Governance — Acting together for sustainable land management

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Article Published 30 Sep 2019 Last modified 29 Aug 2023
8 min read
Photo: © Rosana Grecchi, Sustainably Yours/EEA
Who owns land and its resources? Who decides how they can be used? In some cases, land is private property, which can be bought and sold, and exclusively used by its owners. Often its use is governed by national or local regulations, for example to maintain forest areas. In other cases, some areas are designated for public use only. But land is not only space or a territory. When we all use land and rely on its resources, sustainable management requires owners, regulators and users from local to global level to work together.

In our daily lives, ‘land’ can mean many things at once. It can refer to a space on the surface of our planet’s land mass. It can also mean the soil, rocks, sand or water bodies on the Earth’s surface and its upper layers. In some cases, it can include all the minerals and other resources such as groundwater, oil and precious stones in the depths of an area. For rural communities or amateur urban gardeners, it can even mean a personal and cultural connection with the rural way of life or a connection with nature.

Land: commodity or public good?

The market value of land (a given area) can vary significantly depending on its use, location and the resources it holds. History is filled with stories of remote or not-so-popular areas where land prices skyrocket upon the discovery of oil or gold, or of neighbourhoods, such as Kreuzberg in Berlin which was a peripheral neighbourhood along the Berlin Wall, that quickly become central to urban life, with rising land and property prices. Productive land can also be a global commodity or an investment for multinationals buying large areas across the globe often at the expense of small-scale local production.

The concept of designating land as private property (as a commodity that can be bought and sold) varies across cultures and over time. In traditionally nomadic cultures, such as the Sami in northern Finland and Sweden, seasonal migration over vast distances and relying on natural resources along the way have been and to a lesser extent still are the norm. This way of life depends on unhindered access to the landscape and its resources. The community as a whole uses and cares for the land. In this context, the land and its resources above and below the ground are common goods.

Land can also be a shared space and a shared good assigned to a specific community’s use. Many villages across Turkey have access to clearly marked pastureland, to be used by the herds of that village. Legally, the land might belong to the state or the village as a community but the village has the right to use the space and decide how to share it.

In some ways, this is similar to other public spaces. In urban areas, authorities can designate some areas, such as parks, public squares or pedestrian zones, to be used and shared by everyone. Public spaces can include land owned by the state or a public authority.

In Europe, the concept of common public spaces co-exists with the concept of areas that are clearly and legally defined as private property, belonging to individuals or legal entities such as companies or organisations. The boundaries are clearly marked, often by a fence or a wall, and registered and recognised by an official institution such as a land registry or municipality. Regardless of the type of land ownership, public authorities, through zoning laws, can also determine how specific areas are to be used, such as for residential, commercial, industrial or agricultural purposes.

Forest ownership: private or public?

The governance of land and its resources has never been straightforward. An area designated as private property managed by private entities can also function as a public space and provide public good. In some cases, the space can be considered a public space that provides a public good while its resources are commodities belonging to the legal owner, as in the example of Finnish forests.

Over 70 % of Finland is covered by forests and about 60 % of Finnish forests, consisting of some 440 000 holdings, are owned by almost 1 million private individuals or families. These relatively small forest patches (average of 23 hectares per holding, roughly equal to 32 football pitches) are passed on from one generation to the next. Over time, the number of forest-owner farmers has declined significantly, partly due to an ageing population and the migration of young people to cities. Today, pensioners are the largest group of forest owners and the actual management of most of these areas is run by an extensive network of owner associations across Finland. Yet, all Finns can access and enjoy these private forests.

In fact, more than 60 % of Europe’s forests are privately owned. Private ownership ranges from 75 % in Sweden and France to less than 25 % in Greece and Turkey. Forest management and forestry activities can then be handled by public entities or entrusted to private forestry companies.

Who has the duty of care?

To protect land and its resources and how to use them, different governance structures put in place a series of policies and measures. In Europe, these can range from local zoning regulations to European legislation aimed at reducing industrial pollutant releases to land, or from connecting green areas to reduce fragmentation to extending protected areas to preserve nature’s diversity. Some of these measures are closely linked to economic sectors or specific policy areas. For example, the EU’s common agricultural policy requires farmers to adopt a set of practices to achieve ‘good agricultural and environmental condition’. Similarly, the Seventh Environment Action Programme, guiding the EU’s environment policy until 2020, includes a non-binding commitment of ‘no net land take by 2050’, with the aim of halting the spread of urban areas into often fertile agricultural land and forests. Despite such measures, there is not a coherent and comprehensive set of policies targeting land and soil. A recent report by the European Court of Auditors (ECA) stresses that the risks linked to desertification and land degradation are increasing and that policy measures lack coherence. The ECA recommends, among other things, that a methodology be established to assess the extent of desertification and land degradation in the EU and that guidance be provided to Member States on preserving soil and achieving land degradation neutrality.

