Learning is increasingly considered a means to achieve sustainability in practice and has become a prominent goal of sustainability interventions. The UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves seeks to bring environmental conservation, socio-economic development and research together in ‘learning sites for sustainable development.’ The World Network is globally significant, with 669 sites in 120 countries, yet as with many paradigmatic sustainability interventions there is a widespread notion that biosphere reserves suffer from a ‘concept-reality gap.’ When assessing practical, ‘on-ground’ manifestations of the concept in accordance with UNESCO documentation and formally stated aims and ambitions, observers have often been disappointed. But while many biosphere reserves (BRs) no doubt face significant challenges, these approaches to assessing outcomes – taken alone – may not reveal the complete picture. They tend to assume that BRs are a single, standardized concept (against which local actions should be measured), and carry implicit assumptions about how learning for sustainability should take place and what it should include. In this paper, we suggest that taking the inverse approach – paying close attention to practitioners’ interpretations of BRs and their experiences of working with the BR concept – can help build a richer picture of learning for sustainability, with significant implications for the ways that BR may fulfil their role as learning sites. To this end, we provide an interpretive, multi-case analysis of learning in 11 BRs around the world. We ask: (a) How is the BR concept interpreted and enacted by people involved with BR work? (b) What kinds of learning emerge through BR work, as described by the people involved? We find that participants interpret BRs in a number of different ways, from ‘collaborative platform’ to ‘marketing label’, and that that these meanings are entangled with the institutional, political and ecological histories of each location. BR work therefore encompasses a range of activities, from clearing invasive species to arranging art-science festivals, and these activities shape and are shaped by the meaning of each BR as well as the evolving social-ecological context. Learning occurs around three broad themes across the sites – human-environment relationships; actors and governance arrangements; and skills and capacities to negotiate the ad hoc, unplanned nature of much BR work – but is expressed very differently in each BR. While our results make identifying generic ‘lessons learned’ difficult, they illustrate the BR’s value in providing opportunities for participants to learn about the complex social-ecological processes involved in pursuing sustainability. In particular, the BR’s position ‘in the middle’ of local, regional and global forces; social, ecological and economic goals; and government, business and civil society actors, points toward a potential role for BRs as experimental arenas for sustainability, rather than replicable models per se. Our interpretive, multi-case approach provides a novel contribution to research on biosphere reserves and the broader literature on learning for sustainability.
learning, biosphere reserves, interpretive, social-ecological systems, complexity