03 Apr 2018 Story Ecosystems and Biodiversity

Up for grabs: How can we use our land sustainably?

“Integrated landscape management” requires understanding different land use impacts and balancing the often-conflicting interests of different groups.

Let’s pretend you are the government of Country X in sub-Saharan Africa. You want to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” (Sustainable Development Goal 1). But you are also mindful of needing to implement all 17 Goals, including Goal 15 “Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems”.

You have a large tract of dry rangeland where hardly anyone lives and you want to better exploit it for the benefit of your people.


A foreign government comes to you offering to pay you $x billion for a 30-year lease on a 1,000 square kilometre area of dryland with at least one year-round water source on it. The land will be fenced off and used for military exercises.

Then you are approached by an international mining consortium wanting to take a 30-year lease to use and fence off 1,000 square kilometres of land for oil exploration and possible production. The lease alone will bring in $x billion, and much more if the oil starts to flow.

At the same time, a wealthy foreign country wants to farm a huge expanse of “empty” land and is willing to invest in piping to bring water from a far-away lake. The plan is to grow chickpeas using drip irrigation, creating some local jobs.

The three project offers cover one vast expanse of apparently underutilized land and the money on offer seems too good to be true. Which developing country government would not be attracted by such offers?

System-wide knowledge

For a government and people to benefit in a sustainable way from such offers, all interested parties (“stakeholders” in the jargon) need to be involved from the outset. That means the government, local government, pastoralists and other marginalized peoples, landowners, wildlife conservation groups, etc. must be at the table when decisions are made.

Good quality environmental and macro-economic data and information is essential. The risks and potential benefits, and environmental impacts, of any deals need to be thoroughly reviewed by all concerned. The government and other stakeholders would need to have the technical capacity to balance the differing interests to allow a consensus to be reached with all parties for the benefit of all, without harming the environment.

This requires taking a system-wide approach, looking at the big picture, and having all the information to fully understand the impacts of different land uses. Integrated ecosystems management, as part of landscape approaches, sees the environment as a complex web of connected parts and requires a holistic approach.

For example, land that is fenced off may no longer be accessible by pastoralists and their herds of cattle. Some waterholes could be closed to them, and to get to others they might have to take a circuitous route, during which many of their cattle would die.

Or if the chickpea project pumps water from a far-away lake, the impact on that lake and those who use it would need to be assessed.

“Landscape approaches take into account the health of the ecosystems that support human livelihoods. They allow the different stakeholders to improve the overall governance of the natural resources, help coordinate multiple land uses and users, reduce conflicts and contribute to resilience,” says Siham Drissi, an ecosystems expert with UN Environment.

Sustainable, integrated landscape management uses collaborative, place-based natural resources planning to shape development projects. Learn more in this video:

What’s UN Environment doing?

UN Environment promotes integrated/sustainable landscape management through different international funds such as the Global Environment Facility, the Green Climate Fund or through bilateral funding as, for example, with China.

Working with Wageningen University in the Netherlands, the Global Landscape Forum and other partners, UN Environment is also helping to develop the Landscape Academy to promote landscape approaches worldwide. The Academy is developing an online platform to help landscape managers, practitioners, farmers and others to acquire the necessary tools and knowledge to avoid pitfalls.

UN Environment is also collaborating with Wageningen University on landscape governance. A course on landscape governance will be held at the university from 2-13 April 2018. The Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) are helping to organize the course.

“We aim to challenge participants to look at their work from an integrative landscape perspective, to build bridges between the public and the private sector, and to develop innovative governance mechanisms at the landscape level,” says Cora van Oosten, a landscape governance expert at the Centre for Development Innovation at Wageningen University.

Sustainably managed landscapes serve as the life raft system on which the world’s population – 9.7 billion people by 2050 – depends.

For further information: siham.drissi[at]un.org