Main authors: Catherine Bowyer , Clunie Keenleyside, Silvia Nanni, Anouchka Hoffmann, Nathalie van Haren , Karin van Boxtel, Paul Wolvekamp
iSQAPERiS editor: Jane Brandt
Source document: Bowyer, C. et al. (2018) Initial stocktaking report on existing policy measures. iSQAPER Project Deliverable 8.1, 125 pp


Contents table
1. Implications of land use-related SDGs for policymakers
2. Implications of land use-related SDGs for land users and farmers
3. Implications of land use-related SDGs for the private sector
4. Implications of land use-related SDGs for civil society
5. Implications of land use-related SDGs for academics
6. Critical Factors for Achieving the 2030 Agenda

1. Implications of land use-related SDGs for policymakers

Although the 2030 Agenda sets out ambitious targets for global transformation, the SDGs are primarily directed towards countries, and hence need to be integrated into national policy frameworks in order have real impact. In an era when many governments are faced with tight spending restrictions, politicians and policy makers will need to design measures that deliver synergistic outcomes to maximise the benefits of public investments. This is why good governance of and coherent policy regarding land and soils present a major opportunity for policymakers. Measures that promote more sustainable land use, LDN and land tenure security could potentially help countries (and particularly emerging economies) to meet multiple SDG Targets and Indicators (see Figure 5: Linkages and Positive Feedbacks Between Good Land, Soils and SDG below).

D8.1 fig05
Figure 5

As detailed in »Protecting Europe's soils, land-related policy reforms could enable States to:

  • Achieve secure land tenure for food producers (Targets 1.4 and 2.3), especially for women (Target 5a);
  • Support the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices (Target 2.4);
  • Increase resilience to climate shocks (Target 1.5)
  • Help farmers transition towards the use of fewer agrochemicals (Targets 3.9 and 12.4);
  • Reduce inequalities (Target 10.1 and 5a) • Realise inclusive land use planning and work towards healthy soils (Target 15.3);
  • Build peace, rule of law and increased access to justice (Targets 16.3 and 16.7)
  • Develop better knowledge systems (Targets 17.6.1 and 17.16.1).

For example, in order to realise SDG 2 on eliminating hunger, policies are needed to support agricultural systems that can deal with environmental stress, increase food production and prevent further land degradation (which relates to SDG 15). Because such systems will need to be less (agro)chemically intensive, they will also help to reduce deaths from chemical poisonings (relating to SDG 3).

To realise SDG 5, gender has to be mainstreamed in natural resources policies, and women’s access to land and tenure security needs to be greatly enhanced. Doing so would also create a positive feedback loop, in that it would help to reduce overall social and economic inequalities (SDG 10) and also contribute to improving food security and reducing poverty (SDG 1). In addition, although SDG 16 is not specifically related to soils and land, governments at all levels need to take measures towards inclusive decision-making for the management and use of land, as well as to ensure access to justice in case of land grabbing and reduce corruption in land deals.

Adopting measures that strengthen land governance, improve soils and achieve land degradation neutrality therefore has the potential to deliver multiple ‘wins’ for national policymakers. However, it could also be argued that the opposite holds true: that political resistance or foot-dragging over tenure reforms or sustainable land use could retard progress towards multiple SDG Targets. It must be remembered that, in many countries, land is a highly political and politicised topic. While securing land rights is critical to achieving sustainable development, efforts to do so are limited by the entrenched interests of local powerful elites. This is compounded by the fact that improving land tenure governance and soil management systems is often a complex, long-term process that can take many years. As a result, many developing country governments (and indeed donors) have shied away from land tenure reforms within their development strategies.

Furthermore, elements of the SDGs relating to land may themselves face political obstacles. For example, policies that address wealth inequalities are likely to face resistance, particularly if the recipients of these forms of redistribution are viewed with suspicion or are politically marginalised. In terms of food security and sustainable agriculture, there is a strong push amongst leading multinational agribusiness firms to position their products and technologies to the forefront of policymakers attention as the solution to solving hunger, conserving soil and protecting ecosystems. The resources available to these companies (and their political supporters) far outweigh those promoting agroecology and similar low/ zero external input farming systems, meaning that such strategies face an uphill battle to win support from policymakers.

