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Resilience and social-ecological systems: the UNESCO biosphere reserve program in Australia and Canada

posted on 2023-05-26, 14:24 authored by Matysek, K
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Biosphere Reserves (BRs) provide an example of an integrated sustainability framework that allows for connection between international, national, state / provincial and local levels of conservation and capacitybuilding. The three major functions of a BR are conservation of biodiversity, sustainable development and support for logistics. As coupled social-ecological systems, BRs explicitly acknowledge that human systems and ecological systems are inextricably linked, and have the potential to bridge ecological and social-political spheres that have been viewed as predominantly disparate entities, rather than as interconnected or nested systems. The aim of this thesis is to identify the key features (assets, process and outcome) required to enhance the fit between governance systems and ecosystems using the UNESCO BR model, and develop a framework for establishing BRs as resilient working landscapes. By identifying features that seem critical for linking civil society, institutions and government dynamically across multiple levels, the research addresses the governance dimension of ecosystem management and the social factors that enable such management. The scope of the thesis is limited to developed country contexts. Data are derived from focus groups, site visits, 52 key informant interviews and literature reviews. The research process utilised an emergent, naturalistic inquiry, characterised by abductive, deductive and inductive methods. Four Australian and four Canadian qualitative case studies support and demonstrate the three phases of the BR resilience conceptual framework developed herein. UNESCO BRs originated in the early 1970s as international examples of biodiversity conservation and sites of scientific research and monitoring. Since this time, the international program has broadened to include more complex notions of social-ecological systems, reflecting shifts in environmental discourse and praxis. The Australian BR Program is characterised by governmentinitiated BRs and those generated though community-derived stewardship. Over the same period, the Canadian BR Program has consistently developed through community capacity and the Canadian Biosphere Reserve Association. Capital assets and ‘new governance’ processes are two of the three key phases of developing a successful (resilient) BR. Adaptive capacity is a key component of the final phase; the achievement of a resilient working landscape. In the framework, evolution and devolution of a BR occurs in response to social and ecological variables. However, maintenance and renewal of capital assets are crucial to sustaining the first and most fundamental phase of BR resilience. Specific guidelines for the application of the BR resilience conceptual framework are provided to inform individual BRs and their national programs more generally, and provide any party interested in the BR concept with a means to develop a resilient BR, from its inception. Avenues for future research are suggested, with a recommended focus upon harnessing greater understanding of resilience factors in social-ecological systems, and the relationship of these to BRs.





School of Geography, Planning and Spatial Sciences


University of Tasmania

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