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1 May 2001 The Biosphere Reserve as Living Space: Linking Conservation, Development and Research
Engelbert Ruoss, Susanne Wymann vo Dach
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MRD: Mr. Ruoss, the Entlebuch Biosphere Reserve Project (EBR), also known as “Habitat Entlebuch”, was begun in 1996. Can you briefly describe the Entlebuch region, including both its particular features and its problems?

Ruoss: Few regions in Switzerland have natural and cultural landscapes that are as intact as those in Entlebuch. This region at the foot of the Alps has many special natural features, including raised bogs and peat bogs, the Napf area, the Schrattenfluh, a great number of forested ravines, the Kleine Emme river system and its alluvial forest, and a great diversity of flora and fauna. As a consequence of the legislation to protect moorlands that resulted from the Rothenturm initiative in 1987, about 27% of Entlebuch, including 60% of the Commune of Flühli, became a protected area. This led to the idea of a biosphere reserve.

Initial skepticism about the term “reserve” was the reason that the initiators of the project called it “Habitat Entlebuch”. Later, those responsible for management of the region wanted to use the term “biosphere reserve” to convey a new meaning, emphasize international aspects, communicate openly, and promote tourism. The difficult economic conditions in Entlebuch and a new agricultural policy were important factors in helping to get the project off to a successful start.

You refer to difficult economic circumstances in Entlebuch and the change in Swiss agricultural policy that took place in the late 1990s. What socioeconomic difficulties and natural obstacles does Entlebuch face?

In many respects Entlebuch is a place of extremes. It has the highest taxes and the lowest income. The average farm is still very small, but levels of debt are quite high. More than four-fifths of the farms are full-time farms, and 36% of the population is engaged in the primary sector (as opposed to 4.6% in Switzerland in 1998). The agricultural population is greatly overaged, and there is a marked lack of people in the next generation with adequate agricultural experience. Given the lack of attractive, modern apprenticeships and jobs for the well-educated, young people are forced to migrate to towns. Most of the forests are privately owned and divided into small parcels, which makes conditions in the lumber business difficult. The region lacks businesses in the service sector that generate high added value. The WTO, price trends, and agricultural policy in 2002 will accelerate these developments.

The pressure on medium-sized farms is alleviated somewhat by direct payments for ecological services and contributions towards the care of protected areas as a result of the law on protection of moorlands. Farmers must think in business terms and market their products themselves or find their own marketing network. The heavy focus of the biosphere reserve on regional development must also be understood from this perspective. Only if we are successful in maintaining rural structures and historic cultural landscapes can we also be sure of maintaining the extensive bog ecosystems and moorlands in the long term.

UNESCO's Man and Biosphere Program will officially recognize the Entlebuch Biosphere Reserve Project in 2001. What are the aims and the requirements of this UNESCO program?

UNESCO intends to establish a global network of model regions with representative natural and cultural landscapes. This is expected to maintain valuable ecosystems and traditional forms of livelihood, promote exemplary forms of economic, social and ecological development, and foster research and education. UNESCO will advocate zoning to provide core zones, protected zones and development zones, as well as infrastructure for research and education.

In an annual report on regional management, you wrote that the idea of the biosphere reserve required a long germination phase and now seems to be gaining support slowly. How has Entlebuch progressed along this challenging path? Who were and who are the driving forces behind the project, and how strongly has it taken root among the population?

The Commune of Flühli, and especially its treasurer, Josef Emmenegger, have looked for ways to ensure future use of the protected zone, which amounts to more than 60% of the landscape. In the search for suitable solutions, the biosphere reserve model was examined and subsequently found to be well suited to the situation. Today the population sees that the bio sphere reserve concept represents an opportunity to position itself better in the contemporary market for tourism, a way of cultivating natural resources such as grass, wood and landscape, and a market for regional products.

The original driving force was the regional planning association; today it is the regional management team, which has a largely conceptual task and is responsible for trying to implement the concept professionally.

The population had a direct influence on making the Biosphere Reserve a reality, through well-attended public meetings in each of the eight communes concerned. These communes approved the proposal by majorities averaging 94%. Even at the preliminary planning stage, approximately 150 people had a chance for active participation and decision-making in working groups and local Agenda 21 projects (Alliance in the Alps). As a result, Entlebuch is the first biosphere reserve anywhere in the world that was democratically approved and structured from the bottom up.

Biosphere reserves must fulfill three functions: conservation, development and research. Are these three functions separate in the Entlebuch Biosphere Reserve, or have they been combined, and if so, how?

These three functions must be closely related. I no longer like to speak of “conservation”, a term that I find too static. A condition worthy of protection can only result from regular maintenance—especially of cultural landscapes, but also of protected peat bogs and natural meadows. The biosphere reserve program involves conservation of both natural and cultural landscapes.

The interactions between people, culture and nature are a very important part of the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Program. By contrast with the situation in national parks, economic and social development will be part of the overall concept in the future, along with research and education. At the same time, this will constitute a challenge for the experts and politicians of tomorrow, who will not be able to ignore the growth of participatory processes.

What will this mean in concrete terms for research and education in the Entlebuch Biosphere Reserve?

It means that even large-scale protected areas will be open to research in disciplines other than the purely organic natural sciences, such as economics and the social sciences. It will also mean a more integrated perspective involving interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary issues and working methods.

We hear much about the need to move from traditional research to interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary issues and working methods. But what is happening in reality? Are successful projects already underway in the Entlebuch Biosphere Reserve?