2. Implications of land use-related SDGs for land users and farmers

The implementation of government policies designed to meet the SDGs could affect people with land-based livelihoods in a number of ways, and are likely to be experienced unevenly between and within regions and countries. These outcomes will depend on how various decisions create outcomes that have a bearing on other land use (and SDG) dynamics.

For example, if governments introduce and uphold strong inclusive land tenure laws, land users (and especially women) will be able to invest in longer-term soil health and sustainable land use measures. This should help not only in terms of achieving LDN, but also to increase food security amongst small-scale farmers in emerging economies (again, particularly that of women). Conversely, if governments decide to convert farmland to biofuels or flood large areas for hydroelectric dams in order to achieve energy security and climate mitigation targets, traditional land users in those locations could face declining food security.

Another example concerns the use of agrochemicals. Governments could be persuaded by the view that various packages of high-yielding seed varieties and agrochemicals are needed to meet targets on food security and the protection of ecosystems (e.g. by growing more food intensively on less land). However, other countries could go in a different direction, where industrialised farming becomes more difficult to practice as policy measures are taken to cut the dependency on agrochemicals, and alternatives such as agroecology are actively supported.

Land users that have not taken care of the soil health will find it difficult to not take action and will invest in soil health (Target 15.3). Land users will be asked by governments to engage in new multi-stakeholder cooperation modes (Targets 17.6.1 and 17.16.1) in order to realise the land- and soil-related SDGs and at the same time, SDG 16 will make land use planning inclusive. Furthermore, realising the SDGs in a sustainable way in the long run, to a large extent, also depends on land users’ knowledge and intrinsic motivation towards sustainable land use and soil health, and hence should benefit from partnerships involving the academic and research communities.

3. Implications of land use-related SDGs for the private sector

In order to achieve the SDGs, it is widely understood that “business as usual” will have to change. In a literal sense, this means that companies of all sizes will have to adjust their business models to become more sustainable. Because of the multiple ways in which the SDGs touch upon land issues, this is especially true of companies that operate in land-dependent sectors, such as agribusiness, forestry, energy, extractives, infrastructure and tourism firms.

To this end, it is anticipated that policy disincentives for unsustainable land use (Targets 3.9 and 12.4) – in addition to chances or incentives to invest in sustainable land management and achieving LDN (Targets 2.4 and 15.3) – will aim to push the private sector towards sustainable land use and soil health. At the same time, the private sector is expected to become more inclusive and transparent in its decision-making processes regarding natural resources management (Target 16.6). But the SDGs don’t just represent a burden of additional regulatory obligations for companies. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD ) has identified several opportunities for the private sector in relation to the SDGs:

  • ‘Companies that align themselves with the SDGs, and that are able to communicate clearly about how their business helps governments to achieve their goals, will garner a strong ‘social license to operate’ and to differentiate themselves from competitors. Likewise, those that do not will be exposed to growing legal and reputational risks.
  • Achieving the SDGs requires unprecedented public and private finance, which translates into new opportunities for business engagement and market penetration. Forward-thinking companies are in a unique position to seize these opportunities.
  • The success of the SDGs will create thriving, inclusive economies around the world and provide better social, political and environmental stability across the globe, enabling businesses everywhere to flourish. In other words, we [the private sector] have an interest in achieving the SDGs because business cannot succeed in societies that fail’ .

However, as mentioned above, it should be acknowledged that not all companies are likely to welcome policy initiatives designed to drive greater sustainability of land and natural resources, and therefore that resistance from certain private sector actors is highly probable. It will therefore be important for civil society groups, academics and others (including progressive companies) to continue to push governments to implement land-related policies that support the SDGs.

4. Implications of land use-related SDGs for civil society

The SDGs are a tremendous opportunity for civil society to advance agendas on secure land tenure and sustainable land use across the donor community, as well as within countries. While the various goals and sub-goals pertaining to land user rights do not form a comprehensive approach to the sector, they do offer a strong advocacy platform to address critical aspects of land governance and soil management. Civil society organisations (CSOs) should coordinate their efforts to provide the impetus for governments to craft context-appropriate land use and tenure rights strategies that harness their potential to deliver on the 2030 Agenda. In particular, CSOs can play the following roles in the implementation of the SDGs:

1. Support land user communities, particularly marginalised groups and women, by:

  • Raising awareness about the SDGs, and the linkages between these and human rights/ land user rights
  • Amplifying their voices, and bringing their concerns to the attention of the policymakers.
  • Delivering technical assistance to land users communities regarding implementation of sustainable soil management and land rights initiatives

