The Mount Arrowsmith Biosphere Reserve (MABR) has two years to get its act together or face losing its UNESCO designation, but where did it go wrong?
The reserve failed a periodic review last year, stating that it does not meet the statutory framework criteria for biosphere reserves and must prepare and implement an overall strategy and action plan by 2013.
Current president of the Mount Arrowsmith Biosphere Foundation (MABF) Holly Clermont said although it’s certainly possible for a group to do it, she’s not so sure this organization is up for it.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that it can happen, but whether the foundation’s involved… I’m not sure about that.”
Clermont did her Master’s thesis on the biosphere reserve and said one of the problems she discovered with the local reserve was that it has never been firmly grounded in the community.
“There are other biosphere reserves that have complete widespread community support,” she said.
This is due to a change in nomination requirements a few years after Mt. Arrowmsmith got its designation in 2000, she explained. When the newer reserves completed their documents they had to go into the community and ensure people knew about and supported the nomination, she said.
Glen Jamieson formed the MABF in 1996 and was president until 2009. After he stepped down he said the group starting receiving government funding, $57,000 a year, and this caused some problems for the group. Suddenly a large group of people became involved in the organization, including those with advocacy agendas.
“This issue didn’t arise (when he was president) because we didn’t have a large membership who were demanding that we become an advocacy (group). Because we had no funding… we were just a little tiny group trying to get money.”
The problem is you can’t take an advocacy role within the MABR, he said, it’s against the mandate of the UNESCO biosphere program and would therefore cause the reserve to lose its status and its funding.
The periodic review also came at an unfortunate time for the foundation, Jamieson said, because the government funding they were approved for didn’t appear to be forthcoming and this led to a number of directors stepping down with liability concerns. As a result there was no clear direction as to where the biosphere was going, he said, and it didn’t look like the community was behind it.
Clermont was elected to the board in 2009 and said the experienced, dynamic board that year put a number of protocols in place and arranged for some interesting projects. The following year in March six of the eight board members were re-elected as well as a couple of people from the activist community. By May all the previous board members had resigned, except herself and the two activists, she said. It was shortly after this that the periodic review began.
But by November the board was successfully rebuilt, Clermont said, with many wonderful and enthusiastic people. There were still some problems within the board however and this was evident at the annual general meeting in June of this year.
As Parksville acting Mayor Chris Burger put it, the group needs to work on their governance and decide whether the biosphere board should take an advocacy role or remain a neutral organization that brings different groups together and facilitates discussion.
Board member Phil Carson spoke at the meeting, saying he had been sent a slanderous letter from other board members asking him to step down. He stated certain board members were painting him as “some kind of wide-eyed environmentalist” even though those weren’t his intentions.
Clermont said the board members with advocacy intentions are making it hard to bring in groups from the private sector and government groups for meaningful discussion.
“That’s what the biosphere concept is all about,” she said. “It’s meant to bring those factions together, not to debate but to dialogue and talk about stuff… to learn from each other.”
Stan Boychuk, chair of the of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO National Committee for Man and the Biosphere, said there has not really been a functioning board of directors throughout the past 10 years of MABR, but regardless the group should not look to the past but instead to the future.
“I think the Mount Arrowsmith Biosphere reserve should consider spending their time on how they are going to meet the functioning criteria and coming up with a strategic action plan that can be submitted to the International Advisory Committee in two years time,” he said.
The issues of the reserve finding its place within the community, creating a sound governance model, dealing with a high turnover of directors and finding a balance between interests of sustainability and conservation are not new problems, he said. In fact all 580 biosphere reserves have those struggles, he said.
The Biosphere Reserve movement and the Man and Biosphere Reserve program is 40 years old this year and is still learning who is it as a functioning organization, he said. It’s how the group deals with the situation before them that matters now.
“Those struggles happen in all biosphere reserves and they happen in every country so it is not anything that is unique or particular to Mount Arrowsmith,” he said. “It’s how that struggle manifests itself in the abilities of the communities to put aside what their past interests are and work together collectively as a community, and that’s the challenge for Mount Arrowsmith.”
Clermont said following the last AGM a group of people have mobilized and are concentrating on a contingency plan to make sure the biosphere reserve will continue in some form, and that the strategy and action plan get done, regardless of what happens to the foundation. She herself is busy working on a PhD, and won’t have the time to continue on with the group, she said, besides in a periphery role.
The next AGM will happen in September she said, and she and other board members are trying to get as much done as possible before then, to ensure important projects go forward.
There will also be an attempt at a mediation at that meeting but unfortunately she’s not too optimistic about the end result of that, she said.
Both Boychuk and Jamieson believe the MABR will come through and meet the set requirements by 2013. Boychuk said there is commitment within the community and good minded people who want to see this happen. But those that want to work for an environmental organization should do that, he said, instead of trying to co-opt the concept of the biosphere reserve to serve their own particular interests.
Jamieson said the biosphere concept is a hard one for some people to grasp because unlike other groups there aren’t clear objectives and it requires long term vision.
“This is a much broader mandate and so people have to kind of get there head around that,” he said, explaining: “We’re not going to count birds or save this Island, we are going to try to generate research which will get discussion on as to what’s worth saving.”