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Lake Tana Biosphere Reserve – an approach for sustainable development

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Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile River and the largest lake in Ethiopia. The lake, with and average 8 m and maximum 14-meter deep lake (Dumont et al. 2009) neighbouring Bahir Dar with strong cultural, ecological and socioeconomic linkage to Lake Tana Region. Therefore it is a lake which has led to a balancing act between humans and nature.


The focus of the article is to address challenges leading to recognition of the Lake Tana Biosphere Reserve. What were the ecological- and social challenges leading up to a biosphere? What are the mitigation opportunities? Finally, what is hoped to be achieved and are there pre-existing challenges already?  Lake Tana holds a lot of promise but what if the expectations are overshadowing the lake´s ability of what it can provide within reasonable limits?


Pollution, intense resource use, urbanization and large-scale agricultural interventions are some of the problems that Lake Tana faces (NABU, 2013). This is an experience recognized by the regional government and developmental organizations like Nature and Biodiversity Union (NABU). The appropriate approach to intervene in these negative consequences is to become a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and this was being realized in June this year when UNESCO approved the Lake Tana Biosphere Reserve (LTBR) (NABU, 2015). Biosphere reserves are ”special places for testing interdisciplinary approaches to understanding and managing changes and interactions between social and ecological systems, including conflict prevention and management of biodiversity” (UNESCO, 2015a).


In order to get a context of the issue in and around Lake Tana one of the staff members at the NABU project office in Bahir Dar meets up for a quick interview. It is clear that Lake Tana resources have challenges, given the response from Getinet Fetene, marketing and tourism officer. Fetene highlighted that the intention with the biosphere reserve is to find a balance between resources and utilization from humans. Everyone understands the problem and the regional government is very supportive. On the question of how local communities receive the LTBR, Fetene says that locals are very happy with this and are expressing their happiness using various media. LTBR has got high media coverage both nationally and locally and this is where the happiness of local communities and other stakeholders are expressed. Since the recognition of the reserve is at an early stage it is also too early to comment on the question of whether there has been any positive, or negative, outcomes of the LTBR[1].


Before the formal designation of the biosphere reserve a feasibility study was conducted with the purpose of observing the possibility of the Lake Tana Region to become a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. For an area to be of interest for qualification there are mandatory criteria required by UNESCO (BfN, 2012). There are several factors that made Lake Tana an obvious candidate for conservation of both biodiversity and cultural heritage; it provides important ecosystem services and “unique cultural, historical, geological and aesthetic value with numerous monasteries and churches dating back to the 13th century. Church forests around Lake Tana host an outstanding diversity of tree and shrub species and medicinal plants and play an important role in the conservation of biodiversity. The biosphere reserve will seek to rekindle traditional communities’ appreciation of their cultures, knowledge and skills, which reflect a sustainable lifestyle in harmony with the environment.” (UNESCO, 2015b). Apart from these words of theory there is also an insight into this matter in practice. In Tana Kirkos, an island monastery in Lake Tana known for its pilgrimage, there somehow was an already existent respect between human and nature regardless of the initiative of a biosphere reserve. Although briefly, there existed some sort of a connection of a deep cultural heritage and conservation of the area which is home to monks (observation, August 27, 2015).


To dive into the more technical bits of what makes a biosphere reserve exactly that, it comprises of core, buffer and development zones. There are 78 core zones within the biosphere reserve of Lake Tana and delineation of the environments have been made with the involvement of local communities (ANRS, 2014). The legal document does also outline the aspect of `prohibited activities´ within core zones, e.g. “[h]unting for, frightening or driving away wild animals; cutting off plants or taking away the eggs of birds, reptiles and other animals;” (ANRS, 2014, 10) and “carrying out activities likely to alter the natural content of the areas forming the core zones” (ANRS, 2014, 11). Core zones are identified and delineated areas with the vision of conserving biodiversity- and environmental resources. It is a place with the aim of protecting these resources and to be left and remain untouched. The exception is scientific activities proved to be safe and sound. Examples of core zones are e.g. Dera, Fogera, Libokemkem and Gondar Zuria just to mention a few (ANRS, 2014).  Buffer zones are comprised of places either located in the surroundings of core zones or adjoined to these. It can also be an area designated to undertake economic activities, “taking into account its compatibility with the sustainability of natural resources” (ANRS, 2014, 7). The intention with developmental zones is that any kind of developmental undertakings in a zone within the biosphere shall be conducted in a manner of which it guarantees environmental sustainability and where research,- support and educational rendering research “are conducted in an integrated manner by having identified the methods beneficial to the community out of the development per`se” (ANRS, 2014, 8).


