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The vicious cycle of land degradation: Factors, Consequences and Governance

Source: Hoffman

It is important to note that deforestation is a type of land degradation, and in this blog, the words deforestation and degradation are used interchangeably.

Population growth, accompanied by increases in economic activities and infrastructure development in the Amazonian region, have led to an important modification of land use, generating deforestation, fragmentation of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity (Ramirez, 2019). This rainforest, which is the largest ecosystem of its kind on earth, has received large media coverage over the past decades, for the large fires that have ravaged it. Whether or not these fires are caused by climate change or human activity, has become a highly political and debatable issue with the Brazilian President Bolsonaro claiming the former to be true and at some point denying the existence of the fires altogether despite the data shown (Reuters, 2020). But if you think the Amazon rainforest is the only region undergoing massive deforestation and land degradation, think again! Globally, about 25 percent of the total land area has been degraded and 3.2 billion people have been affected by land degradation, especially rural communities, smallholder farmers, and the very poor (GEF, 2021). A 2018 report by the Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) estimated that within the next 30 years, land degradation will force up to 700 million people to migrate and similarly, by 2050 crop yields are expected to decline between 10% and 50% in some areas (Wentworth, 2018).

Too fast, too soon? Let’s define the problem, causes and consequences…
Scientific authors have defined Land degradation differently but all definitions encompass the reduction of the current or future capacity of land to produce (Fatunbi & Dube, 2008). Most definitions in the Science field cover the subject of plant species composition, biological productivity and soil health (Fatunbi & Dube, 2008). The Global Environmental Facility (GEF) defined it as the deterioration or loss of the productive capacity of the soils for present and future, and stated it as one of the world’s most pressing environmental problems that will worsen without rapid remedial action. The Special Report on Climate Change and Land for Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defined it as a negative trend in land condition, caused by direct or indirect human-induced processes including anthropogenic climate change. The report also expressed it as long-term reduction or loss of at least one of the following: biological productivity, ecological integrity, or value to humans.

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) listed the main causes of land degradation as; deforestation, shortage of land due to increased populations, poor land use, insecure land tenure, inappropriate land management practices and poverty. Poor land use and inappropriate land management practices include: overgrazing of farm animals, monoculture planting, soil erosion, soil compaction, and overexposure to chemical pollutants such as fertilizers (DW, 2016).

Land degradation becomes an issue because;

  • It affects food production, which leads to food insecurity and hunger (DW, 2016). As a result of land degradation, it is estimated that about 11.9–13.4% of the global agricultural supply has been lost in the past five decades (Jie et al, 2002),
  • Not only does land degradation destroy the habitats for a vast number of microorganisms and loss of biodiversity and
  • It lowers the amount of Carbon dioxide storage in the soil, making it one of the most important contributors to climate change.
  • Scientists recently warned that 24 billion tons of fertile soil was being lost per year, largely due to unsustainable agriculture practices. If this trend continues, 95 percent of the Earth’s land areas could become degraded by 2050 (Wentworth, 2018). It is also associated with off-site problems of sedimentation and water logging, where rainwater fails to penetrate into the soil (Jie et al, 2002).
Classes of land degradation.

Classes of land degradation. This image illustrates degradation and classifies it into “high and low” to show the severity in each region. It also illustrates how much of an international environmental problem it has become.

So, who is governing the problem?
Governance of any issue at international level is difficult because questions of who should rule and to what extent then arise. Land degradation is governed by a number of institutions and formal rules (legally binding instruments), mostly in collaborative form. Such instruments include United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). For this this blog, however, I will focus on one International Environmental Institution, UNEP, as an organization governing the problem of land degradation. UNEP is the leading global environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda, promotes the coherent implementation of the environmental dimension of sustainable development within the United Nations system, and serves as an authoritative advocate for the global environment. Below is an infographic highlighting the actors who are perceived to be the drivers of land degradation and how UNEP collaborates with other organizations and states to mitigate this issue (O’Neill,2017).

Infographic highlighting the causes of land degradation and how UNEP is governing the issue

What are the challenges UNEP is facing in addressing land degradation?
UNEP’s (institution) design features and how they match the problem

In this blog, I will use Koremenos et al’s framework (using the five key dimensions; membership, scope, centralization, control, and flexibility) to analyze UNEP’s institutional design and its weaknesses.

UNEP’s membership is exclusive and not restricted only to wealthier countries. It is universal in that all countries (High Income or Low and Middle Income) from all regions of the world are eligible to be members. However, other entities such as NGOs cannot be members although they may partner with UNEP if they have a common interest/goal. Major Groups and Stakeholders can get directly involved with UNEP by applying for Accreditation to the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) of UNEP, which grants them observer status to UNEA (UNEP, 2020). Examples of such NGOs include the World Farmers’ Organization (WFO). The current membership status of UNEP matches the problem in that it is all-inclusive to all states and this is important as states can mobilize resources as a collective to mitigate the issue.

