Initially, protected areas had a single, major aim which was to protect the biodiversity; today, by contrast, the promotion of people's well-being is also one of their aims. The relationship between the conservation of an environment and its socioeconomic and cultural development has been fiercely debated in society. In actual fact, since Urdaibai was designated a Biosphere Reserve and the Use and Management Steering Plan was approved (1993), various activities have been banned and various types of exploitation have been restricted, and that has been hotly debated among the inhabitants. Many Urdaibai inhabitants do not agree with the restrictions imposed, whereas others feel that the measures imposed do not go far enough to guarantee conservation.
To shed light on this debate, Nekane Castillo, a researcher in the UPV/EHU's Department of Plant Biology and Ecology, has conducted research into the socioeconomic evolution of the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve. "To find out whether the designation of Biosphere Reserve has been an advantage or disadvantage for the Urdaibai population," she explained. In her research she analysed and compared the evolution that has taken place in several variables in Busturialde and Uribe Kosta ever since the Steering Plan was approved, "because these two districts are close to each other and because they share similar features". Specifically, three types of variables have been tackled: variables relating to land use (agricultural land, urban land, pine plantations, eucalyptus plantations, autochthonous forest, etc.), socioeconomic variables (employment and unemployment, GDP, population, etc.) and cultural ones (use of the Basque language, level of education, etc.). In addition, an environmental sustainability index was calculated on the basis of the water consumed, the waste materials produced, etc.
The socioeconomic and cultural variables of the two districts are the same
After making a statistical examination of all these variables, the researchers concluded that the two districts have seen a similar trend. "Firstly, traditional agricultural activities have been abandoned and the pine plantations that are so detrimental to the environment have diminished, and in their place, urban lands and local species have expanded," explained Nekane Castillo. Secondly, the researchers have noticed that the tertiary sector linked to tourism has grown and so have well-being (income, gross domestic product, further education and employment) and sustainability. However, the researcher pointed out that "on the whole, despite the fact that half of the surface area of the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve consists of pine plantations, it offers better conditions for conservation and better rural area conditions than Uribe Kosta, while the socioeconomic and cultural variables remain similar".
In Castillo's view, "that means that the designation of Biosphere Reserve has not been detrimental for the citizens, it guarantees the conservation of the district and that may have boosted the socioeconomic and cultural development of it. Even though some changes need to be made to replace the pine forests by autochthonous ones and to encourage agricultural activity, the designation of protected area has achieved the aims in terms of sustainability, and we can say that the life quality of the population in the district is increasing".
This research is part of the PhD thesis by Nekane Castillo (Bilbao, 1988). She is a graduate in Environmental Sciences, and is doing her PhD in the Department of Plant Biology and Ecology of the UPV/EHU's Faculty of Science and Technology. Her supervisor was the UPV/EHU professor Miren Onaindia. The thesis is part of the project to Assess the Ecosystem Services in the Basque Autonomous Community and has funding through a Basque Government grant.
Castillo-Eguskitza, N., Rescia, A. J., Onaindia, M. 2017. "Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve (Biscay, Spain): Conservation against development?". Science of the Total Environment 592, 124-133.