The collaboration brings together the Smithsonian's expertise in the biological sciences, Columbia University's strengths in the social sciences and UNESCO's practical expertise gained from its Man and Biosphere (MAB) program's global network of more than 300 biosphere reserves, explained Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, Adviser to the Smithsonian on biodiversity and environmental affairs.
"We are trying to marry the interdisciplinary strengths of the three institutions to create something that really measures up to the interdisciplinary challenge facing people in the environment," he said. "The biosphere reserves in the MAB program would be an excellent field for experimenting on ways to manage sustainably ecosystems and their essential resources like water and biodiversity and for elaborating methodologies and models," added Dr. Pierre Lasserre, Director of UNESCO's MAB program. He said that one of the consortium's goals will be to provide "advanced training for young decision-makers in connection with conservation that could generate ecojobs."
In addition to the United States, where there are currently 47 MAB biosphere reserves, the consortium will be looking initially at developing projects in Argentina, Mexico and Brazil, Mr. Lasserre said.
"This agreement puts together economic development and the issue of biological conservation," said Professor Graciela Chichilnisky, the UNESCO Chair in Mathematics and Economics at Columbia University. "We intend to look at patterns of development which are harmonious with the biosphere. Everything that we do will have intellectual and policy dimensions, as well as practical applications."
In addition to using the MAB biosphere network for field experiments, the consortium is also looking to utilize the research facilities of the Biosphere 2 Center in Arizona. Professor Chichilnisky explained that while the MAB sites would be used for experiments in nature, the Biosphere 2 facilities would be used for experiments in a closed system "where full control is needed." She also envisioned the setting up of "hi-speed information links" to share data among the MAB sites participating in the consortium's work.
A Biosphere Research meeting was organized by the consortium at Biosphere 2, in early March 1997, to develop an action plan for the development of innovative methodologies of valuing, managing and financing the biosphere to promote global economic and social progress, and for making efficient use of Biosphere services. A proposal for the launching of an Institute for Biosphere and Society (IBS) was elaborated by the consortium. UNESCO and the Smithsonian are also considering a Memorandum of Understanding on joint cooperation in the area of culture.
One of the first field sites for a project by the consortium will be in the Mata Atlantica MAB Biosphere Reserve in Brazil, one of the largest most threatened rain forests in the world. The project financed by the World Bank, aims to study policy options for the management of the watershed which serves 20 million people in the region of Rio de Janeiro. The project will develop and test a methodology that could apply to range of important ecosystems represented in the UNESCO-MAB sites.
Another project would look at the economic value of preserving the biodiversity of the Rio Reconquista which provides most of the drinking water to Buenos Aires. The river's water is purified by microorganisms which are being threatened.
"To understand the value of these microorganisms, we can look at New York City where similar microorganisms in the water supply are dying due to pesticides and fertilizers," Professor Chichilnisky said. The city is spending about $660 million to buy up adjoining land in order to preserve its watershed. However, the cost is a relative bargain compared to the more than $4 billion that would have been required to build water purification plants. "Investment in biological capital saved an investment of $4 billion in physical capital," she added.
The partners will also consider a project dealing with water circulation in the Florida Everglades, both a MAB biosphere reserve and World Heritage site.