Preserve by proffiting: UNESCO Biosphere Reserves in Southeastern Mexico

The Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Program was created in 1971 with a vision: to promote a sustainable connection between people and nature. As it evolved, the original idea materialized in the designation of Biosphere Reserves, living laboratories that drive nature-based solutions for sustainable development.

By Rosa María Mascareño González

Through the "Support Program for Sustainable Development along the Mayan Train Route: Strengthening and Safeguarding Cultural and Natural Heritage", the UNESCO Office in Mexico is working to promote people-centered sustainable development, based on the recognition and appreciation of local cultures, as well as the sustainable management of biodiversity, in accordance with the 2030 Agenda and integrating other international flagship programs of UNESCO, such as the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Program and its World Network of Biosphere Reserves (WNBR).


UNESCO's Biosphere Reserves 

The Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Program was created in 1971 with a vision: to promote a sustainable connection between people and nature. As it evolved, the original idea materialized in the designation of Biosphere Reserves, living laboratories that drive nature-based solutions for sustainable development.

Whether terrestrial and/or marine ecosystems, BRs are characterized as sites that host human communities, who live from sustainable economic activities without jeopardizing the ecological value of the site (UNESCO, 2016). The territory in which the Tren Maya route is planned hosts five of these sites of excellence for testing and demonstrating conservation and sustainable development methods on a regional scale:

  1. Reserva de Biosfera de Calakmul, Campeche
  2. Ría Celestún, Yucatán
  3. Sian Ka’an, Quintana Roo
  4. Banco Chinchorro, Quintana Roo
  5. Isla de Cozumel, Quintana Roo

Biosphere Reserves comprise one or several legally constituted core zones dedicated to long-term protection; one or several buffer zones; a transition zone where public authorities, local communities and companies promote and practice forms of sustainable exploitation of resources (UNESCO, 2016). Within this scheme, they fulfill three basic, equal and mutually complementary functions:

  1. Conservation: conservation of natural and biocultural diversity.
  2. Development: support for sustainable economic and social development and cultural diversity.
  3. Logistic support: support and promotion of model projects, training and education for sustainable development, research and monitoring related to nature conservation and sustainable development at the local level, taking into account national and global scales.

Some of these BRs in the Mayan territory safeguard sites with other international recognitions: sites recognized in the UNESCO World Heritage List for their Outstanding Universal Value (OUV), those that due to their extraordinary cultural and/or natural importance transcend national borders and become important for the present and future generations of all humanity; wetlands of international importance recognized by the Ramsar Convention; sites considered as

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is even working on a proposal to recognize the Milpa Maya as a world agricultural heritage site.

These multiple recognitions further highlight the importance of this particular territory and offer the possibility of establishing synergies between different UNESCO programs.

The Yucatan Peninsula is a world reference for its seagrass meadows, salt marshes and mangroves, considered "blue carbon" ecosystems for their benefits as biosphere carbon sinks, by capturing and storing considerable amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and oceans, they contribute greatly to mitigating climate change. In this sense, their degradation can release thousands of tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and oceans and thereby contribute to global warming (UNESCO, 2020).

Ecosystems such as Sian Ka'an are essential for marine and terrestrial biodiversity since a great variety of terrestrial species use the mangroves, as well as blue carbon ecosystems foster fisheries because they are fish breeding grounds and food providers and support coastal food webs including coral reefs, which make a considerable contribution to the livelihoods and cultural practices and values of local and traditional communities living in the Biosphere Reserves.

Community Conservation Modalities

Some resident and neighboring communities of BRs or Natural Protected Areas, aware of the urgency to conserve them and use their resources in a responsible manner, adopt management mechanisms such as Areas Voluntarily Designated for Conservation (ADVC). In Mexico, the General Law on Ecological Balance and Environmental Protection (LGEEPA) incorporates these instruments that promote the direct participation of communities in environmental management. HCVFs are considered productive sites dedicated to a function of public interest, since they provide environmental services, contain and safeguard diverse species of flora and fauna, contribute to the representativeness and ecological connectivity between NPAs, promote the culture of conservation and sustainable development, among individuals, indigenous peoples and civil associations.

Some ejidos in the municipality of Calakmul have opted to adopt this category of protection. This certification granted by CONANP encourages the creation of sustainable land management and land use models that contribute to the conservation of the biosphere reserve.

Table 1. UNESCO Biosphere Reserves within the TM route. Own elaboration with information from UNESCO and CONANP.

UNESCO Biosphere Reserves Within the TM Route


Year designation

Another UNESCO assignations


Total Surface

Marine surface

Protected tropical forests of Calakmul

Designation: 1993
Extension: 2006

World Heritage

State: Campeche
Municipalities: Calakmul, Hopelchen

1,371,766 ha


Celestún River


RAMSAR Site (2004)

States: Campeche, Yucatán
Municipalities: Calkini, Celestun, Maxcanu, Hunucma, Halacho

60,348 ha

19,555.76 ha

Sian Ka'an


RAMSAR Site (2003)
World Heritage (1987) 

World Marine Heritage

State: Quintana Roo
Municipalities: Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Solidaridad, Bacalar

528,148 ha

153,135.79 ha

Banco Chinchorro


RAMSAR Site (2004)
UNESCO's Indicative List 

State: Quintana Roo
Municipalities: In front of de Othón P. Blanco coast

144,360.00 ha

143,774.21 ha

Cozumel Island


Double RAMSAR Site Designation: 1) Cozumel Reefs National Park (2005) and 2) Mangroves and Wetlands of North Cozumel Island (2009)