When it comes to taking action on the ground to achieve such policy goals, it is not down to individual stakeholders such as farmers, consumers or urban planners alone. Although our consumption choices, such as avoiding personal care products with microplastics, diets or farming practices can have an impact on the health of our soils and land, there are many factors and other stakeholders at play. Market prices for food and land, the productivity of land, climate change and pressure from urban sprawl may all force farmers to adopt monoculture or intensive farming practices to remain economically viable. It is not surprising that many farming communities across Europe face abandoned land and young people migrating to urban areas, especially in areas with low agricultural productivity. Similarly, individual urban planners may choose to limit urban sprawl by converting old industrial sites into new urban areas but authorities may lack the resources needed. In many cases, cleaning and remediating land in industrial areas may be more costly than expanding the infrastructure and building on farmland.

Who is responsible?

In some policy areas, such as soil pollution, it can be extremely difficult to attribute responsibilities. In a given field, some contamination might be due to excessive fertiliser and pesticide application by the farmer. Additional pollutants released by transport, industry or energy sectors might be transported in by wind and rain, or as a result of flooding. Ultimately, wider society benefits from the food produced in the field and its transport to cities.

Some of the land resources, including sand and gravel, are global commodities. End users might be quite far from the extraction location. According to a recent report by UN Environment (the United Nations Environment Programme), the global demand for sand has trebled over the last two decades as a result of urbanisation and infrastructure developments. Extraction rules and their enforcement can vary from one country to another. Along with growing demand and illegal extraction practices, these differences in governance can result in additional pressure on already vulnerable ecosystems, such as rivers and coastal areas, where sand is extracted. Similarly, other mining activities — of coal, limestone, precious metals or gems — can have equally significant impacts (e.g. contamination or removal of topsoil layers) on ecosystems near their extraction sites.

Defining and agreeing on measurable targets can present another governance challenge. For example, we know that soil organic matter — such as plant residues — is essential for healthy and productive soil and for mitigating climate change. Given this, the EU has committed itself to increasing soil organic matter in its Roadmap to a resource efficient Europe. But how can we measure change accurately when we do not know the current amount of organic matter in Europe’s soil? To this end, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre initiated an initial soil survey comprising about 22 000 soil samples from across the EU.

Soil and land have increasingly been recognised as vital and finite resources globally and in Europe that face increasing pressures, including those linked to climate change and biodiversity loss. For example, a recent special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change brings a global perspective to the challenges ahead by looking at land degradation, sustainable land management, food security and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems in the context of climate change. A report by the IPBES (the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) highlights the scope of global land degradation[x] and its implications. A more recent global assessment by IPBES draws attention to the accelerating decline in biodiversity, including land-based species, which is caused by, among other factors, changes in land use.

In recent years, this recognition has gradually been translated into overarching goals and structures. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals — in particular Goal 15: Life on Land and Goal 2: Zero Hunger — depend on healthy soil and sustainable land use. The Global Soil Partnership of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations along with its regional partnerships aim to improve the governance and promote the sustainable management of soil by bringing together all stakeholders, from land users to policymakers, to discuss soil issues. Many EU policy documents, including the EU’s soil thematic strategy and biodiversity strategy, call for protecting soil and ensuring the sustainable use of land and its resources.

Given the complexity of governance linked to soil and land, binding targets, incentives and measures for protecting soil and land resources are largely missing despite these global and European efforts.

However, various initiatives are in progress across different parts of society to better manage our land and soil. These range from improving our environmental monitoring, policy reform proposals (e.g. agriculture), research initiatives and associations that promote environmentally friendly farming, to consumers that buy sustainable food products. Ultimately, we all have a duty of care and we are all responsible, as we are the users, owners, regulators, managers and consumers of land and soil.

Many global policy frameworks, including the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),directly and indirectly address land and soil. Many of these SGDs cannot be achieved without healthysoils and a sustainable land use. Below is an overview of the SDGs with strong links to soil.


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