“Every great and deep difficulty bears in itself its own solution. It forces us to change our thinking in order to find it.” –Niels Bohr, Danish philosopher and Nobel-Prize-winning physicist

With at least 9.5 billion people on earth by 2050, population pressure, higher consumer expectations, and climate change will degrade and tax our limited natural resources, especially that of the land. Our capacity to transform the environment, and the services it provides, has untold repercussions. The world is fast approaching, perhaps, the last fork in the road. If we follow one path, often referred to as ‘business as usual,’ the difficulties will continue to mount, perhaps irreversibly. As Bohr suggests, we need to change our thinking to find a better way. If we change our thinking to follow the path of sustainable land management, we can and will find practical solutions for many of our most pressing challenges. So, faced with the land degradation and water scarcity that is set to leave millions hungry, destitute, and defenseless, this special issue of Solutions drafted with the Economics of Land Degradation (ELD) Initiative lays out practical ways to minimize the intensity and perhaps avoid this fate.

In September 2015, 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by world leaders at the United Nations in New York. These goals are our global roadmap for the next 15 years, however right now they are merely a statement of intent. The challenge is to move from ambition to action, especially to successfully deliver Goal 15, “Life on Land.” Efforts to create productive, resilient landscapes are important to growth and prosperity, and we must further maintain and increase the amount of healthy land to achieve land degradation neutrality (SDG target 15.3). It is the simplest and most cost-effective response to our most pressing global challenges, a recipe for sustainable and equitable growth, and in fact, healthy land ecosystems will contribute to many other development goals.

Within this special issue, people from around the world working on solutions to sustainable land management have shared their innovative ideas and findings. This includes using economic tools to motivate the replanting of orchards in Russia, the greening of deserts, a novel framework called “four returns,” sustainably intensifying agricultural yields, involving the mining sector in land degradation neutrality, restoring and sustaining soil functions, and linking sectors and countries in Central Asia to combat land degradation. There is also a look back on the ancient terracing systems in Israel to see how they can guide us now, an exploration into setting up payment services for sustainable water supplies in Uganda, and research on how open-cast mining affects farming revenues in South Africa.

Our future prosperity and well-being depend upon whether we are able to protect and restore our landscapes, and the solutions presented here aim to achieve exactly that. Two billon hectares of degraded land and terrestrial ecosystems are available to kick-start a real green economy with enormous impacts on employment, food security, social stability, and reducing poverty. We can support vulnerable communities to rehabilitate their land, help governments provide secure land tenure rights, create new jobs for migrants, and increase local opportunities for land-based investments.

Perhaps most striking is the case for land users to have a larger role in tackling climate change, while delivering many co-benefits. Land can help with emission reductions, as well as the removal of greenhouse gasses. Already, more than a hundred countries have included agricultural and/or land-based mitigation and adaptation actions in their contributions, as they recognize that good land management practices can help manage emissions and build resilience to climate impacts by providing protection against droughts, flooding, landslides, and erosion.

Circumstances are forcing us to change our thinking about how we use land, but in managing it better, we will find solutions to the difficulties we face. An integrated land management approach is our best bet, and the ideas presented here will help play a role in securing a world with healthy, sustainable, and productive land for all.


Monique Barbut

Monique Barbut, Executive Secretary, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), has over 30 years’ experience in sustainable development, international diplomacy, governance, and finance....

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