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

The World Network of Biosphere Reserves has the power to multiply individual initiatives, connecting excellence in science with knowledge at the local level, and to scale up good practices. MAB Summer universities help promote the establishment and operationalization of biosphere reserves and empower key stakeholders to better understand and participate in the management of these areas. The 2020 “Asterousia Hybrid University’’ was organized with the support of the Heraklion Development Agency and the Region of Crete.

Since 2014, 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, have organized summer universities every year to train young experts, scientists and biosphere reserves managers. These series of summer universities aim to promote the sustainable development of biosphere reserves by encouraging integrated management approaches and networking.

The current global pandemic has prompted the shifting of many events and programmes to online platforms. In 2020, the Asterousia Hybrid University opted for a hybrid model, incorporating both online and in-person lectures. Phase I of the summer university was successfully held in Crete in September with the participation of mainly local and young people from the region. Phase II took place online from 31 November to 20 December reaching out to a much broader audience.

Overall, the programme was very successful, reaching more than 200 participants from 48 different countries, 40% of which completed the coursework, a high completion rate in comparison to similar courses held remotely. Phase II consisted of a 3-week online course entitled "Management of Biosphere Reserves and other designated areas", which combined online learning and the possibility to review a large array of available resources with weekly live “meet-the-expert” sessions.

Each week featured a different theme, highlighting the potential of biosphere reserves as places to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and fostering cooperation and networking between stakeholders, especially young people.

The virtual lectures were an invaluable blend of expert knowledge and experiences within biosphere reserves, particularly in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.

The first week explored the value and the objectives of the MAB Programme, the SDGs and other global and regional frameworks. The second week looked at the management, communication and branding of biosphere reserves and the involvement of local communities and interested stakeholders. Speakers highlighted the importance of transforming the relationship between people and nature, as a critical part of the solution.

The third week looked at engaging young people as active participants in biosphere reserves. The essence of youth involvement in biosphere reserves lies in their ability to have positive impact on their local communities and in inspiring other young people to get involved. The MAB programme has been empowering youth as a key stakeholder in the programme, and the summer universities (including the Asterousia hybrid university) take the same approach.

A group of young people working and living in different biosphere reserves shared their youth-led practices and initiatives. It was enlightening to learn from the participants their stories and insightful experiences in responding to the COVID-19 situation, which has had a great impact on youth in biosphere reserves of the region.

The learning resources of the Asterousia Hybrid University Phase ll are available on the MIO-ECSDE YouTube Channel, including all video lectures as well as the recorded “meet-the-expert” (zoom) sessions.