Reviewing Land Restoration: Reclaiming Landscapes for a Sustainable Future, edited by Ilan Chabay, Martin Frick, and Jennifer Helgeson, Academic Press, 2016

“Everything we have ever possessed, currently possess, or will possess stems from soil, the precious skin of the land. It is our most valuable geo-resource, and the mother of all other human resources; but it is finite and in acute danger.” -Luc Gnacadja (p. 555)

Economics conventionally attributes all production to three types of inputs: land, labor, and capital. But, land has gotten short shrift in recent times, under the false assumption that these three factors are infinitely substitutable, and that marketed economic production is the only thing that matters. This has been partly responsible for the massive degradation of land worldwide. We now know better. The value of land, both for supporting conventional economic production and for supporting sustainable human well-being more broadly, is fast becoming better recognized for the essential contributor it has always been. Land, and the ecosystem services it provides, are, in fact, the major contributor to sustainable human well-being. The ecosystem services concept is partly responsible for this rediscovery of the value of land. Ecosystem services are all of the benefits that humans derive from functioning ecosystems. This includes land’s support of conventional, marketed agricultural production, but it also includes many more benefits that never enter market transactions (and probably never should). Land-based ecosystems control climate, supply water, manage species interactions, manage nutrients, build and maintain soil, support recreation and traditional cultural practices, and much more. The value of these services, in terms of their contribution to sustainable human well-being, has been estimated to far exceed global GDP.

Chabay, Frick, and Helgeson have produced a massive, 572-page, ten-part, 35-chapter, edited review of all the ways that land contributes to human well-being and how the massive land degradation that has occurred can be reversed at relatively low cost. The 58 contributing authors cover: (1) the social context for land restoration; (2) concepts and methodologies for restoration and maintenance; (3) the complex relationship between land restoration, water, and energy; (4) the relationship between economics, policy, and governance for land restoration; (5) the significance of community as a backbone for land restoration; (6) the relationship between gender and land restoration; (7) the connection between communities, land restoration, and resilience; (8) a series of case studies from various areas of the world that have implemented a variety of approaches; (9) suggestions for ways to apply the research; and, (10) recommendations for the way forward.

A key overarching emphasis in the book is the importance of integrating ecological, social, political, and economic factors, both in recognizing the value of land and in developing and adopting sustainable land management practices. The introductory chapter of the book by Jes Weigelt and Alexander Müller lays out four hypotheses about what is needed for sustainable land restoration and the research needed to support it:

  1. We need a multilateral response to land and soil degradation.
  2. We need multi-stakeholder processes, but they need to include deliberate efforts to empower marginal groups.
  3. We need to secure the land rights of the most marginal groups in society.
  4. We need transdisciplinary research that gets involved in the respective transformation processes.

The rest of the book explores these hypotheses from a range of angles. The weight of the evidence provided clearly supports all four. In particular, it clearly debunks the misconceptions about land degradation and sustainable land management—that land restoration is too costly, it involves too little return on investment, and the gains are only in the long term. The accumulated evidence laid out in this book clearly shows that the benefits of land restoration and sustainable management outweigh, by large margins, the costs of inaction, and that collaborative, multilateral, multi-stakeholder, transdisciplinary approaches can achieve amazing results at low cost.

Why, then, is progress so slow? How do we overcome the inherent inertia in the complex social and political systems in which we are embedded?  Some of the case studies in part eight of the book point to examples, but a big part of the problem is that we are, in a very real sense, “addicted” to the current economic paradigm that overemphasizes consumption and GDP growth at the expense of broader social goals. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a massive step in the direction of broadening these social goals. The 17 SDGs include reducing poverty and inequality, addressing climate change, and restoring terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Adopting these new goals can help societies better recognize the value of land in supporting sustainable well-being, and help to overcome our addiction to “growth at all costs.” This volume provides much of the evidence to support the needed societal therapy to help us rediscover just how much land matters to the survival and well-being of humans on planet earth.


Robert Costanza

Robert Costanza is Chair of Public Policy at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. He has authored or coauthored over 350 scientific papers, and reports on his work have...

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