture and heritage and a population that is resilient, diverse  and and vibrant. We have shown UNESCO that we have the right mix to meet the social and economic needs of our populatons while ensuring the needs of wildlife are also met. We live on a very special island. 


Don't we need to be better in lots of ways to be worthy of UNESCO Biosphere status? 

Nowhere is perfect, nor can it be. What makes the Isle of Wight a credible Biosphere Reserve is how we work together to face the challenges that are ahead of us. We understand there is still plenty to do and we have a long way to go before we are completely sustatainable, but the Biosphere award is recognition of what we have achieved so far and in because of our intentions to do better and to be more sustainable in the future.

Winning UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status is about drawing a line in the sand and pushing forwards to encourage all Islanders to take care of their environment for our children and grandchildren, as our parents and grandparents did in their turn.


What are the functions of Biosphere Reserves?

Each Biosphere Reserve should fulfil three functions that work together and reinforce one another.

  • A conservation function - to preserve genetic variation, species, ecosystems and landscapes;
  • A development function - to foster sustainable economic and human development;
  • A logistic function - to support research, monitoring, education and information exchange related to local, national and global issues of conservation and development.


Is a Biosphere Reserve similar to those big domes found in Cornwall?

No, a Biosphere Reserve isn't an artifically constructed biome. They are real places where people live and work. The local people care for their environment and manage the resources in the Biosphere Reserve that allow stable and sustainable economic growth and development.


What are the benefits of Biosphere Reserves?

Biosphere Reserves provide a framework for projects that improve people's lives and protect the environment in a sustainable way. Communities, local stakeholders and government officials gain an increased awareness of environmental and development issues. Biosphere Reserves may attract funding to demonstrate approaches to conservation and sustainable development that can provide lessons to be applied elsewhere. There are over 686 Biosphere Reserves across the world and this presents an opportunity to collaborate and share ideas with people across the globe.


I run a business on the Island - whats in it for me? 

UNESCO has a very high reputational value for the countries, communities, businesses and organisations that are associated with it. For example, many biosphere sites have used their UNESCO status to highlight tourism and local produce.


Who is in charge?

Local communities are integral elements in a Biosphere Reserve. The communities are key decision makers in how the Biosphere Reserve is run and governed, ensuring the Biosphere Reserve meets its functions and objectives. The Isle of Wight Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Partnership coordinate and facilitate the Isle of Wight UNESCO Biosphere Reserve on behalf of the Island's community. 


What is the difference between a Biosphere Reserve and a natural World Heritage site?

  • A Biosphere Reserve is a representative ecological area with three mutually reinforcing functions: conservation, sustainable development and logistic support for scientific research and education.
  • Natural World Heritage sites must have outstanding universal value in accordance with the UNESCO convention on the protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972).


Shouldn't we have gone for World Heritage Site status instead?

There’s no reason why we couldn’t do this in the future, there is not either/or answer. We felt the Isle of Wight met the criteria for a Biosphere Reserve and it was the right award to go for. 


Is this a secret way of making the Isle of Wight a National Park? 

No. Biosphere Reserves are very different to National Parks. Biospheres are about a celebrating a good balance between people and nature, not just about protecting wildlife and landscape.


How does UNESCO ensure that Biosphere Reserves function properly?

Biosphere Reserves are governed by "soft law". Member countries of UNESCO commit to apply their Statutory Framework for Biosphere Reserves. This means that the current UK habitat and landscape designations, such as: Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Special Areas of Conservation, Special Protection Areas, Marine Conservation Zones and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty form the law that governs the Biosphere.

The Man and Biosphere National Committee (UK MAB) ensures Biosphere Reserves are responding to UNESCO's criteria and they are function properly.


How does an area become a Biosphere Reserve?

An area needs to have a potential core area that is already highly protected for the long-term and is of at least European importance for its ecosystems. It may be designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) or Special Protected Area (SPA). It does not have to be a National Nature Reserve. The local community also needs to be willing to become a leader in sustainable development on the world's stage.

Following the identification of the core area, local support can be developed by creating a group or getting the local authority involved in the idea of becoming a Biosphere Reserve. Consultation with the UK MAB Committee will inform about the area's suitability and ideas for zonation. The UK MAB Committee will be able to advise if a designation is likely to get their support or not in a short time. If the area does not get the instant support from the UK MAB Committee, they will advise what steps are possible to make a more successful Biosphere Reserve application.

With support from the UK MAB Committee, the application will be developed by the local community. The application form can be downloaded from the UNESCO website (link). The application form is technical, requires a lot of information and requires evidence of the community working together to get the designation. There will need to be a lot of documented public participation in the planning of the Biosphere Reserve. Other crucial evidence includes good zonation of the areas for the Biosphere Reserve, a good management plan and a good organisation structure that is representative and can deliver the management plan for the Biosphere Reserve.

Throughout this development phase that can take between two and five years, UK MAB will give support on how the project takes shape. Ultimately the application document will need the endorsement of the relevant stakeholders in your area, the UK MAB Committee, the approval of the Minister for Defra or the Minister for environment in the devolved administration, before being sent by Defra to the UK Permanent Delegation to UNESCO in Paris.

The Isle of Wight Biosphere Nomination was written and submitted by the Isle of Wight AONB in partnership with many organisations and people across the Island and even some from the mainland. We have been working with the UK Government, with advice from the UK Man and Biosphere Committee. The Isle of Wight UNESCO Biosphere Reserve nomination was developed on behalf of the UK Government and the people of the Isle of Wight. This process started in 2016 and has taken nearly 3 years.


How does UNESCO decide on designating an area a Biosphere Reserve?

UNESCO invokes its own review and approvals procedures and makes the final decision. This includes review by a special UNESCO advisory committee of experts and then by the International Co-ordinating Council for the MAB Programme (MAB ICC). The approvals process in UNESCO is undertaken only once a year, so deadlines for submissions are important. Dates for submission can be found on the UNESCO website.

The Isle of Wight UNESCO Biosphere Reserve was awarded on the 19th June 2019.


What makes an area suitable to become a Biosphere Reserve?

Biosphere Reserves are renowned for exceptional environments and a high diversity of life. Biosphere Reserves are areas where the special attributes of the area are considered to be potential assets for the local people and local societies. When an area demonstrates good examples of using and preserving these resources, it may become a Biosphere Reserve.


Are people allowed to live in a Biosphere Reserve?

To fulfil the criteria for Biosphere Reserve, people must live in the area. The concept of sustainable development depends on local support and involvement. The people living in the area are essential to Biosphere Reserves.