Time of the first ones

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We continue the series of publications devoted to the history of the program «Man and the Biosphere.»
The first years of the work of the UNESCO International Scientific Program “Man and the Biosphere” (MAB), the first steps of biosphere reserves are now history. For our country and its conservation system it is very important to remember that Russian scientists and employees of nature reserves have invested their enormous work in the MAB Program and its practical implementation. One of the first who participated in the accumulation of this experience was and remains Valery Neronov, for many years the former Vice-President of the International Coordinating Council of the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Program from the Central and Eastern Europe region and to this day – Vice-Chairman of the Program Committee IAB in our country. Interview with him – on our website.

 Valery Mikhailovich, is it true that Russian scientists were among those who attended the actual “birth” of the MAB program in 1968?

Yes. This is true. We remember that the birth of the Man and the Biosphere program was preceded by the years of work of the world scientific community in the International Biological Program and the Soviet Union was very active in the IBР – many institutes of the USSR Academy of Sciences, excellent specialists were involved. In 1968 our remarkable scientists Viktor Kovda and Vladimir Sokolov took part in the historic International Conference on the Problems of the Biosphere, held at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. At this conference, which summed up the enormous results of the IBР, the question arose that something more should be done with this wealth.

There, at this conference, a “tough” recommendation appeared for UNESCO that a new international scientific program should be created. The main approaches to the formation of the Man and the Biosphere Program and its concept were formulated. We all know that its main goal was to achieve harmony in the relationship between human society and the biosphere, the practical implementation of this goal was planned using a network of biosphere reserves.

In hot debates, this name was born – “Man and the Biosphere”. By the way, there were many objections against such a “slogan”. The name was suggested by representatives of Arab countries, and women from European countries, obsessed with ideas of gender equality, did not agree: “Why is a man, but what about women?”

But be that as it may, the resolution was approved, UNESCO considered it. In 1971, the Man and the Biosphere program was created at the UNESCO General Conference. Subsequently, over the course of several years, the program created international task forces that were to develop a number of projects. These projects in many cases were a continuation of the research initiated in the IBР. It was dominated by the ecosystem approach.

As a separate project, the study of urban ecosystems was highlighted. Already a little later, at the suggestion of the USSR, it was possible to include in the Program a project on the effect of pollution on the biosphere. Corresponding Member of the USSR Academy of Sciences Yuri Izrael, who became the head of the USSR State Committee on Hydrometeorology in 1974, took an active part in this. The agency gave staff units, the necessary finances and background monitoring stations appeared in 11 of our biosphere reserves.

Background monitoring station of Prioksko-Terrasny reserve – one of them?

Yes. But her role was even more responsible. She was a model for the rest of our biosphere reserves. The fact is that at the international level it was established that certain protected areas that are included in the MAB program and which, among other things, carry out global environmental monitoring, are becoming biosphere reserves.

What is global environmental monitoring is not clearly stated anywhere in the MAB Program documents. Subsequently, provisions on global environmental monitoring were developed, but the number of parameters was so great that it became clear that not a single biosphere reserve could cope with this. Yu.A. Israel has connected its institute on global climate and ecology to this problem.

And then, based on the background monitoring station PTZ, a set of basic parameters was developed that could be considered optimal. This station, as we all know, has been successfully operating on most of these indicators so far. In the past, very interesting data were obtained on it, for example, about the serious transfer of acid rain to us from Europe.

What is the role of joint work of the USSR and the United States on biosphere reserves?

It is very interesting that the 70s in the work of the MAB program were very fruitful, despite the difficult international relations. It all started with our scientific contacts with the Americans. These are great experts. We have found a common language with them, my correspondence with some of them continues to this day, in particular, they write that it would be good to restore the previous level of scientific cooperation.

A very important step was the First International Teriological Congress held in Moscow in June 1974. It must be said that foreign colleagues praised the quality of our scientific works very much, but sincerely wondered why none of our specialists go anywhere. During my visit to the USA through the World Health Organization, where I was then a staff member in the department of ecology, I suggested to our American colleagues – if not we are here for you, then please come to us, let’s hold a Teriological Congress in the USSR.

This proposal met a lively interest in the professional environment of our colleagues not only in the United States, but it was necessary to decide on the holding of such an international congress in our country and find those who could rely directly in Moscow.

I came to Vladimir Sokolov, who had just headed the Institute of Evolutionary Morphology and Animal Ecology of the USSR Academy of Sciences. He asked me: “Do you guarantee that foreigners will come?” I answered: “Yes, and do you guarantee that we can hold such an event here?” And he also answered in the affirmative. So began the preparation of the future congress.

As a result of the work done and active international contacts, the First International Teriological Congress opened in June 1974 in Moscow. He went great. The Congress adopted a resolution on the creation of the International Commission on Mammals, which was then included in the International Union of Biological Sciences, and we have gained invaluable experience in organizing major international forums.

It should be recalled that in the same 1974, on July 7, L.I. Brezhnev and R.Nixon signed a joint intergovernmental communique, where it was said that both countries support the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Program and create their own territories, biosphere reserves. Having such a communique in your pocket, you could safely go to certain ministries and departments.

We managed to get the support of Vasily Krinitsky, who in those years was responsible at the USSR Ministry of Agriculture for protected areas and along this line took part in cooperation with the United States. It must be said that in 1976 the Soviet MAB Committee already operated in the USSR.

There are published directories with a list of Soviet specialists who worked in the 70-80s on various projects under the MAB program – more than 4,000 people! It must be said that it was always hard to include our specialists in the international working groups of the IAB – few among them were those who knew English at the proper level – this is a problem and has not been completely solved to this day …

1976 – was it the first meeting of Soviet and American experts on biosphere territories? 

Yes, in May 1976, the first Soviet-American symposium on biosphere reserves was held. The idea was to coordinate the creation in the USSR and the United States of a sufficient number of biosphere reserves in areas similar in natural and climatic conditions. At this symposium, by the way, the understanding of the functions of biosphere reserves, which UNESCO has just begun, was clarified.

At the same time, different terms were fixed, for example, “cluster biosphere reserves” and the names of the component parts allocated in each biosphere reserve when zoning its territory. It was an unusual symposium on the terms of the meeting – “mobile”. Started work in Moscow, then the participants of the symposium (with the participation of the Director of the Department of Ecology and Earth Sciences established at UNESCO – Professor Francesco Di Castries) visited a number of our protected areas, which were supposed to be given the status of biosphere.

We visited the Prioksko-Terrasny Reserve, the Central Chernozem Reserve, the Repetek Reserve and a number of other protected areas of Russia. The result of this symposium was the decision to organize a network of biosphere reserves in the Soviet Union.

Initially, it was assumed that there would be 5 of them: the Central Forest-Steppe (formed from the Kursk Field Station of the Institute of Geography of the USSR Academy of Sciences and the Central Chernozem Reserve), Central Asian desert (based on protected areas in the Karakum desert), South Siberian taiga (near Lake Baikal), East Siberian taiga ( on the territory of Yakutia) and the Arctic (Franz Josef Land).

In October 1978, at the reciprocal meeting in the United States, when the selection of territories was agreed upon, the discussion begun in 1976 continued. American scientists have clarified the proposed scheme for the placement of biosphere reserves. As a result, in 1979 in the USSR 7 reserves became officially biospheric: Berezinsky, Kavkazsky, Sary-Chelek, Sikhote-Alin, Repetek, Prioksko-Terrasny and Central Chernozemny. Actually, we are celebrating this date this year – the 40th anniversary of the first biosphere reserves / reserves in Russia.

After all these events, the need for an international forum on the MAB Program became apparent. V.E. Sokolov voiced this idea at a meeting of the Bureau of the ISS of the UNESCO MAB and his proposal was supported. UNEP and UNESCO have allocated significant funds for holding such a congress in our country. As a result, numerous participants in the MAB Program around the world began to prepare for the First International Congress on Biosphere Reserves. The venue was Minsk – the capital of Soviet Belarus.

Has the leadership of our country supported this initiative?

It was extremely important that the Party and Government of the USSR reacted positively to this initiative, supported at the international level. The USSR needed good ideas for cooperation in the international arena, and the theme “Man and the Biosphere” was suitable for this, as well as possible. And even now, thanks to the strengthening of international cooperation within the framework of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves, it would be possible to weaken, if not remove many conflicts …

And then came 1983 year. In the United States, President Reagan has already managed to call the USSR an «evil empire.» The Cold War unfolded in full force. On September 1, 1983, a well-known tragedy happened – the South Korean Boeing 747 was shot down. This event overshadowed many of our working relations, I personally well remember how much it complicated the further work on the preparation of the Congress on the MAB Program.

But nevertheless, biologists, ecologists, environmentalists from all over the world came to Minsk. September 26, 1983, the First International Congress on Biosphere Reserves opened; In addition to UNESCO and UNEP, IUCN and FAO took part in it, and it must be admitted that Minsk gathered a truly “star” composition of its participants.