So, how does the vision of Lake Tana Biosphere Reserve escape community participation from being a catch-phrase lacking true intentions?


The feasibility study addresses the slow, though emerging, realization of taking into account the importance of local communities taking “an active role in implementing measures and deciding on them” in projects (BfN, 2012, 112). Focusing on previous rather than current outcomes of the LTBR regarding community participation in a BR, the feasibility study addresses the necessity of continuant actions on e.g.: incorporating “participatory processes into planning and implementing interventions to improve community participation, e.g. through Community Conserved Areas (CCAs) and by-laws (BfN, 2012, 114).


Why should we bother?


Because too often there is ignorance to the linkages of ethno-ecology, i.e. indigenous knowledge contributing to conservation of biodiversity and ecosystems (BfN, 2012), because there is the lack in contributing to a more viable and sustainable livelihood and the inability for people to make ends meet both short- and long term and because there are biophysical aspects that cannot be replaced. To further strengthen the argument, the ecosystem-based approach “nothing begets nothing” can help us:


 “Given that “Man” with all the resource-related forms of human (economic) activities, such as land and water use, is at the center of a biosphere reserve (development function), it is necessary to examine the region’s economic activities in terms of their implications for sustainable regional development; i.e. how forms of land-use are adapted to the capacity of the ecosystems to provide these “ecosystem services” in the long term. This so called ecosystem-based approach is based on the notion that any kind of resource-consumptive activities need to be adapted to what ecosystems can provide. Policy is often based on the assumption that environmental protection hampers economic growth. However, as shown by many studies environmental concern is not conflicting with sustainable economic development but an essential component of it that provides the inputs (BfN, 2012, 50)


It is a complex issue of how poverty alleviation, increased population and sustainable development can come together. Perhaps the Lake Tana Biosphere Reserve can be one pillar in providing an answer on how social justice and environmental sustainability interconnect and can be solved in the Lake Tana Region, and thereby mitigate the linkage of the notion that “[e]nvironmental degradation and poverty are…interactive leading into a spiral of environmental and human calamity” (FDRE & MOFED, 2002, 121). Perhaps the recognition of The Lake Tana Biosphere Reserve will be the necessary intervention for creating “new relations with the environment [by] taking account of its fragility and its limitations” (UNESCO, 2014, 11) in and around Lake Tana.


NABU and partners are currently planning for the official inauguration of Lake Tana Biosphere Reserve which will be held in November this year (NABU, 2015).


Amalia Björnegran



[1]Fetene, Getinet; tourism and marketing officer at NABU Project Office Bahir Dar. 2015. Interview 4th of August.


Amhara National Regional State, ANRS. 2014. The Lake Tana and its Environs Biosphere Reserve Delineation and Administration Determination, Council of Regional Government Regulation No. 125/2014.
Bundesamt für Naturschutz (BfN)/Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, BfN. 2012. Feasibility Study for a Lake Tana Biosphere Reserve, Ethiopia. Bonn, Germany: Federal Ministry of Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety. Available: [2015-09-06]
Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia & Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, FDRE & MOFED, FDRE & MODED. 2002. Ethiopia: Sustainable Development and Poverty Reduction Program. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: FDRE & MOFED. Available:
Dumont, Henri J. (red.). 2009. The Nile [Elektronisk resurs] : origin, environments, limnology and human use. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer. [2015-09-20]
Nature And Biodiversity Conservation Union, NABU. 2013. Protecting Ethiopia’s Largest Lake – A project supporting the establishment of a UNESCO biosphere reserve at Lake Tana in cooperation with the Michael Succow Foundation. NABU Lake Tana Project flyer 2013.
Nature And Biodiversity Conservation Union, NABU. 2015. NABU project region Lake Tana accepted as UNESCO biosphere reserve. Press release Nr 74/15 | 12. Juni 2015. Available: [2015-09-20]
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO. 2014. 37 C/4 2014-2021 Medium-Term Strategy. France: UNESCO. Available: [2015-09-14]
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO. 2015a. Biosphere Reserves – Learning Sites for Sustainable Development. Available: [2015-10-07]
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO. 2015b. Twenty new sites added to UNESCO’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves. Available: [2015-09-16]



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