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Photo Wieteke Willemen

How to halt the global decline of lands

Land degradation - the reduction in the capacity of the land to support human and other life on earth - is one of the biggest challenges the Earth is facing. Yet, little is being done to slow down or stop the degradation process. A team of twenty leading researchers from all over the world, led by University of Twente researcher Wieteke Willemen, developed a strategy to ensure land degradation is being halted. Their findings feature in the latest edition of Nature Sustainability.

Urgent matter

Our high consumption life-styles and continued population growth put enormous pressure on land and nature. This fuels a rapid expansion and unsustainable management of lands used for agriculture, forestry, mining, and infrastructure. Discernible consequences appear in the loss of important ecosystem processes and a decrease in biodiversity: both developments that contribute to climate change and reduce food and water security, the natural protection against flooding, and healthy environments. Land degradation has already negatively affected the living conditions of at least two-fifths of the people on Earth and it is estimated to be reducing global economic output by a tenth.

Positive outlook

The effects of degradation of land and nature are severe and impactful. However, a report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), published in 2018, provided a positive outlook: there are numerous examples that show that coordinated policy and involvement of various stakeholders may lead to significant results. The twenty researchers have now joint forces to formulate a universal strategy to overcome the most important barriers to successfully addressing land degradation.

Five problems

“We can categorise these barriers into five systemic reasons that explain why the issue failed to attract global attention like for instance climate change did”, says Dr Willemen, who is an associate professor at the ITC Faculty of Geo-information Science and Earth Observation at the University of Twente. “Land degradation is invisible to many, is not seen as a problem, is hard to measure, and has no single cause to point at”. This is because consumers and policymakers are often typically far away from the land they use, and the many processes influencing land degradation make it a problem that is rather easy to dismiss. There is also no sense of urgency for people who perceive land degradation simply as an inevitable side effect of human development. In countries where the problem is recognized, necessary action has been hampered by limited institutional competencies and motivation of policymakers. Few countries have the means to enforce their national land protection legislation if they have one. Last but not least, there is little agreement on standardized ways to measure land degradation. A well-defined and measurable metric is needed to guide policy, similar to 1.5-2 ⁰C target in the global climate policy.

Ten solutions to restore the land

The team of researchers formulated a strategy with ten solutions that could be applied everywhere to tackle the fundaments of these problems. It describes ways to measure and account for costs and benefits of land uses, set binding policy targets, make the best use of judicial institutions, and re-evaluate our lifestyles and relation to nature. “Here we underline that public and private sector decision-makers, scientists, and citizens all have a role to play in protecting and restoring land”, says Dr Willemen.  In the paper, the authors summarize their strategy in an image that not only shows which solutions tackles which problem but also identifies leading societal groups for this. “We chose the image of a hurdle track – a series of barriers that, with effort, are surmountable by all relevant groups”, says Dr Willemen.  “We hope our strategy will motivate decision-makers at the upcoming 2020 Biodiversity Conference, stimulate research funding, activate consumer initiatives, and facilitate strategic partnerships across these groups.” Land degradation is a widespread, yet fixable problem.

prof.dr.ir. L.L.J.M. Willemen (Wieteke)
Full Professor

From 2015 to 2018, Wieteke Willemen was a Coordinating Lead Author of a chapter in the IPBES Land Degradation and Restoration Assessment and took part in the international negotiations on the final publication in Colombia. She is an associate professor at the ITC Faculty of Geo-information Science and Earth Observation of the University of Twente where she develops approaches to evaluate land interventions and ecosystem services.  

Full details of the publication

How to halt the global decline of lands

Authors: Louise Willemen, Nichole N. Barger, Ben ten Brink, Matthew Cantele, Barend F.N. Erasmus, Judith L. Fisher, Toby Gardner, Timothy G. Holland, Florent Kohler, Janne S. Kotiaho, Graham P. von Maltitz, Grace Nangendo, Ram Pandit, John A. Parrotta, Matthew D. Potts, Stephen D. Prince, Mahesh Sankaran, Anastasia Brainich, Luca Montanarella and Robert Scholes

Journal: Nature Sustainability

DOI: 10.1038/s41893-020-0477-x

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