It has the largest landscape and ecological diversity in the Basque Country

Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve, 30 years (1984-2014)

Paula Caviedes. Director of Conservation, Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve.

Thirty years ago, Urdaibai was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, giving international recognition to the important natural and cultural values it contains. This is how it began a pioneering commitment to becoming a leader in research, implementation and dissemination of new forms of relationship between human beings and nature.

It is the oldest protected space in the Basque Country, the only one that has a norm with the status of a law for its protection as, in 1989, Act 5/1989 was unanimously approved by the Basque Parliament in order to protect and promote the recovery of all its ecosystems.

The Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve spans 22,000 hectares along the Oka river basin. Urdaibai hosts 45,000 inhabitants and includes 22 municipalities within its territory.

The Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve has a natural heritage that is well-preserved, of great value and relevance. Examples are the Oka estuary and the Cantabrian holm oak woods surrounding it, the beaches and the coastal cliffs that caress the Bay of Biscay, concentrations of scattered Atlantic oak woods and the Atlantic countryside carved by its inhabitants for years.

Urdaibai probably has the largest landscape and ecological diversity in the Basque Country, as it has more than 3,000 species, of which more than 80 have been internationally recognised. This is why a large part of its territory has been designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under the Natura 2000 European Network: its Cantabrian holm oak woods, its estuary (which is included in the RAMSAR international list of wetlands), coastline and intricate river network. Furthermore, the estuary and coastline have also been designated as a Special Protection Area for Wild Birds (SPA).

Moreover, Urdaibai has an interesting and diverse geological heritage. About 260 million years of the Earth’s history are recorded in its rocks, minerals and fossils. From folds, faults, old fossiliferous reefs, submarine fans (flysch type) or former submarine volcanoes to current coastal, estuarine, karst or river deposits.

Particularly noteworthy is the different land use made over time in Urdaibai, which has given rise to dispersed population areas that lend diversity to the landscape. This territory also has a large number of archaeological, historical and cultural aspects that make up a rich cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible.

Like all Biosphere Reserves, Urdaibai is divided into three zones:

Like any other Biosphere Reserve, Urdaibai operates its activities around three functions: conservation, sustainable development and logistic support (research, interpretation, education and training). These three areas are developed through Action Plans that are currently being reviewed and updated.

Regarding its conservation role, special mention should be made of the work carried out all these years, both in its preventive arm through the application of the regulations provided in the Urdaibai Act and its Development Master Plan, and the implementation of environmental restoration projects in those areas of greatest natural value.

A key milestone for sustainable development was the approval of the regional Agenda 21 programme (PADAS-Programme for Social & Economic Activity Harmonisation and Development) in 1998. Special mention should also be made of the advances in promoting renewable energy use and nature tourism through the creation of nature interpretation and observation centres (Torre Madariaga, San Kristobal and Matxitxako fauna observatories, Urdaibai Bird Centre) and trail adaptation.

In addition, Urdaibai tries to be a place of learning aimed at achieving sustainable development. With this aim in mind, applied research is promoted jointly with the UNESCO Chair in Sustainable Development and Environmental Education of the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU). In this regard, a large number of conferences, training courses, exhibitions and publications are carried out to disseminate the knowledge gained and contribute to sharing and spreading it to the general public and within the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

30 years after its declaration, this wonderful territory remains a great place to develop projects, initiatives and experiences that contribute to the difficult and necessary challenge faced by humanity, sustainability.

MAB Programme (Man and Biosphere)

Started in 1971, the MAB (Man and Biosphere) programme is an international programme for conservation, research and sustainable development that focuses its activities on a Global Network of areas called Biosphere Reserves. Its main aim is to achieve the rational management of the resources in these areas, ensuring their conservation by relating it with a sustainable human and economic development, and enhancing the relationship between human beings and their natural environment.

Biosphere Reserves are therefore areas conceived as areas to experiment, refine, demonstrate and develop objectives to reconcile conservation and the achievement of a sustainable social and economic development.

These areas are ecologically representative or unique areas, where the integration between nature, human beings and their activities is essential. Another aim is to extend the experience gained to other territories.

Today there are more than 600 reserves in 119 countries across the globe.