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This is an essay of the writing workshop Socio-Ecological Economics, published on 31 August 2018.
Land is a limited production factor and its significant role in our lives is often disregarded. This negligence especially threatens biodiversity, food and water supply, while the land also provides natural habitats and ecosystem services. These productive resources are faced with the problem of “degradation” due to natural events and human activities.
25 percent of the world’s available land is degraded according to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and this “land degradation negatively impacts 3.2 billion people, and represents an economic loss in the order of 10% of annual global gross [domestic] product” (IPBES, 2018). In many regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, South America, Southeast Asia and North Europe, low soil quality hampers more than half of cultivated agricultural land (FAO, 2011). In this context, the question of how to feed the world population, which is expected to be 9.8 billion by 2050, is still uncertain (The Economist, 2011; Godfray et al., 2010). This question is becoming even more important in relation to ongoing land degradation. The answer is based on understanding the internal dynamics that lead to land degradation, as well as understanding the factors that make up such cycles.
Understood correctly, the land can play a vital role in linking multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by harnessing synergies while minimizing potential conflicts and trade-offs. For instance, the continuity of life on the land is one of the most crucial objectives of sustainable development. Wrapped up in this target is the protection, restoration and promotion of the sustainable use of the terrestrial ecosystems, combatting desertification, and the halting and reversing of land degradation.
Considering the increasing trend of world population and limited natural resources, Sustainable Land Management (SLM) is defined as a requirement for long-term agricultural management and the success of the agricultural sustainability. SLM is also a wise investment for economic growth that does not compromise resilient livelihoods. SLM brings together technologies and policies to protect the potential of natural resources and prevent land degradation while reducing the level of production risk. The purpose of this essay is to raise awareness of how land degradation is a great threat for us and why Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) is a good tool to achieve SLM, and sustainability more widely.
Land degradation is worsened by natural processes exacerbated by human activity, such as climate change and biodiversity loss. Faulty cropping practices, over-grazing and deforestation are among other major causes. More broadly, land degradation is catalysed by particular forms of land ownership, poverty, population pressures, inappropriate government policies and technology. Each type of land degradation leads to decreases in the yield capacity of the land by decreasing the potential yield. It is important to know the situation and extent of land degradation and its gripping effects in order to make follow up decisions and take action.
Economic gains such as land grabbing, unplanned urban sprawl, unsustainable agriculture and over-consumption lead to unsustainable land use, which eventually causes degradation and loss of critical ecosystem services. As a result, consumption of the Earth’s natural reserves has doubled in the last 30 years, with a third of the planet´s land already severely degraded. The root cause of the issues experienced in land use is the lack of sustainable land management policies. Particularly, soil structure is destroyed as a result of non-agricultural land use and unsustainable farming methods. Thus, the preservation and development of soil and soil quality have become valuable strategies for food safety and food security in the world. At this point, LDN is considered one such important mechanism.
According the UNCCD sources, LDN is defined as “a state whereby the amount and quality of land resources necessary to support ecosystem functions and services and enhance food security remain stable or increase within specified temporal and spatial scales and ecosystems.” This approach is also highlighted in SDG-15 (Life on Land) at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). Based on this approach, countries that are Parties to the UNCCD set a series of voluntary targets about it by 2030.
LDN’s main vision is to emphasize the link between “natural capital of land” and “human wellbeing”. In this context the intention is to sustain and develop the ecosystem services and strengthen responsible and inclusive land management. In principle, LDN’s conceptual framework has three main objectives: “avoid land degradation”, “reduce land degradation” and “reverse land degradation”. The LDN mechanism is the balancing of land use and management decisions for each land type and the neutralization of projected gains and losses.
The most significant step in achieving LDN is to adopt it as a policy tool and set balancing targets, especially in countries experiencing intensive land damage. As a building block for SLM, LDN will be a driving force in achieving the UN development targets and other relevant goals and objectives for areas such as poverty, food security and agriculture.
Given the increasing world population, it is also vital to provide adequate food supply but also to increase the improvement of agricultural land potential. There are also economic policy instruments as well as technical methods for preventing land degradation, and even reversing the trend. Technical methods include the adoption of afforestation and sustainable agricultural techniques. These technical methods can be provided through economic means such as payments for ecosystem services, subsidies, taxes, voluntary payments for environmental protection, microfinance and access to credit. However, only 2.3 billion tons of additional agricultural production per year can be provided with SLM and crop revenues have risen in areas where land degradation has increased (ELD, 2014).
Agricultural land use and land management practices can have a major impact on water, soil and nutrient cycles, as can social and economic factors such as commodity prices, input costs, land use policies and producer targets (Du et al. 2013). Land degradation is a complex process affected by both socio-economic and biophysical drivers. A multidisciplinary framework and approach is necessary for an accurate understanding of these drivers’ interactions. This complexity can present on many levels, like the geographical, where, for instance, degraded lands affect all climate regions on a global scale. Understanding the problems that arise as a result of the interaction of drivers, and observing the changes in those processes, will help to control sustainability in the terrestrial ecosystem and find more lasting solutions to the problems.
In order to measure the impact of socio-economic and biophysical drivers on land degradation, and the relationships between them, these drivers must be accurately measurable. Socio-economic drivers about households and population need longer periods of observation, while data on biophysical drivers such as land cover and vegetation indexes can be obtained at shorter intervals, e.g. annually through Geographical Information Systems. de Jong (2010) argues that Geographical Information Systems can be used as an interdisciplinary approach that allows not only for biophysical analyses such as plant cover observation and land cover change, but also for comprehensive socio-economic analyses such as population estimation. In addition to the analysis and modelling of biophysical drivers resulting from land degradation, various studies have been carried out on socio-economic drivers, including the quantification of important factors such as population growth and poverty (Ramankutty et al., 2002; Duraiappah, 1998). According to the common results of these studies, more land, and therefore more food, needs to be provided for the future population.
The group most affected by LDN is small-scale landowners, those owning a small number of animals and those without ownership. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the vast majority of those affected are unregistered and continue to live in a way that lacks social or economic security. Most of the data on biophysical and socio-economic drivers apply to Sub-Saharan Africa, which has degraded lands and has been environmentally modified. For example, Rogers et al. (2006), have taken advantage of biophysical data and prepared a poverty map in Uganda. The study relies on data from household surveys, including drivers for the health and well-being of Uganda population, and data from biophysical drivers such as temperature, height and agricultural production.
Land degradation significantly limits the sustainability of ecosystem services and agricultural production and is now a major problem for the whole world. This problem has reached more serious proportions, especially in developing countries where land use intensity is increasing due to intensive population pressure. In all countries where the degradation problem is a threat, land conservation efforts need to be increased. In this context, it is necessary to create land conservation policies to “reduce”, “stop” or “eliminate” the degradation problem.
Furthermore, managing and mitigating land degradation can also contribute to protecting soil biodiversity and carbon stocks in terrestrial ecosystems for sustainable agriculture, health and life. The conception of SLM is based on the land degradation and restoration. Thus, SLM measures are good tools for taking action against the negative effects of land degradation. The LDN approach incorporates not only the biophysical but also socio-economic drivers.
Finally, if no effort is made to improve and protect degraded lands, such degradation will be accelerated and compounded by increasing population pressure. Therefore, land degradation will continue to get worse without urgent, direct and preventive measures for the protection of the land. In this regard, the LDN approach will be a valuable link between sustainability and land management. Moreover, LDN presents new opportunities for countries to benefit from increased awareness and investments in SLM.
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