State: Quintana Roo
Municipalities: Cozumel

134,623.73 ha

1) 32,095.96 ha
2)11,905.60 ha

These models aim to ensure the responsible use of natural resources, reduce the vulnerability of society and ecosystems to the effects of climate change, maintain and increase carbon sinks, and guarantee ecological connectivity between terrestrial ecosystems, in addition to protected areas. Traditional productive practices, based on the ecological knowledge of Mayan communities, are examples of conservation models in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Restoration and management: Tolches, the Mayan legal estate and slash-and-burn

Tolches¹ are bands of arboreal vegetation about 20 meters wide, located along rivers and roads. They are larger strips than the tolchés, approximately 2 km wide; they remain around the Mayan populations and have been respected, restored and maintained by the inhabitants of the region for the protection of lagoons, apiaries, cornfields, rivers and cenotes (CONACyT, 2021). The tolché also serves as an infrastructure and source of supply, delimits the landscape, provides shade and resting spaces, and produces firewood, fruit, and construction materials.

The tropical forests of the Yucatan peninsula have been domesticated by the Mayan culture through the adaptation of practices such as slash-and-burn. This activity is maintained, particularly in the Calakmul BR, thanks to a distinctive feature of the forest, the ability of woody species to re-establish and propagate from resprouts that persist to this traditional agroforestry system (Zúñiga, 2021).

Hunting, firewood collection, beekeeping and meliponiculture are carried out both in the milpa and in areas under forest restoration (Toledo, 2008). These manifestations of ecological knowledge and traditional productive practices are part of the intangible cultural heritage in the Maya territory, have been part of the interaction between humans and nature for more than two thousand years, and were key to the site's designation as a mixed property on the World Heritage List.

 The waterfalls

Another attribute of the Maya jungle, exploited since ancient times, are the aguadas, whose importance lies in being the only source of water for several human groups, to the extent that nearly 100 communities in the municipality of Calakmul depend on them for their daily activities. In addition, the aguadas are indispensable for the survival of wildlife. Studies reveal that in Calakmul there is one every 9.3 km² and every year several remain dry. The aguadas are small lagoons with an unpredictable pattern of water, even so, they are the most sought after sites by several species such as hocofaisanes, tapirs and white-lipped peccaries that need to stay close to them during the dry season to drink, refresh themselves and get rid of parasites (Hurtado, 2019).

The aguadas can be considered one of the most important pieces of the landscape in Calakmul for biodiversity conservation, in addition to their ecosystem services, they are laboratories of knowledge for wildlife observation and recording.

"To conserve by producing, respecting traditional knowledge, local organization, collective work between the inhabitants, researchers and the government, is to make the Biosphere Reserves, like Calakmul, continue to be humanized jungles, miraculous jungles." (Zúñiga, 2021)

MAB in Mexico

Since the beginning of the MAB program, Mexico has been a protagonist thanks to the contribution of knowledge of great people. In 2021, the World Network of Biosphere Reserves unites in its diversity to pay tribute to those who have shaped the program for 50 years.

UNESCO Mexico takes this opportunity to recognize the work of Gonzalo Halffter Salas, Arturo Gómez Pompa and Sergio Guevara, pioneers in the formation of MAB and the establishment of the first biosphere reserves under the "Mexican modality of biosphere reserves"; always promoters in the search for a more harmonious life in each of the world's ecosystems.

The Mexican modality revolutionized the conception of Natural Protected Areas by considering them, in addition to conservation spaces, natural sites for research and training of high-level scientific personnel, which contemplate and encourage the possibility of experiencing productive activities that are sustainable, harmonious with biodiversity and developed for the benefit of local populations (Halffter, 2015).

The transition zones of the Biosphere Reserves in southeastern Mexico result in opportunities for the Program to accompany sustainable development along the route of the Mayan Train: strengthening and safeguarding cultural and natural heritage, since it is precisely in these fractions of the territory where public authorities, local communities and companies have an open space for the development of strategies in which will be better preserve taking advantage of all.

1 (From mayan t’o’ol=line ycge’=’tree).


  • CONACyT. Rehabilitating the Lacandon jungle with traditional techniques. El Colegio de la Frontera Sur. Conacyt. Retrieved May 2021 from
  • Halffter, G., Tinoco, C., Iñiguez, L., Ortega, R. 2015. Natural Protected Areas and Scientific Research in Mexico. Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas del Noroeste, S.C. La Paz, Mexico.
  • Hurtado, R. 2019. Aguadas de Calakmul. Wildlife sanctuaries. Ecofronteras, 2019, vol. 23, no. 66,pp. 9-12.
  • Toledo, V., Barrera, N., García, E., Alarcón, P. 2008. Multiple use and Biodiversity among the Yucatec Maya (Mexico). Interciencia. 2008, vol. 33, no. 5, pp.345-352.
  • UNESCO. 2016. Lima Action Plan for UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme and its World Network of Biosphere Reserves (2016-2025). World Congress of Biosphere Reserves on 17 March 2016, and approved by the 28th Session of the MAB-ICC on 19 March 2016, Lima, Peru.
  • UNESCO. 2020. UNESCO Marine World Heritage: guardians of the planet's blue carbon stocks. Paris, France.
  • Zúñiga, J. 2021. A miraculous jungle or a humanized jungle. Trenificado. Retrieved March 24, 2021 from: