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Governing drylands as global environmental commons

Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals requires drylands sustainability.Treating drylands as global environmental commons enables better tailored governance responses. Key nested governance elements for drylands involve setting goals, monitoring and delivering sanctions across scales. The present global governance system for drylands only partially delivers these elements. Drylands require a particular focus on linking local and global governance.

Recent years have seen growing calls to govern land resources as global environmental commons, delivering benefits to all of humanity in support of the Sustainable Development Goals. Applying this call to drylands – almost half of the world’s land – allows responses that are better tailored to dryland attributes.

Four key elements for global drylands governance emerge from linking an understanding of drylands attributes with recent global governance scholarship:

  1. the need for a polycentric system with
  2. nested goal setting,
  3. transparent monitoring and
  4. graduated sanctions.

These elements require nuanced application in drylands, with an emphasis on empowering the local. 

Drylands as global environmental commons

Land provides many resources and services beyond that of physical space  – provisioning services (e.g. food production, water production, raw materials), regulating services (e.g. carbon storage, climate control, soils), supporting services (e.g. genetic diversity), and cultural services (e.g. iconic landscapes, cultural values). Land resources are generally seen as depletable but excludable physical space, at least at the scale at which nations appear to control their territory — even if the space and some services are privatized, most countries retain collective rights over how land may be used or traded and how an owner may affect others.

However, the use of these resources and services have not just national but global implications and they are being depleted in ways that are increasingly non-excludable at a global scale . Services such as carbon sequestration, biodiversity support, and the provisioning of raw materials affect all humanity. At the same time, food, fibre and mineral production from land is being influenced by global value chains over which nations are losing control , and even the land itself is traded, becoming owned by other nations or corporations in ways that the home nation only regulates weakly .

This has resulted in calls to recognize that land is a shared common heritage of humankind, requiring novel approaches to global governance.

The nature of drylands has implications for governance at a global level, whether across levels of government from local to global, or across the teleconnections created by private sector value chains, especially given that drylands are anyway often lightly governed within the nation. Global environmental governance regimes, particularly the UN Convention that is most focused on drylands and development –– the Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) –– have been advocating for land to be treated as global commons for at least a decade ; its development of the land degradation neutrality (LDN) framework  and other initiatives (see Supplementary Material Box) partially address this. However, the LDN framing does not sufficiently benefit from an integrated SDG framing, leading to gaps in key aspects of governance.

Drylands as a GEC for achieving the SDGs

GECs by definition deliver a set of resources and services that benefit all people.

Achieving the SDGs requires that GECs like the drylands be protected ; and conversely, protecting the drylands requires achieving the SDGs in these regions.

At face value, the SDGs mention drylands only in target 15.3, which affirms the UNCCD’s commitment to achieve LDN; however, in practice this cannot be achieved without addressing many other SDGs, including poverty, hunger, access to water and energy, climate , not to mention issues of equity, peace and prosperity.

Indeed, the SDGs are an ideal framework for thinking about how to manage the potential synergies and trade-offs among the various values delivered by the wide range of resources and services that the drylands provide. Conceptual approaches to exploring such interactions among SDGs have advanced considerably in recent years , although there are fewer examples of this type of thinking specifically applied to drylands

LDN can be seen as a tool to help protect the drylands GEC, but by itself does not provide the assurance that benefits flow to the right levels. Proposing that drylands be recognized as a GEC can be perceived as a neocolonial tactic , permitting control by powerful lobbies (such as private sector or international organisations ) at the cost of national sovereignty or of the views and values of local actors, especially where drylands may also be commons locally, yet with poorly recognised rights or an active process of privatisation.

Consequences for governing drylands

The governance literature identifies various features relevant to governing global commons, which can be considered in conjunction with a suite of issues that are prioritised by the attributes of drylands noted above.

Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom identified principles for managing local commons that might be harder to apply at a global level  resulting in four key challenges :

  1. clearly defining group boundaries;
  2. matching rules governing the use of commons to local needs and conditions;
  3. providing means for locals to dispute or modify the rules; and
  4. imposing sanctions on violators.

Drylands are GECs because, in the context of growing pressures from humanity, they are scarce, depletable and increasingly non-excludable, yet they provide vital services to the Earth’s life support system.

Whilst this is true for land in general, a focus on the largest land biome enables responses to be tailored to the distinctive attributes of drylands.

However, the drylands will not be sustained by protecting them from locals: rather, by supporting local livelihoods within a framework which ensures global benefits are also delivered , an approach which is readily linked to an SDGs framing.

To achieve the SDGs locally and globally in drylands requires attention to the principles of governing GECs, delivering a polycentric arrangement with nested goals, that are transparently and credibly monitored and which drive suitable sanctions when the goals are not met.

The UNCCD and its approach to LDN fulfils part of this system, but the analysis highlights areas which need more attention, particularly in ensuring that local actors have an equitable role in the system, and that the growing impacts of the private sector are accounted for.

Research could support these outcomes by better inventory and valuing of drylands as a GEC, drawing on integrated modelling of SDGs, and improvements in monitoring and models for linking local to global governance in support of building trust in governance , according to the design elements highlighted here.

Published in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability Volume 48, February 2021, Pages 115-12

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