Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 50, Issue 1, pp 133–167 | Cite as

Conservation Compromises: The MAB and the Legacy of the International Biological Program, 1964–1974

  • Simone SchleperEmail author
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This article looks at the International Biological Program (IBP) as the predecessor of UNESCO’s well-known and highly successful Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB). It argues that international conservation efforts of the 1970s, such as the MAB, must in fact be understood as a compound of two opposing attempts to reform international conservation in the 1960s. The scientific framework of the MAB has its origins in disputes between high-level conservationists affiliated with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) about what the IBP meant for the future of conservation. Their respective visions entailed different ecological philosophies as much as diverging sets of political ideologies regarding the global implementation of conservation. Within the IBP’s Conservation Section, one group propagated a universal systems approach to conservation with a centralized, technocratic management of nature and society by an elite group of independent scientific experts. Within IUCN, a second group based their notion of environmental expert roles on a more descriptive and local ecology of resource mapping as practiced by UNESCO. When the IBP came to an end in 1974, both groups’ ecological philosophies played into the scientific framework underlying the MAB’s World Network or Biosphere Reserves. The article argues that it is impossible to understand the course of conservation within the MAB without studying the dynamics and discourses between the two underlying expert groups and their respective visions for reforming conservation.


International Biological Program Max Nicholson Raymond Dasmann International Union for the Conservation of Nature Man and the Biosphere Program 



International Biological Program


IBP’s Section for the Conservation of Terrestrial Communities


International Council of Scientific Unions


International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources


International Union for the Protection of Nature


Man and the Biosphere Program (of UNESCO)


Special Committee for the International Biological Program


United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm Conference)


United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization



The article draws on several unpublished collections, including the Edward Max Nicholson papers at the Special Collections Centre of The Sir Duncan Rice Library at the University of Aberdeen, the Edward Max Nicholson Papers at the Linnean Society Archives, the Edward Max Nicholson Papers at the Royal Geographical Society Archive, as well as the SCIBP Papers at the Royal Society Archives. My work there has been supported by several individuals, in particular by Gina Douglas, Michelle Gait, and Lady Jennifer Norman. As part of my PhD research at Maastricht University, this article builds on numerous meetings with my supervisors Raf de Bont and Ernst Homburg. An earlier draft has been presented at the Modern Science Working Group at the Department for the History of Science at Harvard University and has benefited from the valuable comments by Janet Browne, Everett Medelsohn, Alex Czizar, Zoe Nyssa, and Geert Somsen. I thank the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive criticism. This work is part of the research program Nature’s Diplomats, which is financed by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO).

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This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.


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Open AccessThis article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of HistoryMaastricht UniversityMaastrichtThe Netherlands

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