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Land Was the Missing Link in Development, Until Now

Breakthrough agreement on Land Degradation Neutrality reached at UNCCD COP12, Ankara, Turkey. Photo: IISD Reporting Services

Dryland Systems and partners provide global policy makers with scientific evidence on land degradation issues during 12th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.

October 2015, Ankara, Turkey - Land degradation and desertification are global issues with huge implications for peace, health, wellbeing, and the very existence of our planet. Fifty-two per cent of land used for agriculture worldwide is either moderately or severely affected by soil degradation. On a global scale, the loss of 75 billion tons of soil amounts to $400 billion USD in annual costs.

The CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems welcomes the landmark agreement reached on October 23rd during the 12th Conference of the Parties (COP12) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which spells out a clear global commitment to achieve Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) under the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Land was the missing link in the development discourse until now. The new global agreement on land degradation neutrality will ensure a critical pathway for global action to meet the food, water, and energy needs of close to 10 billion people by 2030. 

“Working towards land degradation neutrality, as expressed in the Sustainable Development Goal 15.3 and striving to protect and manage land resources sustainably, will have considerable  impacts on many of the other Global Goals,” said Richard Thomas, Director of the CGIAR Research Program the  Dryland Systems leading the ICARDA delegation in Ankara. “The land agenda embodies the importance of  tackling complex, interdependent issues from an integrated systems perspective to identify the best options for context-specific solutions with impact on people’s livelihoods,” he added. 

The objective of the LDN is to maintain and increase the amount of healthy and productive land resources over time, while ensuring alignment with national development priorities. This breakthrough agreement puts the Desertification Convention on a par with the Climate Change and Biodiversity Conventions, both of which have their own targets. Although the mitigation potential of the land use sector is still not fully recognized in current climate negotiations, the LDN activities as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will contribute significantly to both reduced emissions and increased rates of carbon sequestration. The agreement follows the adoption of the Global Goals for Sustainable Development by the United Nations General Assembly in New York last month.

A Land Degradation Neutral World to address migration crisis and other challenges

Watch Video: A Land Degradation Neutral World

Discussions held during the UNCCD COP12 proceedings and related side events elaborated the vision of a land degradation neutral world embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and more specifically SDG Target 15.3. Participants outlined the potential implementation challenges of LDN, but also its diverse benefits in terms of increasing the resilience of  many vulnerable communities and sequestering excess carbon dioxide in the air, into the soil.

Achieving LDN will have significant and cumulative benefits for climate change mitigation, adaptation and a host of other development issues linked to food and water security, poverty, agricultural production, particularly for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities living in the dry areas. Globally, the loss of ecosystems services through land degradation costs up to 72 million USD per square kilometer every year, as noted in the Value of Land report, which was recently published by the Economics of Land Degradation (ELD) initiative and presented to global policy makers participating at the UNCCD COP12.

Land is finally getting the attention it deserves as the UNCCD COP12 drew unprecedented interest from nearly 6000 delegates, including 75 high-ranking government officials around the world. There is also a growing awareness that land degradation is becoming a driver of migration and conflict in the world.

“We must pay attention to the increased competition over scarce natural resources in many vulnerable communities  living in dry and degraded lands… in such desperate conditions, old rivalries become convenient channels of frustration…. and young people are often left with few prospects and become disillusioned. They are easy prey for radical extremists,” warned Monique Barbut, UNCCD  Executive Secretary.

It is estimated that 50 million people will face displacement in the next 10 years due to desertification. Citing evidence from the Value of Land report, Barbut urged UNCCD COP12 delegates and representatives of the private sector and civil society that the moral imperative but also the business case for addressing land degradation has never been clearer.  

The LDN goal presents new opportunities for countries to benefit from increased awareness and investments in sustainable land management and restoration from both private and public sources. Most participants welcomed the target set for each country to become land degradation neutral by 2030, arguing that such a measurable target would help to keep the productive land available in each country stable, at the very least, as degrading land is offset by restoring an equal amount of already degraded land.

Bringing a systems approach to the successful implementation of the UNCCD

Dryland Systems has been engaging with global policy makers on issues of land degradation and desertification since earlier this year during the UNCCD 3rd Scientific Conference held in Mexico. The goal has been to enrich science-policy collaboration under the framework of the UNCCD implementation with innovative approaches and better scientific evidence for improved decision making on critical land degradation issues.

One key contribution in this regard, has been the reflection of the integrated systems approach in key UNCCD thinking and policy-oriented recommendations. For example, the report by the UNCCD Bureau of the Committee on Science and Technology, following the UNCCD 3rd Scientific Conference, proposes:

  Proposal 4: Parties and relevant organizations and institutions  are encouraged to develop and use a systems approach to assess  vulnerability and adaptation capacities.

  Proposal 5: The Committee on Science and Technology, in consultation with the Science-Policy Interface, is encouraged to consider modalities for developing a user guide outlining the  requirements of a systems approach to transdisciplinary research  degradation, climate change and biodiversity and between socio- economic and biophysical systems. The user guide could include knowledge and how to establish effective collaboration between  policy makers, scientists and other stakeholders in identifying the  most effective land-based adaptation to climate change, land-based  climate change mitigation, and measures of rehabilitation and restoration of degraded lands.

Another key contribution relates to sparking and fostering innovative ideas, fruitful collaboration, and constructive science-policy debate on critical land issues linked to sustainable development of vulnerable dryland communities. A recent example of activities in this area is the side event organized by Dryland Systems on 19 October during the UNCCD COP12. A core activity of the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems during the past year has been to evaluate over 65 sustainable land management (SLM) practices and technologies, involving 352, 000 men and 117,348 women farmers, in over 7.5 million ha and rolled out for large-scale implementation by private and public sector partners.

By sharing the Dryland Systems experience, the goal of the side event was to encourage wide reflection and discussion on the challenges and conditions of success for adopting long-term sustainable land management practices.

Generating bold ideas on ways to scale up sustainable land management at UNCCD COP12

At the start of the event, participants took part in the premiere screening of Drylands - The Opportunities You Never Imagined, a new animation video produced to raise awareness of drylands and investment opportunities for research of critical dryland issues.  Ms. Tana Lala-Pritchard, Communications Program Coordinator of Dryland Systems proceeded to then facilitate the event using a highly participatory approach based on the Liberating Structures methodology in order to enable interactive knowledge sharing and learning amongst the participants.

Participants share experiences during side event on Conditions
for Success: Scaling out sustainable land management

Key experts, Jonathan Davies, Coordinator of Global Drylands Initiative with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN),Hans-Peter Liniger, Coordinator of World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies (WOCAT), Lindsay Stringer, Professor in Environment and Development at University of Leeds, Violaine Berger, Biodiversity Manager, World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and Richard Thomas, Program Director of CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems, sat inside a metaphorical “fishbowl” to recount their institutional experience with sustainable land management practices, outline lessons learned and be challenged by the experience and insights offered by event participants.

Key messages stemming out of the fishbowl session with regards to the conditions for success in order to scale up and out sustainable and management were:

  • A systems approach is critical to developing context-specific solutions that work in other places.
  • The benefits of and incentives for sustainable land management must be clearly articulated to all relevant stakeholders.
  • Taking stock of traditional knowledge is key to ensuring sustainable land management in the long run and addressing desertification and climate change.
  • A common vision and shared responsibilities for sustainable land management must be clearly endorsed by all relevant stakeholders.
  • The private sector is a critical actor to be better engaged in sustainable land management initiatives.
  • Rather than invent the wheel, we must build on achievements and lessons learned from previous sustainable land management initiatives.
  • Multi-disciplinary collaboration is critical to ensuring sustainable land management and highlighting linkages to other global issues, such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, food, nutrition and health security, etc.
  • Targets/Indicators for evaluating the success of sustainable managing practices should allow capture of benefits/impacts beyond the narrow fields of agriculture and the environment; beneficiaries must be involved in the process of setting the targets.
  • Partnerships for sustainable land management must be backed up by strong political willingness.
  • Sustainable land management should not focus solely on restoration initiatives

The Dryland Systems side-event provided a unique opportunity to tap into the research and field experience shared amongst different stakeholders participating at the UNCCD COP12. Various costs of inaction (i.e. continued land degradation as a result of poor management) in terms of food and human security, economic development and environmental sustainability were outlined by the participants during the interactive fish-bowl discussions. The side event helped to flesh out bold and innovative ideas for scaling up and out best SLM practices, and for mobilizing action and multi-disciplinary scientific expertise at the global, regional and local levels in order to promote the effective implementation of the UNCCD. 

The UNCCD COP12 closed on October 23rd, endorsing the LDN concept as a strong vehicle for driving the implementation of the UNCCD, contributing to achieve SDG 15 to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss. It is anticipated that this will trigger much-needed policy responses that address all three - social, economic and environmental - dimensions of sustainable development simultaneously. 

About the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)

Desertification, along with climate change and the loss of biodiversity, were identified as the greatest challenges to sustainable development during the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Established in 1994, UNCCD is the sole legally binding international agreement linking environment and development to sustainable land management. The Convention addresses specifically the arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas, known as the drylands, where some of the most vulnerable ecosystems and peoples can be found.

About the Economics of Land Degradation Initiative

The Economics of Land Degradation Initiative seeks to highlight the economic benefits of land and land based ecosystems. The initiative works to determine the value of sustainable land management and provides a global approach for analysis of the economics of land degradation. It aims to make economics of land degradation an integral part of policy strategies and decision making by increasing the political and public awareness of the costs and benefits of land and land-based ecosystems. 


About the author

Tana Lala-Pritchard is the Communication Program Coordinator for the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems.

References and suggested readings

  • ELD Initiative (2015). The value of land: Prosperous lands and positive rewards through sustainable land management. Available from

  • ELD Initiative (2015). Report for policy and decision makers: Reaping economic and environmental benefits from sustainable land management. Available from