“Nature protection is now viewed not as a luxury item for developed countries, but as an urgent need, laying the foundation for the true ability of countries to ensure the preservation of their natural resources and their social and cultural individuality”

Amadou Makhtar M’Bou, Director-General of UNESCO, Materials of the I International Congress on Biosphere Reserves, Minsk, 1983.

Since this was the first such forum in history, the speakers at it expressed a great number of different opinions, spoke about the most vital, looked for mutual understanding, and so on. It was, so to speak, a “feast of ideas.” Most of these ideas were, as we know, later, in Seville in 1995, embodied in a common unified Strategy for the development of the MAB Program, and in Minsk – even the atmosphere was “electrified” – and this, of course, was unforgettable, carried in itself powerful positive impulse of the international forum.

At the forum, by the way, a special exhibition “Ecology in Practice” was also dedicated to the achievements of the MAB Program for the first decade. The USSR, among other things, presented at this exhibition a mobile laboratory for monitoring the state of atmospheric air.

But we must understand that in this whirlpool of ideas one could just drown. No one at first knew exactly what to do. Nevertheless, a year later, in 1984, at the UNESCO General Conference, on the basis of all this, a detailed Action Plan for biosphere reserves for the coming years was adopted and published.

“Strengthening the role of biosphere reserves in the preservation of habitats of wild animals is one of the key tasks. The global network of biosphere reserves provides an exceptional opportunity to use a system of protected areas with biological representativeness for the long-term in situ conservation of genetic resources in areas with extremely high biological diversity. So it is of great importance as shelters for wild relatives of cultivated plants and domestic animals that are important for humanity economically.” Mostafa Kamal Tolba – Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program, Proceedings of the I International Congress on Biosphere Reserves, Minsk, 1983.

 How do you assess the role of the Minsk Congress now?

 Two volumes of the works of the Congress, published in two languages – this is now a bibliographic rarity, but if you get and read them – you can understand how relevant all these reports and arguments are still relevant. The Forum held in Minsk was, indeed, a historical event for biosphere reserves. How good it would be if we really managed to embody all these ideas, including in our country …

“Those who manage or work in specially protected natural territories are responsible for the preservation of the most valuable and extremely important resources of the planet. You need to give them adequate training, salary, responsibility and authority. ”   Kenton R. Miller, IUCN, Proceedings of the I International Congress on Biosphere Reserves, Minsk, 1983.

“It is imperative that as many connections as possible be established between biosphere reserves located in different parts of the world so that they can work together to develop theories, methods, models and data processing systems, without which a number of problems of mutual interest cannot be solved.”  William P. Gregg, US National Park Service, Proceedings of the I International Congress on Biosphere Reserves, Minsk, 1983.

 And of course, we must understand that after this forum the USSR took the recognized position of many in the world in the Program of the MAB and biosphere reserves, in particular. It is now extremely important that our biosphere reserves do not remain aloof from the big world, tell them about their experience in the Russian media, and translate their publications to foreign colleagues, so that they publish their work in regional networks – in the European and Eastern -Asian, and others, worked with global databases, integrated into global studies. As far as I know, the Prioksko-Terrasny Reserve is now quite successfully cooperating, for example, with the GBIF, the global biodiversity database.

Everything new is, I hope, not forgotten old …

 To my sincere surprise, it turned out that at the IV MAB Congress on Biosphere Reserves, held in Lima in 2016, I was the ONLY person who was a member of the Minsk Congress. Much has changed, much has gone, the countries and people are different now. But biosphere reserves remain and their number is growing every year (already about 700 in more than 120 countries).

All this is undoubtedly an extensive field for work and strengthening contacts for the exchange of experience. We still have to do a lot of things in order not to lose experience, good reputation, continuity of work. Many fundamentally important things remain misunderstood by new generations of bureaucrats, dialogue does not work.

In Russia, we still do not have a law on biosphere reserves, there is no clear definition of their zoning, in particular, about the zone of cooperation, where there is close interaction with the local population – and this is a necessary condition for the preservation of biodiversity. Every two years, every country that has biosphere reserves should report on the implementation of the Lima Action Plan. The next report is in 2020. What will we do with this deadline?

But the hope remains that for each biosphere reserve this status is a great value. This is such a «starting point», if I may say so. Officials at different levels are changing, the biosphere reserves approved by UNESCO remain. We will live and see.

“I see the mission of biosphere reserves simply in being“ protection and development ”. A simple idea with a clearly defined goal – in the biosphere reserve there is something for everyone. ”  Harold C. Eyswick, Senior Advisor, Program Group, Parks-Canada, Proceedings of the I International Congress on Biosphere Reserves, Minsk, 1983.