I am convinced that it is more realistic to focus on transdisciplinary topics than to engage in traditional research. But transdisciplinary topics are neglected in teaching and research. The National Science Foundation's Program 48, concerned with landscape and habitat in the Alps, is a notable exception. Yet consistent application of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary methods in this program will not be easy.

In principle, every project in the Bio sphere Reserve is interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary. For example, a dissertation concerned with monitoring the success of sustainable regional development is currently in progress. It will develop aims and indicators for tourism, agriculture, forestry, traffic and energy. These aims and indicators will also be defined and adapted for the region in workshops with representatives of various interests, and considered together with regional organizations.

The question of zoning in the Bio sphere Reserve is also a central one in many projects. This involves automatic integration of a utilization rate. Applied and thematically focused research is of course more relevant to the interests of the region. But this by no means excludes basic research.

“The regional managers bridge the gap between the research community and the population in the EBR.”

Research carried out in the EBR must be relevant to development. Who formulates the questions to be pursued? Which parties express their needs-the researchers or the subjects of research, ie communes, the local population, etc.?

We have not yet succeeded in involving the population in the formulation of research priorities. The rural population has little knowledge of or relation to state-of-the-art research. The migration of well-educated young people from the area and the lack of high-quality jobs also make active participation in research more difficult. The regional managers bridge the gap between the research community and the population in the EBR. The regional management sets priorities, takes initiatives, coordinates and provides support for projects, and informs the population about current research work while also taking account of their interests. Those who are the subjects of research can quickly become guinea pigs, which may lead to hostile expressions of resistance. To prevent this from happening, it is vital to establish a partnership characterized by adequate respect among researchers and their subjects.

In other words, the population has not yet recognized the importance of research in the development of their living environment. But why? In countries in the South, approaches such as participatory research and action research have been used for years, in order to involve people while research aims are being developed and during the entire research process. Do you see any chance of involving the people of Entlebuch at an earlier stage?

The population is certainly not unaware of the importance of research, nor is it the case that people would not be involved in research. But Swiss research priorities in areas such as nanotechnology, electrotechnology, genetic engineering and biotechnology are not priority issues for the people of Entlebuch. Nor are international journals published in English part of their everyday reading material. On the other hand, it is difficult to explain the applied and practical research that is needed in Entlebuch to the research community in Switzerland.

Those responsible for management of the region have developed a research strategy in cooperation with the research commission of EBR that establishes the aims and priorities of research in Entlebuch. Research should address issues of immediate concern to the local population. It should further and help to implement the concerns of the Biosphere Reserve while also meeting national and international research standards. Historical and indigenous knowledge should be given special consideration and encouragement.

Specific efforts are made to involve people in issues that are a focus of research, primarily when they possess particular expertise. I believe their involvement with these issues and in the preparation of reports is feasible, although research work per se must be carried out by experts. The responsibility and commitment to society shown by researchers could help to improve the credibility of research work in Entlebuch, as elsewhere. This would be much more meaningful for rural populations than participation and co-determination. Anyone can now survey current research activities in the EBR on our web site (, in German).

Specialists will naturally feel torn between the needs of the local population and the demands of international research policy. That is why we are particularly seeking generalists as well as team- and practice-oriented researchers. This context gives new meaning not only to the expertise of the intellectual community but also to their impact and capacity to communicate.

Why must expertise be linked with impact and communications skills?

Working to achieve and implement sustainable regional development is a complex undertaking. Close collaboration with the population in participatory processes demands a considerable measure of credible information and communication. People here have learned from experience—especially in the case of the moorland inventory—that research can have disadvantages for them. Moreover, they are usually not in a position to be aware of and verify the results of research. People who carry out research in participatory projects therefore face a greater personal challenge than researchers in an ivory tower or the protected atmosphere of a national park.

There is a demand for interdisciplinary research and new researchers with social skills. Is there also a need to investigate new topics specifically tailored to the Alpine foothill region of Entlebuch? I am thinking here of the previously mentioned difficulties that Entlebuch must confront, which are perhaps typical of mountain regions

Topics in the social sciences, sustainable resource management, regional economics and regional development are obviously very important. But close proximity to nature can also inspire local interest in geology, hydrology, ecology and living organisms. But these areas are still not receiving priority attention by the research community in Switzerland.

I believe it is more important that we change our way of looking at things. Too often our views reflect those of urban areas with universities outside the Alps. Mountain regions should retain their own identity, and institutions of higher learning must simultaneously accept their responsibility for socioeconomic and cultural developments. Perhaps this will lead to greater understanding and acceptance of the benefits of research among mountain populations.

“The population had a direct influence on making the biosphere reserve a reality, through well-attended public meetings in each of the eight communes concerned. These communes approved the proposal by majorities averaging 94%.”


Engelbert Ruoss, the project manager of the Entlebuch Biosphere Reserve in Switzerland. (Photo courtesy of the Entlebuch Biosphere Reserve)



Flühli lies in the midst of the Entlebuch Bio sphere Reserve, at the foot of the Schwändelifluh. (Photo courtesy of Biosphärenreservat Entlebuch)



UNESCO's model of biosphere reserve management. (Photo courtesy of UNESCO)



A student collecting lichens in the EBR, to obtain data for a bioindication research program. (Photo by Engelbert Ruoss)

Engelbert Ruoss and Susanne Wymann vo Dach "The Biosphere Reserve as Living Space: Linking Conservation, Development and Research," Mountain Research and Development 21(2), 128-131, (1 May 2001).[0128:TBRALS]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 May 2001
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