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Agency shifts in agricultural land governance and their implications for land degradation neutrality

Given current land degradation trends, Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN, SDG Target 15.3) by 2030 could be difficult to attain. Solutions to avoid, reduce, and reverse land degradation are not being implemented at sufficiently large scales, pointing to land governance as the main obstacle.

In this paper, the authors review dynamics in agricultural land governance, and the potential this may have to enable land degradation or provide solutions towards LDN. The literature reveals agency shifts are taking place, where value chain actors are given increasing decision-making power in land governance. These agency shifts are manifested in two interrelated trends:

  • First, through agricultural value chain coordination, such as contract farming, value chain actors increasingly influence land management decisions.
  • Second, international large-scale land acquisitions and domestic larger-scale farms, both instances of intensified direct involvement of value chain with land management, are overtaking significant areas of land.

These new arrangements are associated with agricultural expansion, and are additionally associated with unsustainable land management due to absent landowners, short-term interests, and high-intensity agriculture. However, they also find that value chain actors have both the tools and business cases to catalyze LDN solutions.

The authors discuss how governments and other LDN brokers can motivate or push private actors to deploy private governance measures to avoid, reduce, and reverse land degradation. Successful implementation of LDN requires refocusing efforts to enable and, where necessary, constrain all actors with agency over land management, including value chain actors.

The authors findings are based on a broad literature review in which the multiple dynamics in agricultural land governance are confronted with the current approach towards LDN. LDN does not only pertain to agricultural land, and further inquiries into similar dynamics in, for example, the forestry or mining sectors, could complement our findings.

Furthermore, they note that certain aspects of the interface between land governance agency shifts and environmental management remain understudied.
For example, while gender dimensions of (the efforts against) land degradation are found to be a key aspect of LDN (Collantes et al., 2018), there are currently no studies into gender dimensions of LDN in relation to the land governance dynamics described here.

Lastly, while this paper includes perspectives from research institutes, international organizations, and other grey literature, it can only serve as a proxy of the agency shifts described here.

Continued efforts to map and track global agricultural dynamics could complement and improve our approximations, while a dialogue with stakeholders may bring additional nuance to the perspectives in this paper. With these limitations in mind, the literature review has indicated that:

  1. Land governance is undergoing drastic changes, mostly manifested in a considerable agency shift towards VCAs at the expense of state actors and land managers.
  2. This agency shift can lead to conversion of natural land to agricultural land and incentivize unsustainable agricultural intensification, thereby undermining progress towards LDN.
  3. Newly empowered value chain actors VCAs have instruments and business cases for actions aligned with the LDN target.

The UNCCD, state actors, and other LDN brokers can reposition themselves to respond to this changing context in three ways:

  1. regaining control to curtail value chain actors VCAs driving land degradation,
  2. hybridizing land governance to leverage the many tools and business cases value chain actors VCAs have to be instrumental towards LDN, and
  3. coordinating an intensified dialogue between value chain actors and LDN brokers to mainstream LDN in agribusiness value chains.

land governance