3 July 2024
How Land and Water Management Can Help Accelerate Progress Towards SDG 15
Photo credit: @EnvatoElements
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A recent UNU-EHS and UNCCD policy report assesses the contribution of land and water management approaches to sustainable land management and land degradation neutrality.

Many approaches specifically promote ecosystem health and food security, while human well-being and other socioeconomic aspects sometimes remain neglected.

Actions, such as integrating approaches, can help accelerate contributions to achieve LDN and progress towards various SDGs.

By Lisa Hartmann, Yvonne Walz, Magnus Sylvén, and Barron Joseph Orr

Land and water management approaches addressing environmental and social challenges – such as land degradation, food insecurity, climate change, and biodiversity loss – have become increasingly important in the past years. Several of these approaches are widely recognized, while others have only been recently introduced.

Parties to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) acknowledge that some approaches “may not yet be formally recognized in intergovernmental frameworks.” These land and water management approaches have different names, objectives, and principles and may use various techniques and technologies.

However, all these approaches have the potential to combat land degradation and desertification, mitigate drought, and provide numerous environmental, economic, and social co-benefits. The land degradation neutrality (LDN) framework and the concept of sustainable land management (SLM) offer benchmarks against which we can assess the contribution of land and water management approaches to fight the aforementioned challenges and contribute to human well-being and environmental health.

To explore this more systematically, UNCCD parties requested a coherence and alignment assessment of various land and water management approaches to address desertification, land degradation, drought, and achieve LDN. The UN University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) was tasked to assess the alignment of seven different land and water management approaches with SLM and LDN – agroecology, climate-smart agriculture, conservation agriculture, forest landscape restoration, integrated agriculture, regenerative agriculture, and rewilding. Sixty-five external experts from 29 countries provided input. A policy report was published in May 2024 and a scientific paper has been accepted for publication by Frontiers in Sustainable Resource Management.

We defined criteria to operationalize SLM and LDN and to assess alignment, categorized into four pillars: ecosystem health; food security; human well-being; and cross-cutting socioeconomic criteria. We documented which pillars are supported, but also where gaps remain and in which ways they can be addressed, offering guidance for planning and evaluating land and water management projects, leveraging policy and donor support, and advancing SLM and LDN.

Our assessment, which can also support the formal recognition of these approaches by intergovernmental processes, revealed five key findings.

First, each assessed approach contributes to SLM and LDN to different degrees and in different ways. Agroecology, as a comprehensive approach addressing a wide range of objectives, revealed the highest degree of alignment with SLM and LDN criteria. Regenerative agriculture and integrated agriculture are strongly aligned with many SLM and LDN criteria, particularly those related to enhancing the biophysical conditions of agroecosystems and promoting the sustainable use of resources.

Forest landscape restoration also aligns with SLM and LDN criteria, though some gaps exist due to its failure to address several human well-being criteria. Conservation agriculture meets criteria across all SLM and LDN pillars by improving the biophysical conditions of agroecosystems and promoting soil conservation. However, its frequent use of environmentally harmful glyphosate and a lack of emphasis on local knowledge and communities result in alignment gaps.

Through its focus on natural processes, rewilding aligns with fewer human well-being and cross-cutting criteria, but ongoing efforts around the world to better integrate new land-use practices with human stewardship will enhance alignment. Climate-smart agriculture, with its specific focus on productivity, emissions reduction, and climate adaptation in agricultural systems, shows the lowest degree of alignment with SLM and LDN criteria.

Second, across all assessed approaches, the most alignment exists with criteria relating to ecosystem health and food security. For example, all approaches employ practices that seek to improve ecological conditions, such as soil quality or hydrological properties.

Third, we found the least degree of alignment with criteria relating to human well-being and to certain cross-cutting socioeconomic criteria. For example, results suggest that several approaches do not explicitly safeguard land tenure, either because tenure is unclear or existing land-use agreements are inaccessible.

Fourth, there are recommendations for how we can address these gaps. Project design and implementation can include supplementary, remedial activities. For example, integrated agriculture projects, which do not commonly include gender-related considerations, could include actions to overcome gender inequality, such as helping women access financial or knowledge resources. Complementary approaches can be implemented in a wider landscape context to leverage their individual strength. Integrating regenerative agriculture practices and rewilding, for example, can help restore natural ecological processes while promoting agriculture-based livelihoods and food security.

Project design must also ensure more rigorous adherence to the defined principles of each approach. Forest landscape restoration, for example, has been criticized for claiming to be a participatory approach but not having engaged with people on the ground. Consequently, project monitoring and evaluation should track whether these principles are observed.

Established guidelines can also be consulted and applied to fill gaps, such as the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure.

Fifth, it is crucial to consider the local context where projects are implemented. The effective implementation of each approach depends on spatially explicit data on environmental, economic, and social factors to ensure the evidence-based design and implementation of practices for achieving multiple benefits.

Where approaches contribute to SLM and LDN, they create benefits for multiple SDGs. This is especially true for SDG target 15.3, to combat desertification and restore degraded land, to which LDN is integral. There are also contributions to other SGDs and targets.

For example, addressing land tenure rights in project implementation can foster progress on SDG 1.4 (equal ownership and control of land and its resources). Integrating gender considerations in project design can help ensure opportunities for women to participate in decision making and to have equal rights to resources (SDG targets 5.5 and 5.a). Since approaches contribute to enhancing land productivity and thus the provision of food, they support SDG target 2.4 (implementing practices that increase productivity and maintain ecosystems). By frequently promoting carbon sequestration and storage, which reduces agriculture-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or increases carbon sequestration, approaches contribute to SDG 13 (climate action).

These findings will serve as input to the 16th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 16) to the UNCCD in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in December 2024.

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Lisa Hartmann is Research Associate at UNU-EHS. Yvonne Walz is Head of the Environmental Vulnerability and Ecosystem Services Division at UNU-EHS.

Magnus Sylvén is Director of Science-Policy-Practice at the Global Rewilding Alliance.

Barron Joseph Orr is Chief Scientist in the Science, Technology and Innovation unit of the UNCCD.

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