MAB Youth Forum

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©Christian Leone

From 18 to 22 September 2017, 276 Youth delegates from over 138 biosphere reserves in 84 countries gathered during the first ever MAB Youth Forum in the Po Delta Biosphere Reserve, Italy. They either live or work in a biosphere reserve, areas that are committed to developing solutions reconciling the conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use. The MAB Youth Forum is organized to offer an opportunity for young people who care about the special territories in which they live in to become active in the MAB Programme and to contribute to the sustainable development of their communities, in line with the Lima Action Plan.

The forum was organized by UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere programme (MAB), UNESCO’s Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe based in Venice and the Po Delta Biosphere Reserve, under the auspices of the Italian Ministries of the Environment and Protection of Land and Sea; of Foreign Affairs; of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism; and of Education, Universities and Research. It counted on the support of the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Padova e Rovigo, the Veneto and Emilia‐Romagna Regional Governments and the PiùInForma association.

The 2017 MAB Youth Forum was part of UNESCO’s efforts to ensure that young women and men are engaged in policies and programmes affecting them, and lead action to promote peace and sustainable development in their countries and communities. The participants have been carefully selected and invited upon evaluation of a personal letter of motivation and considering a support letter from their respective Biosphere Reserve / MAB National Committee / National Commission for UNESCO. This was done with the aim of selecting participants who were already engaged with UNESCO and the MAB Programme in their respective living/working context, and could therefore commit themselves to follow‐up concretely on the outcomes of the Forum.

The majority of participants came from the Europe and North America Region, with a total of 187 participants, unlikely to the Arab States region which was represented by 10 participants, while the Africa, Asia and the Pacific and Latin America and the Caribbean regions were represented by 30, 26, and 22 attendees respectively. It should be noted however that the Forum was organized in Italy and that it attracted therefore a high number of young Italians (76), belonging to Europe. Excluding this high number of participants from Italy, the number of countries and the number of BRs represented per region were, in proportion, perfectly in line with the number of countries and BRs as they are distributed per region in the World Network of Biosphere Reserves. The MAB Youth Forum was therefore highly representative of the diversity and richness of it's World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

Important to note is that from a gender balance perspective, the Forum attracted globally more females than males, a trend confirmed for all regions except Africa. This an important achievement since gender equality is considered a UNESCO global priority.

The forum was conceived as an event that would provide young people with a unique opportunity to meet, debate and share their vision and commitment to sustainable development. The forum was fully aligned with the UNESCO's Operational Strategy on Youth, which aims “to ensure that young women and men are engaged in policies and programmes affecting them, and lead action to promote peace and sustainable development in their countries and communities”. Youth are agents of change, social transformation, peace and sustainable development. With about 1.8 billion young people between the ages of 10 and 24, accounting for nearly 25% of the world’s population, the world has the largest generation of young people in history. Despite narratives that point to young women and men as a challenge, a risk or a burden, this is an opportunity. As such, young women and men are concerned and affected by UNESCO’s work, not only as beneficiaries of services and activities but also as actors ready to engage within its initiatives.

Apart from the goals related to the MAB programme, another goal of this forum was to build together with the Social and Human Sciences sector of UNESCO an example of best practice in engaging with Youth, adopting a truly bottom‐up approach in listening to them, letting them express their needs and requests and collecting their proposals. In line with the approach adopted for the organization of the 10th UNESCO Youth Forum (October 2017), the primary aim was to build sustainable relationships with young changemakers that are leading or co‐shaping impactful initiatives in a UNESCO field of competence.

In order to discuss things that really matter to young people, the forum was built in a highly participatory manner around themes to be discussed chosen directly by the participants as a result of the online consultations and surveys (full reports will be made available very soon). Through these surveys, the participants had already been active in voicing that they want more space in governance, more space and cooperation in research and more occupational opportunities. During the Forum, young participants openly discussed with one other to reach the final declaration that should have a real impact on the programme and their lives in the biosphere reserves.

Another factor which has determined the success of this first ever MAB Youth Forum was the strong involvement of the hosting Biosphere Reserve in its preparation and running. The locations for workshops and destinations for excursions have been carefully selected in order to let the participants have a direct experience of the most symbolic places of that territory, but also to let them touch by hand relevant experiences related to most of the topics under discussion during the forum: green economy and social innovation, nature conservation and sustainable use of resources, sustainable tourism development, etc. This has been a highly inspirational experience for most of the participants.

Thanks to its well balanced rotation of plenary sessions, parallel working group sessions, excursions and free time left for interactions among participants, the Forum has been lived by the most of them as a unique opportunity to connect, exchange, inspire each other and establish contacts which should last.

The MAB Youth Forum Declaration calls on the World Network of Biosphere Reserves to share scientific and indigenous knowledge widely and to support knowledge transmission to future generation. Biosphere reserve managers are encouraged to work with schools to develop specific programmes and to strengthen ties between research institutions and local stakeholders. The young participants made a commitment to organize events with the local communities on diverse cultural, environmental and economic issues, and to train and encourage young people to be more active in their biosphere reserves. They will also act as ambassadors of their biosphere reserves and develop tools to promote values and good practices broadly.

The participants were particularly concerned with fostering attractive and long term employment opportunities linked to the values of biosphere reserves, such as the conservation of biodiversity and habitat restoration. This would retain youth in biosphere reserves and promote innovation. They suggested creating hubs and incubators, together with training programmes, to support business creation and employability.

Potential initiatives to be explored include the creation of a thematic network for youth, regional youth forums, a funding advisory board, and volunteer and exchange programmes in biosphere reserves. The youth delegates remarked that further efforts could be made to collect data on youth engagement and to incorporate youth perspectives in the Man and Biosphere (MAB) programme’s toolkits and documents.

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2017 MAB Youth Forum Declaration

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