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West African environment ministers have called on the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) to use protected areas of land known as 'biosphere reserves' as 'laboratories for sustainable development'.

In a declaration issued at a meeting in Paris yesterday (26 January), the ministers said that they were committed to promoting the use of biosphere reserves as "operational sites for sustainable development in the fight against poverty".

They also called on NEPAD to use research on such areas to help implement the action plan of NEPAD's Environment Initiative, which was officially launched at a conference in Algiers in December.

Africa has 63 biosphere reserves in 29 of its countries. The reserves, which are designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), act as centres of biodiversity where research and monitoring activities are conducted, with the participation of local communities, to explore the relationship between conservation and development.

The ministers' declaration was made at a roundtable organised by UNESCO to launch a US$6-million project to study biodiversity in West Africa's biosphere reserves (see Boost for research on West Africa's biodiversity).

Speaking at the opening of the roundtable, UNESCO director-general Koïchiro Matsuura said that "biosphere reserves constitute perfect field laboratories for implementing the environmental objectives of NEPAD and the World Summit for Sustainable Development."

Will Wolmer, a fellow in the environment group at the UK-based Institute of Development Studies says that the ministers' declaration was an example of the growing connection being made between NEPAD and good governance on the one hand and a pro-biodiversity agenda on the other.

"The point about biosphere reserves is that they are supposed to have a space for human beings in them," he says. Conservation areas are now being considered "not just in terms of biodiversity but in terms of rolling out development strategies," he adds.