A farmer in Ethiopia. All but four of the 17 sustainable development goals are directly linked to land use. Photo by:  Planète à vendre / CC BY-NC-ND

Two of the greatest aspirations in life are to provide adequate food and shelter for our families.

Will the proposed Sustainable Development Goals help all 9 billion of us to achieve these aspirations by 2050? All but four of the 17 goals are directly linked to the use of the land. It makes the proposed goal about the sustainable use of land resources, particularly vital — but it will require bold action to secure land rights, to turn from the current land use practices and to restore more degraded land for our use.

More than 99.7 percent of our food calories still come from the land, and 70 percent of all freshwater is used in the food system, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. At a minimum, each of us needs 0.07 hectares of land to meet our daily food needs. In 1961, we had access to 0.45 hectares per person. However, by 2011 we were down to 0.2 hectares per person.

Clearly, despite mankind’s many accomplishments, we still owe our existence to a 15 cm layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.

Population growth and better lifestyles will reduce everyone’s share of the land. And there is little of it left to spare, when you factor in the other competing demands for prime land. Hydropower, urban growth, biofuels, infrastructure development, forests, biodiversity conservation and watersheds all join a long list of trade-offs and choices we will have to make.

We are clearing new land to meet our growing demand for food and then leaving behind a trail of destruction behind us. Agriculture is still the leading driver of deforestation, FAO data shows. This, and other land use practices, have left half of the agricultural land degraded, more than 500 million hectares of degraded land abandoned and a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.

The MDG scorecard on environmental sustainability shows that more of us live better than we did 25 years ago. Roughly 2.1 billion people gained access to improved drinking water. Some 200 million slum dwellers — double the initial target — have better housing, access to water or to sanitation, and 44 million no longer live in slums.

But a majority of the people whose lives improved live on marginal lands, which, with climate change, are increasingly prone to flooding or landslides. Floods are becoming a challenge even for upper- and middle-class urban families — from London to New York, Manila and Brisbane. In many places, poor drainage, sealing and other land-related diseases rooted in poor past land management practice are the cause.

We have known this for a long time. Two hundred years ago, Henry Thoreau posed, “what’s the use of a fine house, if you haven’t a tolerable planet to put it on?”

Squaring the circle

To square this circle, we need to adopt land use practices that are sustainable. We have to grant land rights. And we have to restore more of the degraded land to meet our future growth.

First, we need to promote, aggressively, agricultural approaches that achieve at least three minimum aims. They minimize water use, increase yields per acre or hectare and use land already under cultivation or that has been restored to health.

A lot of these agricultural practices — conservation agriculture, no-till agriculture, evergreen agriculture, agroforestry, farmer managed natural regeneration, holistic management and many more — are well known and surprisingly cheap. They are underutilized because we have not mustered the courage to make them competitive through incentives that stimulate their adoption.

Subsidies may not even be required; just innovation. In one region of Israel, for instance, a fund was set up to compensate farmers for the yields they would lose after adopting no-till agriculture. Adoption rates soared. By 2013, four years after the fund’s creation, no one had sought compensation.

Second, we need to strengthen weak land rights and provide them where they are lacking. Land rights motivate users to manage the land with a long term view. Land users are smart; even poor and landless people. Weak rights are a signal to pay the least possible cost to get the highest output in the shortest time possible — a potent mix for land degradation. Without land rights, most of the SDGs will be unachievable.

For instance, slums are symptomatic of weak — or a lack of — tenure rights. On the one hand, services are denied to people who lack legal tenure over the land. On the other hand, people without secure tenure are not motivated to invest in the infrastructure needed for a service.

Strengthening the land rights of the more than 1 billion people living off degrading land and the over 863 million slum dwellers can inspire poor people to invest in their land and their homes. It will increase their resilience and reduce the cost of adaptation.

Third, the economic rationale of how assets are used needs to penetrate the land use sector. We must live within our means, in terms of the land we consume: we should avoid degrading new land to meet future growth and, instead, recover and re-use as much degraded land as possible.

Globally, at least 2 billion hectares of degraded agricultural land and forests has potential for immediate restoration. Enough to meet the 4 million hectares of new land we need every year until 2050 to meet the growing demand for food. Enough to recover watersheds and ecosystems, and restore declining ground water sources to ease the future demand for water. That’s enough to ease the demand for biofuels in Europe and the United States, and cover part of the energy demand.

There is no shortage of productive land. Only poor land management and the lack of political will to stir up land users and consumers into effective land stewards. The proposed SDG are ambitious — as they should be. They have the seeds to turn us into better users than any other generation before us. But only if we are bold enough to adopt sustainable land use practices, to accord land rights and to restore degraded land to meet future growth.

What is working, and what more can the international community do in the next 500 days to make progress on the Millennium Development Goals? Have your say by leaving a comment below.

Aug. 18, 2014 marks the 500-day milestone until the target date to achieve the MDGs. Join Devex, in partnership with the United Nations Foundation, to raise awareness of the progress made through the MDGs and to rally to continue the momentum. Check out our Storify page and tweet us using #MDGmomentum.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Monique Barbut

    Monique Barbut is under secretary-general of the United Nations and executive secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. She has over 30 years of experience in sustainable development, international diplomacy, governance and finance.