International land use scientists urge policymakers to adopt new approaches to addressing climate change, biodiversity and climate justice

New study reveals 10 "hard truths" defining the challenge of achieving sustainability in land use and point the way toward just policymaking solutions

February 7, 2022
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FEBRUARY 7, 2022 — A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) identifies prevailing misconceptions about land use and provides 10 core principles that can be used to develop more effective and fair ways to use land to support sustainability.  

Authored by a group of scholars led by the Global Land Programme, including experts from the Environmental Defense Fund, the article “Ten facts about land systems for sustainability” highlights “hard truths”, supported by strong empirical evidence from land system science. The core principles that form the truths explain to scientists, policy makers, practitioners and societies why achieving sustainability in land use is so complex.  

“Many mainstream ideas about land use and sustainability are misguided at best and, at worst, harmful. These facts about land should serve as a common ground for anyone aiming to conserve life-giving natural resources, protect precious biodiversity, build more equitable societies, and address climate change,” said Suzi Kerr, Chief Economist at the Environmental Defense Fund and co-author of the study. 

The ten facts are:  

  1. Meanings and values of land are socially constructed and contested. Different groups place different values on what makes land useful, degraded, or culturally important. Top-down policy agendas are often rooted in one dominant value system.  

  1. Land systems exhibit complex behaviors with abrupt, hard-to-predict changes. Policy interventions are typically intended to solve a particular problem, but often fail when they ignore system complexity. Addressing one problem in isolation can result in unintended harm to natural areas and people.  

  1. Irreversible changes and path dependence are common features of land systems. Converting land from one use to another, such as the clearing of old-growth forests, leads to changes felt decades to centuries later. Restoration rarely brings land back to a state that truly matches original conditions.  

  1. Some land uses have a small footprint but very large impacts. Cities, for instance, consume large amounts of resources that are often produced elsewhere using vast amounts of land; they also reduce negative impacts by concentrating human populations on a relatively small land. Net impacts are hard to measure and predict.  

  1. Drivers and impacts of land-use change are globally interconnected and spill over to distant locations. Due to globalization, land use can be influenced by distant people, economic forces, policies, or organizations, and decisions.  

  1. We live on a used planet where all land provides benefits to societies. People directly inhabit, use, or manage over three-quarters of Earth’s ice-free land, with more than 25% inhabited and used by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLC).   

  1. Land-use change usually entails trade-offs between different benefits —"win–wins" are rare. While land use delivers a range of benefits, such as food, timber, and sacred spaces, it also often involves trade-offs for both nature and some communities of people. Land use decisions involve value judgments to determine which benefits to prioritize, and for whom.  

  1. Land tenure and land-use claims are often unclear, overlapping, and contested. Rights to use and access land can overlap, belong to different people, or to different kinds of access as in rights to ownership or use.  

  1. The benefits and burdens from land are unequally distributed. A small number of people own a disproportionate amount of land area and land value in most countries around the world.  

  1. Land users have multiple, sometimes conflicting, ideas of what social and environmental justice entails. There is no single form of justice that is fair for all. Justice means different things to and for different people, from recognizing the claim of indigenous groups to land, to impacts on future generations, to what systems are used to determine whose claims are given priority. 

"Land use is the foundation for so many resources that support humanity - among them food, livelihoods, and energy – as well as habitat for non-human life. With careful attention to the complex realities highlighted in the paper, land use can be part of solutions to climate change and other environmental problems,” said Ruth de Fries, a professor of ecology and sustainable development at Columbia University and EDF Trustee, who co-authored the paper. “EDF’s long-standing economics- and science-driven approach does not look for easy solutions, rather the approaches look for solutions that work based on these realities.” 

Two of these truths – numbers 2 and 5 – argue for a strong need to approach land use issues at a system-wide level.  

For example, when aiming to conserve tropical forests, using a jurisdictional approach that considers an entire region’s diverse ecosystems, natural resources, and local economies. The jurisdictional approach encourages companies sourcing agricultural commodities to collaborate with local governments, communities, and producers in their sourcing region. By working together, stakeholders ensure that local laws, regional efforts, and corporate policies work in concert to reduce deforestation and increase economic productivity across an entire region — not just within a single project area. 

One of the leading jurisdictional approaches is the Produce, Conserve, Include (PCI) strategy in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Agricultural powerhouse Mato Grosso state, with a third of Brazil’s soy production and the biggest cattle herd in the country, is a case in point. In 2004, were Mato Grosso a country, it would have been the 10th largest emitter in the world1. In 2018, it would have been 55th – because of federal and state-led programs to reduce deforestation in both the Amazon forest and tropical savanna biomes. Yet, soy production and cattle herds also increased over the same period. While state action can do a lot, lack of cooperation from the federal government has created challenges and deforestation has risen sharply in the 2020/2021 monitoring season. Nonetheless, accumulated deforestation reductions since 2004 far exceed last year’s spike.   

“Mato Grosso’s achievements are the gold standard of what it means to take a systemic and broad view of land use and sustainability. The state decreased emissions while it satisfied economic demand for its products, decoupling emissions from deforestation, which historically always moved in lock step with agricultural production,” said Kerr.  

The study also emphasizes justice for local and Indigenous communities as a core requirement to achieving sustainability in land use — and underscores that just solutions require acknowledging multiple visions of justice and power differentials.  

The report identified four types of justice when it comes to land use: recognition justice, in which distinct identities and histories are particularly and intimately linked to lands; procedural injustices, which relate to decision making about land and how and on what terms interests are considered; distributive injustices, or how harms, ownership, or access are distributed or concentrated among people; and intergenerational justice, including the presence of irreversible impacts on land that occur over multiple human generational timescales. Policy and governance processes that do not acknowledge these multiple forms of justice are likely to be considered unjust by some actors. 

“These truths about land offer us a new framework – a new path forward to achieving true sustainability that respects land as a complex and interconnected system, weighs the trade-offs of our actions, and brokers a more just and equitable future," said Kerr.  

These facts do not provide answers to current land-related debates on how to manage tradeoffs or set up fair land use policies. However, they do point to how answers could be developed, as well as a research agenda. Actors ranging from policymakers to business leaders and civil society may use these principles to build land management practices, governance approaches and arrangements, strategic visions, and policy instruments that can rise to the challenge of sustainable land use globally. 

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