What are the issues covered by UNEP when specifically dealing with land degradation? Should it immerse itself in the political aspects of land degradation such as in the case of President Bolsonaro publicly denying that human-induced forest fires exist? To answer this question, I would say UNEP tries to cover the broad challenge of land degradation and it does so by providing guidelines and recommendation, however, it does not have any formal rules, such as a treaty. With formal rules, states are more likely to comply because they are legally binding. In order to match the land degradation problem and its magnitude, I do not think this current institutional design is effective.

Below is an Actor Analysis showing the relationship and interconnections between several actors involved in the land degradation problem. On one hand, there are International institutions who collaborate with UNEP, such as IUCN and FAO. On the other hand, there are private corporations, NGOs and experts. A unidirectional arrow pointing inwards shows that the organization/entity is receiving resources (expertise,funding etc), whereas a unidirectional arrow shows that the organization is on the giving end. A bidirectional arrow shows partnership of some form, as both entities/actors will be sharing resources.

Actor Analysis

UNEP is not a centralized institution in that, it does not touch directly on national sovereignty. As mentioned earlier, it can only produce expert reports, guidelines and recommendations on land degradation. Of course, countries may fail to comply, and this is usually because of lack of financial capability and technical expertise of Low and Middle Income countries. In this case, UNEP’s institutional design does not match the problem because, there are no enforcement measures and countries end up not prioritizing this land management issues.



The issue of control is very complex when it comes to international institutions and UNEP is not an exception. Wealthier member states tend to contribute more towards international institutions because they are capable, and this gives them control. It is also important to note that most of the institutions were formed by wealthier states, thus, these institutions tend to do what the wealthier member states want them to do (Barnett & Finnemore, 1999). In this case, land degradation is not an urgent issue in and for the global north as it is in the global south, hence the wealthier states will not push it on the political agenda as an urgent issue (like climate change). I would therefore say UNEPs dependence on member states somehow takes away its control on pushing forward land degradation as an urgent matter like climate change.

How will UNEP’s institutional rules and procedures accommodate new circumstances? How will it deal with novel environmental crises whilst dealing with growing crises such as land degradation and climate change? These questions of how flexible UNEP can be are still yet to be determined when a novel environmental crises emerges. We cannot say if and how flexible UNEP is, thus we cannot really say if it matches the land degradation problem or not.

What the incentives or challenges to key actors’ institutional participation?
Low and Middle Income countries in the global south such as Brazil and South Africa where land degradation is severe, have a high incentive to participate in UNEP’s programs to combat land degradation and desertification. This is because they can get funding to monitor illegal land clearance in their countries. For example, deforestation in Brazil is out of control and President Bolsonaro is asking for billions of dollars to stop it. Such states can also benefit from technical assistance offered by UNEP, especially for implementing programs that mitigate degradation. Therefore, states will have high incentives to participate and comply. A major challenge I would say is that there are no formal rules and thus no enforcement. This presents a major challenge of weak participation and weak compliance from states. For example, if a state does not follow guidelines or recommendations offered by UNEP and its partner organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), it will not face any repercussions because these are not legally binding instruments. Therefore, in this regard, states have high incentives to cheat. Overall, I would say states (which are the key actors in the institution participation), generally have moderate incentives to participate because of the above mentioned reasons. Other actors such as NGOs and other Intergovernmental organizations such as FAO, have high incentives to participate because they share a common interest of restoring destroyed land or at least mitigate the problem.

So then how can land degradation be better governed? Looking into the future

Click on this link below to listen to the podcast

Environment Conversations Podcast

From these views that I highlighted above, UNEP alone cannot govern this issue single-handedly and this is supported by the fact that it has had very little success doing so. Above is a podcast that I did with my friends Laure and Brady where we discussed the role of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), a legally binding convention that is also at the forefront of addressing land degradation. Surprisingly, UNCCDs efforts have not been very successful. So what is causing low compliance? Why is does desertification continue to be on the rise and what is the way forward? States tend to have low compliance because government officials/politicians sometimes do not understand the complex science behind issues like land degradation and climate change, hence denial. In the podcast, we discussed the role of experts in providing and interpreting credible scientific data to convince government officials who represent states at international conferences, to adopt policies that help to mitigate this issue as one major solution. I think scientific experts should be involved in policymaking decisions because they better understand the situation on the ground and they are able to use models to predict the severity of the issue in the future, in other words, they know exactly what’s going on! In the end, international cooperation between states, international institutions (such as that between UNEP, FAO and UNCCD), civil society, experts, philanthropists and the private sector, to name a few, is very crucial if we want to be successful in mitigating this problem. Hence, the international community needs to foster more of those partnerships.


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