If you are reading this and you live in the Isle of Man, congratulations! You are a citizen of a UNESCO Biosphere.
UNESCO is the educational, scientific and cultural arm of the United Nations. Both were formed in the immediate aftermath of World War Two, to bring about unity and understanding.
UNESCO has a number of programmes, perhaps the best known being World Heritage Sites.
The UNESCO Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme recognises areas that have special characteristics worth cherishing and enhancing - and have a population committed to making the most of them, for the benefit of that area and the planet as a whole.
Although there are 724 Biospheres in 129 countries, the Isle of Man stands out as the only ‘entire nation’ Biosphere, land and sea (the sea, out to our 12-mile territorial limit, is actually almost nine tenths of our Biosphere’s area).
But what does the Isle of Man’s UNESCO designation mean for us as a population and what benefits does it bring us?
And how can you get involved in what is your Biosphere?
Globally UNESCO Biospheres promote three ideals – sustainable development, conservation and learning. They are sometimes called ‘sites for sustainable development’.
The MAB Programme balances the need to grow economically, and to live, work, travel and consume, as we all must, with the requirement to conserve special attributes, be they landscapes, habitats and built heritage, culture and even language to less tangible attributes such as our ‘sense of place’ and what makes us unique.
The programme encourages learning, by way of research and education, about ways of living that balance the needs of sustainable development and conservation.
With Biospheres spanning six continents and covering 5% of the earth’s surface, it follows that they are all very different, politically, economically, geographically, culturally and in terms of their environments and ecosystems, (the name for the variety of life-giving features that fall within them) and have different priorities.
UNESCO therefore encourages its Biospheres to create their own local aims and ambitions, complementary to, and feeding in to, the MAB Programme’s three global aims.
The Isle of Man Biosphere’s aims and ambitions appear in our newly published document ‘Working Together for a Sustainable Future’, which sets out a vision where people and the rest of nature have a sustainable future.
We must remember that people are part of nature, not separated from it or superior to it.
The Biosphere programme is rooted in the environment and its officers are based at the Department of Environment, Food and Agriculture.
But the strategy is devised by UNESCO Biosphere Isle of Man’s Stakeholder Partnership Group, chaired by the Chief Minister and with a membership from public, private and third sector bodies representing a huge variety of local interests and viewpoints.
Our Biosphere’s aims and ambitions are under five Es – economy, education, engagement, enjoyment and environment.
Whether picking us out as a place with a conscience to new residents or promoting sustainable tourism and local produce, our Biosphere status brings us economic benefit.
At a time when there are well-publicised threats to it, encouraging people to take an interest in, value and act for our environment can only assist it.
Educating people about how they can live more sustainable lives is the first step to making the decisions we need to, to help our planet.
Engaging our community in Biosphere and its possibilities and demonstrating how they can play their part, individually or collaboratively, is another important aim.
And finally, encouraging people to enjoy life in the Island and celebrate all it offers is another ambition. This feels especially important as we resume life after lockdowns that have seen us isolated and have impacted wellbeing.
We would encourage everyone to visit our website and take a look at our five Es in full. We hope there is something there that everyone can engage with and get involved in.
The UNESCO Biosphere Isle of Man team will run its own projects under each of the Es, in addition to projects we already run. We’ll go into more depth on these in our next article.
But we encourage everyone to connect with, and collaborate across, our Biosphere, with your own positive projects and initiatives.
There is wonderful work going on already, right across our community, and we hope the fact we are a Biosphere encourages still more.
We cannot offer funding (available from other excellent sources and grants schemes), but we can offer encouragement, support and publicity, depending on the nature of the initiative.
And, most importantly, our collaborative efforts will be judged by the MAB Programme when it conducts what is known as our periodic review 10 years into our life as a Biosphere. That review will look at how we have all embraced the principle of being a Biosphere, for the betterment of our people and the planet.
Of course, ‘Working Together for a Sustainable Future’ complements Isle of Man Government and other organisations’ policies and targets, covering climate change, biodiversity, single-use plastics reduction, food and drink, culture, the arts, heritage – to name but a few.
Biosphere designation is not a hallmark of perfection. Nowhere is perfect. There is no prescriptive list of what you can and cannot do in a Biosphere, as they are all so different.
Instead, it is a driver for considered decision-making – right across our community, as individuals, organisations and Government.
It’s always encouraging to hear people say ‘we should do this because we are a Biosphere’ because it means we value and respect our hard-earned status and want it to drive our Island forward as a place we are proud to live in, work in and visit – and as a place where we all work together for a sustainable future.
By Jo Overty, Project Officer, UNESCO Biosphere Isle of Man