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posted 06/18/02

EI Contact: Mary Tobin
845-365-8607 or

UNESCO Contact: Susan Byng- Clarke
212-963-5986 or

Columbia University and UNESCO Launch Joint Partnership
Six biologically and culturally significant locations to receive assistance

On June 21, 2002, at the United Nations, The Earth Institute at Columbia University and the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB) will formally announce The Columbia University/UNESCO Joint Program on Biosphere and Society (CUBES). CUBES is the first joint partnership between Columbia University and the United Nations. Its mission is to assist local communities around the globe in adapting to rapid environmental and societal change and to share information between societies facing similar challenges. Jeffrey Sachs, the Earth Institute's new Director and a special advisor to the United Nations, and Peter Bridgewater, Secretary of the Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB), will welcome guests at a luncheon and presentation for CUBES, led by Coordinator Christine Alfsen-Norodom, on Friday, June 21, from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. at the United Nations Headquarters. Press are welcome to attend, but must RSVP to Mary Tobin at 845-365-8607 or by 12:00 p.m. on June 20th. Please use the visitor's entrance on 46th Street and First Avenue. A UNESCO/CUBES representative will meet you in the lobby to escort you to Private Dining Room 6. According to Peter Bridgewater,"knowledge networking is currently one of the top priorities for UNESCO. CUBES represents an important contribution to this, reflecting several aspects of UNESCO's mandate, such as education for all, the promotion of sustainable development, protection of cultural diversity, and bridging the digital divide."

This joint partnership is the outcome of the UNESCO/Columbia University International Conference on Biodiversity and Society, held in May 2001. The Conference adopted a Declaration calling "upon our colleagues in government and civil society to embrace flexible, multifaceted and democratic visions of biodiversity conservation and sustainable development tailored to the social, cultural and environmental particularities of each location." Nine case studies were presented - all productive landscapes where humans play pivotal roles in environmental processes. Common themes were explored and subsequently used to establish the six research sites that CUBES will launch its ongoing program with:

Tonle Sap Site, Cambodia

The Tonle Sap Great Lake is one of Cambodia's most important natural resources with over one million people relying upon its fisheries for their livelihoods and much of the country's entire population living within its floodplain. The lake's complex systems play a major role in the ecology of the lower Mekong River system, and much of Cambodia's economy, culture, and identity is connected to the Tonle Sap Lake.

Growing population pressures, inequality of access rights and deficient governance are aggravating conflicts over natural resources and threatening the sustainability of the lake's ecosystems and resources base. In response to this, and as part of a broader program of governance reforms, the Cambodian government in partnership with CUBES is promoting integrated, systems-wide, natural resources management for the Tonle Sap. A key feature of this strategy is the designation of the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve as part of the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

New York City Site, USA

Nearly half of the world's population is urban and the trend toward urbanization will continue to accelerate over the next 25 years. It is becoming increasingly important that the effects of urbanization on the environment are identified and interpreted. CUBES is organizing an international partnership of cities, including NYC, Madrid, Rome, São Paulo and Cape Town, where scientists and stakeholders will examine and discuss the ecological footprint of cities, how the natural diversity of a city interacts with cultural diversity and ways and means to devise socially inclusive models for urban sustainability. New York City is a pilot in this project, and members the CUBES Urban Biosphere Group are leading a discussion on how the Biosphere reserve concept may help New York and New Yorkers manage their enormous footprint and become a laboratory for urban sustainability.

Iquitos Floodplain Site, Peru

The Sector Muyuy, a rural area neighboring Iquitos, which is the largest city of Peruvian Amazonia, highlights extraordinary examples of managed biodiversity. The inhabitants of this area have developed complex and diverse resource management and production technologies that allow them to produce for a dynamic urban market without converting the forested landscape into cattle ranches or mono-specific industrial plantations. The small farmers and forest managers of Muyuy also respond effectively to a highly dynamic and unpredictable floodplain environment. These technologies and the experiences of people who are using them offer notable opportunities for promoting conservation and resolving conflicts between conservation and development goals. The goal of the CUBES project is to increase communication between Peruvian research and policy circles and local farmers, and, in particular, to increase awareness of the importance of local initiatives in agrobiodiversity conservation. A long-term goal of the project is to produce policy recommendations for the incorporation of local initiatives for conservation and development, as well as the regulation of resource access and tenure of land and water resources.

