Noosa Biosphere Reserve - A celebration of community and environment.

Keynote Address: Professor Peter Bridgewater at the 2023 Noosa Biosphere Awards

Keynote Address: Professor Peter Bridgewater at the 2023 Noosa Biosphere Awards

Attendees of the 2023 Noosa Biosphere Awards were fortunate to hear an enlightening keynote address delivered by Professor Peter Bridgewater.

Prof. Bridgewater is the Chair of Wildlife Health Australia and former Secretary of the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme. He holds Honorary posts at The Australian National University, University of Canberra, Beijing Forestry University and the Copernicus Institute of Utrecht University.

Amongst the afternoon of recognition of those leading the way in conservation and building a sustainable future for the Noosa region, Prof. Bridgewater’s keynote address shared inspiration and insights on what makes Noosa special and what can be learnt from other biosphere reserves around the world.

Please enjoy Prof. Bridgewater’s speech in full below.

It’s easy to be green – but more difficult to be sustainable

Keynote address by Professor Peter Bridgewater

First, thanks to Beverly for a great Welcome to Country. I feel especially honoured, coming from my home on the land of the Ngunnawal/Ngambri people. I would like to start by greeting you with yuma, welcome, a greeting we hear more and more on our country these days.

Let me also congratulate all the finalists in these awards. Everyone deserves to win, but of course there will only be one winner in each category. 

The classical elements earthwaterairfire, were proposed by the ancients to explain the structure and complexity of all matter. Tonight, we have land, water, wildlife, and youth as our four elements. To all the “youth” in the audience, however old your mirror says you are (I have removed all mirrors in my house), you represent the fire element – please burn brightly into the future.

So, I must explain I was given some riding instructions, which as usual I will be ignoring!  However, one was “what’s unique about Noosa as a biosphere reserve?” My answer is nothing – and everything! Let me explain.  

Noosa sits between two other biosphere reserves, but as the original in the sequence.  All three take up most of the southeastern Queensland bioregion, extending what the great botanist Nancy Burbidge called the Mcpherson-Mcleay overlap in her seminal work on Australia’s biogeography. It is the only “overlap” area in Australia, created where tropical weather systems meet temperate. It is this fluctuation of climates, coupled with a varied geology, that gives Noosa its special, but not unique, natural character.  

The “C” in UNESCO is about culture, and that means understanding and conserving custom and language. For Australian biosphere reserves, including Noosa, this means giving attention and support to helping our first nations recover and use their language and cultural practice. We know that Aboriginal languages reflect the culture of place – the reason there are so many first nations languages is because Australia is very varied. Some years ago, I helped create the first national map of Australia’s bioregions (I mentioned the southeastern Queensland one earlier).  

That map has had a few revisions but is essentially the same. A year or so after the map was accepted by governments, I was visiting the offices of the Australian Institute for Aboriginal Studies in Canberra. I saw our bioregions map on the wall and with delight said, “oh I am so pleased you have our bioregions map on display”. I was met with a look of puzzlement, which meant I must have said something inappropriate. But it was not that.

The institute director said, “I’m not sure what you mean”, pointing to the map I said, “our map on the wall, over there”.  “Oh” he said, “that’s our map of Aboriginal language groups…..”. Then and there I had the lightbulb moment of understanding the intimate connection between language, its evolution, and the landscape in which it developed.

So yes, Noosa has nice biodiversity, but what makes it special is the cultural connection. You are not living in a natural landscape, you are living in a cultural landscape that you share with all biosphere reserves around the world, and increasingly many world heritage sites. This is not always the view from our urban spaces, but it is the reality. And misuse of terms like wilderness do not help!  

What, then, is unique about Noosa, as a place, is its cultural context – from those who over millennia shaped the land and seascapes, to the interaction of the present-day community – you all, and all who can’t be here – to strive for sustainability. 

The work of the finalists, and indeed all the entrants, are each a vignette of giving that push we need locally, nationally, and globally to get through the environmental challenges the world faces.  

I use the word challenge deliberately, as challenges can be overcome. Talk of crises and emergencies make good publicity, but don’t lead to long-term solutions, and often give rise to feelings of hopelessness. So, a key word tonight is that biosphere reserves are about hope, brought to us by the work of the finalists, and by all who support the enterprise that is the biosphere reserve.

