UNESCO biosphere reserves are model regions for sustainable development. They strike a balance between the interests of environmental protection and of social and economic development.
Typical activities promoted by biosphere reserves are environmentally-friendly agriculture, regional marketing and low-impact tourism. It is also the task of the biosphere reserves to promote ESD, research and monitoring. Setting up and running a biosphere reserve has to be carried out in close consultation with the population concerned.
Biosphere reserves are proposed by member states, designated and regulated on the basis of national legislation. Territories need to be characteristic of important ecosystems and specific landscapes. The focus is not on pristine habitats, but on ‘cultural’ landscapes, man-made environments cultivated over the course of centuries.
Biosphere reserves have to combine nature conservation with the promotion of sustainable social and economic modes of utilization of natural resources. As model regions they are outdoor laboratories for testing innovative methods which harmonize preservation and utilization.
Biosphere reserves are characterised by a division into three zones of decreasing levels of protection: the core area, the buffer area and the transition area.
Designation as a UNESCO biosphere reserve implies membership of the MAB programme’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves, a network for the exchange of best practice. Biosphere reserves are the only category of "protected areas", set up according to globally consistent criteria by an intergovernmental organization.