Pressure on land resources has increased during recent years despite international goals to improve their management. The fourth Global Environment Outlook (UNEP 2007) highlighted the unprecedented land-use changes created by a burgeoning population, economic development and global markets. The outcome of those drivers continues to cause resource depletion and ecosystem degradation.
Economic growth has come at the expense of natural resources and ecosystems. Many terrestrial ecosystems are being seriously degraded because land-use decisions often fail to recognize non-economic ecosystem functions and biophysical limits to productivity. For example, deforestation and forest degradation alone are likely to cost the global economy more than the losses of the 2008 financial crises. The current economic system, built on the idea of perpetual growth, sits uneasily within an ecological system that is bound by biophysical limits. However, some market-based approaches that attach value to ecosystem services offer incentives to reduce environmental damage.
Competing demands for food, feed, fuel, fibre and raw materials are intensifying pressures on land. Demands for food and livestock feed are increasing rapidly due to human population growth and changing diets. Demand for biofuels and raw materials have also risen sharply, driven by the increased population, greater consumption and biofuel-friendly policies. This simultaneous growth is causing land conversion, land degradation and pressure on protected areas. Climate change is placing additional stress on productive areas. One result is heightened tension between goals related to production and those related to conservation.
Globalization and urbanization are aggravating competing demands on land. These processes expand and intensify the pressure on land systems by increasing the distances between places where products originate and where they are consumed. The greater distances can obscure the drivers of resource depletion and ecosystem degradation, produce higher environmental costs due to transport and infrastructure, and complicate the negotiation of sustainable land management practices. Large-scale international land deals are both an emerging outcome of and a contributor to this trend. Internationally coordinated responses are needed to address related social and environmental pressures.
Improved governance and capacity building are crucial to achieving sustainable land management. Many interventions meant to protect ecosystems have failed because they were created without recognizing local values or engaging local communities in their design and implementation. Capacity building across spatial and temporal scales is needed to improve land management. Current governance approaches include marketbased strategies such as the collaborative UN programme for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), centralized institutional strategies such as certification, and decentralized strategies such as community-based resource management. All offer both opportunities and challenges for improving land governance.
Potential exists to create more sustainable land systems. To solve these complex problems, it is critical to understand how diverse social and ecological drivers affect land systems at local, regional, national and global scales. A concerted effort by international organizations, the scientific community, and national and local institutions to coordinate their actions can create the policy options needed to achieve this goal.