I am sure you are all aware that November 3 was the International Day for Biosphere Reserves. November 3 was also the International Day for One Health. One Health day answers the urgent need for a one health trans-disciplinary approach towards solving today’s critical global health challenges. It is a timely initiative that gives scientists and health advocates a powerful voice for moving beyond current provincial approaches to emerging infectious diseases, antimicrobial resistance, climate change, environmental pollution, and many other problems, to a holistic default way of doing business.  

Sound familiar? Yes, because that’s how biosphere reserves operate too, and the coincidence of our “days” points to the need for greater appreciation and understanding of one health approaches to people and nature. My second key word, then is health.

Another pointer I was given is “how valuable/significant is biosphere reserve status in 2023 from a UNESCO perspective?” The answer to that is simple. UNESCO is the global organiser for the network of 748 biosphere reserves. Each biosphere reserve has unique features, depending on its geodiversity and biodiversity. Biodiversity includes people. Each biosphere reserve is indeed unique because of the interaction between the people who live in it, and the rest of the biodiversity that forms the living envelope of the biosphere reserve. Which means the interaction between cultural diversity and biological diversity, from the first nations way of living with nature to more recent, sometimes brutal, interactions with land, water, and wildlife. 

The way to a sustainable future is to reconcile ourselves with the land, water, wildlife and culture. And of course, critically, with each other.  

We cannot be sustainable if we are not listening and talking with each other, but mainly listening. So, my third key word is biosphere reserves are a vehicle for reconciliation

Each of the other 747 biosphere reserves has their own story of successes and challenges. The whole network has been reviewed and revamped since 2013 – Noosa was already operating at a high level so there was no issue there. This renewal showed excellent examples from Canada where First Nations have been able to use biosphere reserve status to advance their objectives. One in particular – Clayoquot sound on Vancouver island – is an example where first nations used a biosphere reserve nomination to forge a better understanding with the provincial and federal governments, and the logging industry, for a sustainable future. 

In Europe, there are increasing numbers of biosphere reserves that are helping regenerate almost forgotten farming techniques, despite a Europe-wide focus on efficient farming. 

In Africa, biosphere reserves in the countries of the Sahel are nodes for the proposed “green wall” on the edge of the Sahara. And others in Africa, Latin America and South-East Asia use their biosphere reserve status to promote responsible tourism.  That provides employment opportunities where previously there were none. 

Many biosphere reserves are also embracing the idea and reality of becoming renewable energy hubs, in our continued fight against climate change. By the way, as we gather here some 70k people gather in Dubai for Cop 28, with, regrettably, low expectations. That contrasts with our expectations for the entrants tonight! 

Returning to renewables, of course, there are arguments against placement of wind turbines, solar arrays etc, but the forum of the biosphere reserve allows for rational debate on the virtues and contrasting views on all these issues. This is happening in several European biosphere reserves, including the Isle of Man.  

In that biosphere reserve there is a strong debate on placement of a wind turbine array in the coastal part of the biosphere reserve. The issue is not yet settled, but the biosphere reserve frame has given better focus on how to reach a resolution and helped biosphere reserve in other issues to light at the same time. Critically, the island’s uplands are a massive carbon store – yet overgrazing has the potential to turn a carbon store to carbon release. The debate around how best position the island as netzero, even negative, has been sharper and clearer because of the biosphere reserve status, meaning all parties need to join in.

Our backyard (although NZ may disagree), the Pacific, is an area needing development of the biosphere reserve concept – including NZ itself. I hope this can happen in the next decade, with Noosa and its companion biosphere reserves perhaps leading the way. Rebuilding the Australian network should be a priority, but I am afraid the leadership must come from existing biosphere reserves. Governments, especially the Federal, misunderstand the value that biosphere reserves offer in managing our natural and human resources. That must change, and the change can only come from you.

So, my final keyword is biosphere reserves are about ensuring sustainability.

Putting the words together, then, through reconciliation biosphere reserves can aim for sustainability and health for people and the rest of nature, giving humanity hope for the future.

Yarra! Good Evening.

Connect with Prof. Peter Bridgewater on LinkedIn to learn more about his work and accomplishments.