“Governace for a Land Degradation Neutral World” in  IISD Land Policy and Practice Knowledge Database, October 2013
by Alexander Müller and Jes Weigelt

Land Degradation Neutral World in the Context of Sustainable Development

A little bit more than a year ago, delegates to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD or Rio+20) agreed that they would “strive to achieve a land-degradation-neutral world in the context of sustainable development.” The UN General Assembly, in its adoption of the resolution ‘The future we want’ (A/RES/66/288), on 27 July 2012, supported this ambitious goal. This resolution is a landmark achievement, as it addresses one of the most significant challenges to sustainable development – the loss of fertile soil.

By placing a land degradation neutral world (LDNW) in the context of the three pillars of sustainable development, delegates of Rio+20 also acknowledged the various reasons and consequences of land degradation. In human terms, soils are a finite resource, of which about 24 billion tons of fertile soil per year is being lost on agricultural lands. Land degradation often occurs in areas that are already characterized by land scarcity and increasing population. In addition, it is often the poorest that live on degraded lands (without wanting to say that they are necessarily responsible for land degradation). Insecure land rights across the globe also contribute to land degradation, as they do not provide incentives to invest in sustainable land management and increase the risk that responsible farmers are not able to benefit from their investments. Especially women, and often indigenous people, hold less and less secure titles to land.

Soils are an essential basis for human development, as they provide ecosystem services on which humanity depends. Healthy soils are important for water filtration and groundwater recharge, and more than 90 per cent of our food stems from soils. Hence, soils assume a pivotal role in the water-energy-food nexus. A land degradation neutral world is therefore essential to achieving other global targets related to the supply of freshwater and the eradication of hunger. The report by the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the post-2015 development agenda acknowledges these different land and soil related challenges to sustainable development. Land tenure and the protection of fertile soils feature prominently in the list of illustrative goals and targets.

Land Degradation Neutral World: Governance Challenges and Opportunities

Achieving a land degradation neutral world will require action at different levels and in different sectors. The LDNW is knowledge intensive. It requires research for sustainable land management, massive increases in the exchange of knowledge between land users, decision-makers and scientists, and the acknowledgement and support of traditional forms of sustainable practices.

However, technical and land management solutions alone will not solve the problem. There are significant governance challenges to arriving at a land degradation neutral world. At the international level, it is not yet clear how this agreement on a “land degradation neutral world in the context of sustainable development” translates into the post-2015 development agenda. There are various proposals for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and a good deal of uncertainty about the composition of the goals and corresponding targets. In addition to this uncertainty, there is also reluctance by some countries to undertake efforts to implement the concept of a LDNW. At the Eleventh Session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 11) to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in Windhoek, Namibia, a LDNW proved to be one of the most contested agenda items (see IISD RS meeting report). On a regional level, the European Commission has just announced the possible withdrawal of the proposal of a Soil Framework Directive, as the proposal got “stalled in the co-decision procedure” and “there is little realistic chance of progress.”

At the same time, there are an increasing number of organizations and initiatives addressing soil and land and their contribution to sustainable development. To name only a few, apart from the UNCCD, there is now the Global Soil Partnership (GSP), the secretariat of which is hosted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO). In June, the GSP had its first Plenary Assembly and there are activities underway to elaborate work plans for its five different Pillars of Action. The European Commission and the Government of Germany are implementing the Economics of Land Degradation (ELD) Initiative, which has just published its first interim report. The Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in its 38th (Special) Session on 11 May 2012 endorsed the ‘Voluntary guidelines on the responsible governance of tenure of land, fisheries and forests in the context of national food security (VGGTs).’ The VGGTs represent, for the first time, a global consensus on norms, principles and standards of responsible governance of tenure. They are voluntary by nature, but they provide the basis of international soft law for addressing governance challenges in the process of achieving a land degradation neutral world.

Moving to the national level, governance challenges are sometimes also daunting. Although there is a wide variety of ambitious policies and laws adopted by national parliaments around the globe, their implementation is often lacking. Take the example of responsible land governance. Securing land rights for vulnerable groups in society continues to be a challenge. For example, a recent report published by the Rights and Resources Initiative arrives at the conclusion that in 12 emerging economies countries, 31 per cent of the area included in timber, mining and agriculture concessions overlap with local land rights. OECD has come to call women’s rights to land “a missing dimension within the Millennium Development Goals.”

Secure land tenure reduces vulnerability, and contributes to the enabling framework needed for investments in sustainable land management. Take the example of land restoration, which will be necessary to achieve a land degradation neutral world. This will, however, only contribute to the three pillars of sustainable development if these investments target the poor. Yet, there is ample evidence that increasing land values often lead to the displacement of the poorer segments of society from the land. In middle-income countries (MICs) in particular, there are a wide range of actors ranging from civil society to science to government entities working on pro-poor land rights. Recent research by the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS), shows that civil society is not only fulfilling a necessary watchdog function, but is also increasingly treated by governments as a crucial partner in implementing pro-poor resource governance.

It is the variety of organizations and initiatives on the international level and in many national contexts that offers entry points in moving ahead with land and soil governance. It is this diversity that offers an opportunity to forge the much needed alliances for change.

We Need Alliances for Change to Move Ahead

The necessary changes in governance require concerted efforts and a new way of cooperation. The process of developing a strategy to achieve a LDNW must be innovative and include, right from the beginning, all stakeholders. Collaboration and controversial discussions of scientists, governments and civil society are needed to understand the drivers of land degradation and to develop new forms of governance for sustainability. We have to learn the lessons from the attempts of 20 years of sustainability governance; efforts which have not led us very far.

In addition, the world has changed in the last two decades. “Fine-tuning of well-known concepts and approaches is a must; to think outside the box is also a must–the latter perhaps being even more important,” is one of the conclusions of IASS’ Transgovernance Project. The “knowledge democracy” provides new insights as well as new requirements for establishing new governance for sustainability. We have argued elsewhere that it is essential to bridge communities of practice and thinking. Too often, we remain in our respective comfort zones preaching to the converted. This will not suffice to bring about the desired change at the necessary pace. In the case of the land degradation neutral world in the context of sustainable development, we are convinced that the land governance, sustainable land management and soil communities should join forces. The development of targets and indicators of the land degradation neutral world should be developed in this transdisciplinary way, blending insights from various scientific disciplines with the knowledge held by decision-makers.

Alliances for change are necessary to develop adapted responses to the land and soil related challenges to sustainable development; and there are vested interests that need to be overcome. This will require joint efforts to generate the necessary leverage.

Global Soil Week: A Platform to Meet and Forge Alliances for Change

It is against this backdrop that a range of partners propose the Global Soil Week as a platform for the different land and soil communities to meet and explore coordinated action towards a land degradation neutral world in the context of sustainable development. The Global Soil Week is not only a platform, but also offers a process, as we are convinced that it requires time for knowledge exchange to occur and new partnerships to be built. The last Global Soil Week, held in November 2012, was attended by 450 participants from more than 65 countries (see the outcomes here).

The next Global Soil Week will take place from 27 – 31 October 2013 in Berlin, Germany. We will direct attention to the questions of how to understand and manage soils in the energy-water-food security nexus and what are the strategies to achieve the necessary societal change.

Come join us.

Partners of the Global Soil Week are the IASS, Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, the UN Environment Programme, the European Commission, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (giz) and the German Federal Environment Agency.

The event will be covered by IISD RS. Plenary sessions will be live-streamed at http://globalsoilweek.org. Follow us at @GlobalSoilWeek on twitter and use #soilweek to feed the twitter stream.

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