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Sustainable land management (SLM)


Report for policy and decision makers: Reaping economic and environmental benefits from sustainable land management, a publication by the Economics of Land Degradation Initiative and partners

ELD: A global initiative for sustainable land management, a publication by the Economics of Land Degradation Initiative and partners

Towards a land degradation neutral world, a publication by the UNEP, the Changwon Initiative and the UNCCD

The growing loss of fertile land: an alarming development

Land provides a range of biophysical and socioeconomic goods and services that support the sustainability of ecosystem services, livelihoods, and human wellbeing. However, land degradation and desertification create global threats to fertile land and the benefits that land provides to human society. The scale of land degradation is immense: according to the “Report for policy and decision makers: Reaping economic and environmental benefits from sustainable land management” produced by the Economics of Land Degradation (ELD) Initiative in 2015, 10 to 20 percent of all land worldwide is degraded, amounting to between six and 12 million square kilometres, and almost a quarter of the world’s productive lands are degraded (ELD Initiative, 2014).

Furthermore, land degradation is found in every region of the world, and according to the IPBES 2018 “Summary for policymakers of the thematic assessment of land degradation and restoration”, it affects the wellbeing of around 3.2 billion people, leading to food and water insecurity and poverty. Land degradation also leads to increased vulnerability to climate change of affected areas and among affected communities. Moreover, competition for the already strained land and water resources is further intensified by a growing world population that is increasingly urban and affluent, which has led to increased demand for food, especially animal products that often have high ecological footprints.

The consequences of land degradation are high, with widespread loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Annual global economic losses due to deforestation and land degradation were estimated at 1.5 - 3.4 trillion euros in 2008 (ELD Initiative, 2014). Ongoing degradation of fertile soil needs to be halted, so that land can continue to provide sufficient land-based ecosystem services for an ever-increasing number of inhabitants.




The benefits of sustainable land management

Maintaining ecosystem functions and services, while also supporting human wellbeing, are the primary goals of sustainable land management (SLM). SLM has great potential and adaptability to local contexts, and can preserve and enhance ecosystem services in all land-use systems.

Sustainable land management was defined by the UN 1992 Rio Earth Summit as “the use of land resources, including soils, water, animals and plants, for the production of goods to meet changing human needs, while simultaneously ensuring the long-term productive potential of these resources and the maintenance of their environmental functions.”  Degradation of water, soil and vegetation, as well as the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that contribute to climate change, can all be addressed by SLM practices that simultaneously conserve natural resources, reduce emissions, and store carbon, among other benefits. SLM protects and enhances the multiple services and functions provided by land, which fall into four distinct categories: 

  1. Provisioning services: provision of food, fodder, fibre, fuel and freshwater. SLM helps to:
  • Increase food security, especially for smallholder farmers
  • Provide energy
  • Provide local fresh and clean water
  • Support livelihoods
  1. Regulating services: regulation of climate, water quality and quantity, pollination, and diseases control. SLM helps to:
  • Improve water availability and quality
  • Store and sequester carbon
  • Mitigate damages caused by extreme weather events or natural hazards
  • Regulate pests and diseases
  1. Supporting services: support nutrient and water cycling, support Soil and vegetation cover – for water, carbon and biodiversity. SLM helps to:
  • Mitigate soil degradation and enhance soil quality, structure, and functioning
  • Enable nutrient and water cycling
  • Enhance primary production and nutrient cycling
  • Provide habitats for species, which increases biodiversity
  1. Cultural services: Benefits for culture and society. SLM helps to:
  • Keep cultural and natural landscapes alive and protect cultural heritage
  • Valorise indigenous knowledge and production methods
  • Enhance the aesthetic experience and provide a space for recreation

Studies predict huge costs of future land degradation and emphasize the need to invest in measures that can avoid or reduce the loss of productive land, such as SLM practices (ELD Initiative, 2015; IPBES, 2018), or to restore degraded land, both of which have been shown to be very cost-effective and can create long-term positive benefits (IPBES, 2018).

For example, reducing land degradation through SLM practices could be as low as 20 USD per hectare (UNEP et al., n.d.), and according to the ELD Initiative (2015), if SLM were adopted, the economic rates of return are high, with potential economic rates of return of around 12 to 40 percent for SLM projects in Africa, such as activities that conserve soil and water, manage forests, or provide small-scale irrigation.

When SLM is seen as an integral aspect in land use planning and policy, SLM can deliver multiple benefits in relation to national development objectives. The ELD Initiative (2015) estimated that adoption of SLM practices and policies could deliver up to USD 1.4 trillion in increased crop production worldwide. Increasing crop production with SLM practices would support policy makers’ attempts to reduce national poverty levels and improve the health and wellbeing of communities, while ensuring ecologically-responsible land management practices. At the international level, SLM is an important approach to simultaneously support achievement of land degradation neutrality (LDN), the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), and the Rio Conventions.

Drought-smart land management

Drought-smart land management characterizes land-based interventions for drought mitigation. Such D-SLM interventions improve the capacity of soil to accept, retain, release and transmit water and increase plant water use efficiency. They can do so broadly by increasing the water supply where it is needed by living organisms or by reducing water demand. D-SLM interventions contribute to avoiding, reducing and reversing land degradation under the LDN framework.

SLM best practices on the Knowledge Hub

SLM plays a pivotal role in the UNCCD’s commitments to combating desertification, land degradation, and drought (DLDD), and is a vital element to the achievement of LDN, by avoiding or reducing land degradation. The UNCCD Knowledge Hub presents resources on SLM, including best practices in SLM technologies, and how they can be applied to certain land uses to combat DLDD and contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

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