Grasslands Sites, Kenya and USA

The North American desert grasslands, like their counterparts in Africa, Asia, and Australia, have been shaped by the long-standing interaction of humans with their environment. The environmental consequences of ranching have long been debated with some believing that they represent a major threat to ecological systems, and others believing that they are key to long-term conservation. The approach adopted in this project suggests that the maintenance of grasslands diversity and productivity rests on the mobility of herding cultures, with breakdowns in these systems when human components become sedentary. Through a CUBES partnership between ranching communities in the borderlands of Arizona and New Mexico and traditional ranchers in the Masai country of Kenya, various approaches will be tested for the preservation of grasslands and the maintenance of productivity, biodiversity and cultural diversity in the two sites. The results of this project will contribute to the current debate on the movement of conservation away from strictly protected areas and toward a landscape approach that incorporates a variety of land tenure and ownership patterns and considers cultural diversity as essential to the conservation of landscapes.

Cape Town Site, South Africa

The City of Cape Town sprawls across the heart of the Cape Floral Kingdom, a tiny, unique, and extraordinarily rich biome. Like South Africa itself, Cape Town presents a microcosm of the world. This famously beautiful city of some 3.5 million people draws identity and resilience from its rich blend of ecological, cultural, and linguistic diversity. Today, Cape Town continues to redefine itself with the goal of becoming a world leader in inclusiveness and in environmental sustainability. However the city faces enormous challenges. Severe housing, sanitation, and security problems afflict large populations of people crowded into former townships and informal settlements who must also cope with an AIDS crisis of staggering proportions. At the same time, urban sprawl, ecosystem fragmentation, alien invasive plants and disruption of the natural fire regime threaten the survival of the Cape Floral Kingdom.

CUBES is collaborating a team of local specialists drawn from government and civil society in their project of developing the idea of an urban biosphere reserve as a tool for socially inclusive and environmentally friendly forms of urban management. To commence this collaboration, CUBES is currently sponsoring a case study that examines how a cluster of biosphere reserves encompassing Cape Town and its surrounding areas may be developed so as to provide maximum benefit to the poorest members of society living in the former townships and informal settlements of the Cape Flats.

Congo Basin Site, Democratic Republic of Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) is home to over 65% of the Congo Basin tropical forest. It is spectacularly rich in biodiversity and other natural resources, ranging from precious minerals to timber to a hydroelectric potential capable of supplying energy to most of the African continent. Equally rich in human resources, the DRC is an intensely cosmopolitan country, with over 400 distinct languages and cultures, a vibrant cultural and artistic life, as well as significant technical and scientific capacities within government and civil society. However the people continue to suffer from the traumatic legacy of the previous regime, civil war, manipulations by multi-national corporate interests, the ongoing foreign intervention, and the pillaging of the country's timber, game, and mineral resources. Millions of lives have been lost, and the vast majority of the people live in desperate poverty with no access to the most basic services.

In the D.R.C., CUBES is working with the UNESCO sponsored Regional Graduate School of Tropical Forestry (ERAIFT) at the University of Kinshasa to establish it as the focal point for knowledge networking activities aimed at supporting malaria prevention programs, leveraging civil society initiatives for poverty reduction and environmental security in Kinshasa, and developing a biosphere reserve model for the Bombo-Lumene Game Reserve that will enable local people and national authorities to collaborate in the conservation and management of their natural resources.

CUBES will seek to develop and share knowledge on these six sites through international conferences, site workshops, teaching, and the networking of information through the UNESCO and other agencies of the United Nations and Columbia University and a number of associated research institutions and NGOs.

"CUBES represents an experiment in knowledge networking for capacity development in biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation. CUBES' site-based activities will give local people access to global knowledge resources, international visibility, and leverage on the international environmental governance agenda," said Christine Alfsen-Norodom.

Between 2004 and 2006, CUBES expects to add additional sites, including Clayoquot Sound in British Columbia; the Austrian, Hungarian and Slovenian boarder country; the Mongolian Grasslands; the Indonesian island Java; Opotiki, located on the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand; Mumbai, India; São Paulo, Brazil; and Costa Rica.

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