Asterousia Hybrid University: Promoting participation and involvement of key stakeholders in Biosphere Reserves

MAB summer universities, which aim to provide training and develop knowledge on the importance of Biosphere Reserves as learning places for sustainable development, have been run by the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe and the Mediterranean Information Office for Environment, Culture and Sustainable Development (MIO-ECSDE) in collaboration with the Greek National MAB Committee since 2014. This year’s edition of the university, titled “Asterousia Hybrid University”, with the support of the Heraclion Development Agency and the Region of Crete, is to be organized in two phases, face-to-face and virtual. The first phase with attendance of various national and local experts was held from 5-7 October 2020 in Crete, Greece.

The programme of phase 1 included lectures, interactive workshops and field visits, offering enriching knowledge and insights from different speakers and experts. The main objective of the university is to promote the establishment and operation of biosphere reserves (BRs) and to help key stakeholders and target groups to better understand and actively participate in the proper management of these areas.

The World Network of Biosphere Reserves facilitates the collaboration in sharing experience and innovation, not only in natural sciences but other priority disciplines such as education and culture. Ana Luiza M. Thompson-Flores noted the added-value of interdisciplinary initiatives, “the World Network of Biosphere Reserves from which each biosphere reserve learns and exchange, has the power to multiply the individual initiatives, connecting excellence in science with what is going on at the local level.” It represents a unique tool for integration and cooperation.

The nature of the MAB programme entails inclusion and participation of different groups of actors. Main players in biosphere reserves include local authorities, such as municipalities and mayors, and the private sector (including local sustainable businesses included in the field visits of the summer university programme. Collaborative approaches engaging multiple stakeholder groups and considering local practices, traditions and cultures are greatly encouraged by UNESCO, and will be highlighted in the university.

Presenters in the opening highlighted how important it was to celebrate and incorporate the great history of Crete as part of the Asterousia Biosphere Reserve. The attendees of the Asterousia summer university, which were mainly young people, toured local museums, monuments, cultural sites and saw some cultural events organised as part of the programme. Approximately 15 participants of the first face-to-face session interacted with local stakeholders and visited local businesses that will be shaping the newly designated Biosphere Reserve.

They learnt from their field visit to the Aquarium of Crete (Cretaquarium) and the Museum of Natural History of the University of Crete about marine and terrestrial biodiversity, and the vast endemic species unique to the area. First-hand experience of the model eco-agro-tourist project (Thalori) inspired the participants on how a local business can function along-side nature.

Phase 2 of the Asterousia Hybrid University will take place from 31 November - 20 December 2020 as an online 3-week course on the management of biosphere reserves and other designated areas.

The course will look at how BRs can act as beacons of sustainability, and ideal places to apply the SDGs and 2030 Agenda and confront the challenges of covid-19. Knowledge of various strategies and methods for effective management, branding, and communication in biosphere reserves and will be acquired by the learners during the course.

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and the role of youth in management of BRs will also constitute a key focus of the learning. In addition, a wealth of online resources will be available to all the learners, including recordings of interviews, sessions and field visits from the first phase. The MAB Hybrid University provides an invaluable opportunity for young people and experts to connect and network across and beyond the boundaries of biosphere reserves.