2. Ensure that governments are held accountable by:

  • Engaging public authorities that have responsibility over land issues to highlight related SDGS Targets/ Indicators, and set out positions on how progress towards these could be tracked by those agencies transparently and objectively.
  • Identify specific national land governance and sustainable land management strategies, actions and policies that can help contribute to the 2030 Agenda, and advocate these to donors and governments.
  • Engage voters through public communications campaigns, to raise awareness of land issues in the context of the SDGs, and highlight the responsibilities of elected public officials to deliver on their commitments
  • Call for public mechanisms (or set up parallel civil society mechanisms) that monitor the degree to which government officials and institutions comply with established standards, impose sanctions on officials who do not comply, and ensure that appropriate corrective action is taken when required.

3. Locally monitor implementation of the SDGs, in conjunction with academic institutions, particularly concerning:

  • The responsible governance of land tenure (Targets 2.3), and in particular trends in women’s access to, and secure tenure over, land (Targets 5a. and 10.2)
  • The promotion and expansion of sustainable agricultural practices (Target 15.3); o The decreasing use of agrochemicals (Targets 3.9 and 12.4);
  • The expansion of sustainable land use, land restoration and the reduction of land degradation (Target 15.3);
  • The inclusion of local land users in decision-making processes regarding land use and land use planning (Targets 15.3, 16.6 and 16.7);
  • The presence and functionality of local judicial and non-judicial redress mechanisms for those affected by land grabs (Targets 16.3 and 17.7)

4. Engage private sector actors and seek to identify key ‘champions’ and ‘blockers’ of progress towards implementation of land-related aspects of the SDGs; with the aim of collaborating with the former group and seeking to neutralise the latter group

5. Implications of land use-related SDGs for academics

Academic institutions have a central role to play in ensuring land-related measures are successfully implemented. These roles fall into three categories: knowledge development, tracking and monitoring and advocacy.

Knowledge Development

In order to meet the daunting challenges embedded within the 2030 Agenda, the role of academics in refining and developing new knowledge on sustainable land and soil management will be vital. In particular, SDG 17, which concerns partnerships, is important for academics. Targets 17.6 and 17.16 should ensure financial funds for knowledge development on the implementation of the land use-related SDGs. The focus will be on multi-stakeholder cooperation for knowledge development. It is important that new knowledge for sustainable land management generated through academic research has effective channels for reaching other key stakeholders, including public officials but also including civil society and private sector actors.

Tracking Implementation

Academics also have an important role to play in monitoring the implementation of the SDGs, especially at the local level. Through academic research, reliable and independent data about sustainable land use management and soil health can be gathered; as well as analyses concerning sustainable agricultural practices, the use of agrochemicals, food insecurity, inequality etc. Rigorous data is essential in order to track progress towards achieving the SDGs. Again, actively sharing findings with policymakers, land users, civil society and private sector actors can allow these stakeholders to adjust their policies and practices when needed in order to realise the SDGs.


Although academics often see their role as apolitical, it will at times be important for the research community to reach out directly to policymakers (or other constituencies) to highlight the urgency of a particular course of action in relation to land and soils. This is not unprecedented: one only has to think of recent interventions by leading scientists with regards to climate change; or of the medical community with regards to critical public health issues. While public trust in politicians, the media and other traditional voices of ‘respected opinion’ has slumped in many countries, there is still widespread public trust in the academic and scientific community, meaning that statements emanating from research bodies carry particular weight. At times, academics could and should even undertake joint advocacy with other civil society actors, particularly where these actors themselves carry particular expertise in a topic related to land and soils; and/ or have a strong public supporter base and advocacy infrastructure.

6. Critical Factors for Achieving the 2030 Agenda

As mentioned above, the realisation of the SDGs will rely largely on the extent to which the relevant targets are integrated into country-level policy initiatives, plans and budgets. This brings a number of challenges.

Global Instability

The greatest challenges to harnessing the SDGs for improved land governance and soil management arguably stem from current global political economy meta-trends; security risks/ conflicts, mass migration, economic instability, increasingly polarised and unequal societies, anti-globalisation sentiment, and the rise of populist movements.

The 2030 Agenda sets out highly ambitious targets to address complex environmental, economic and social problems, and hence relies on concerted efforts by nations around the world to succeed. This requires sustained political leadership (at both global and national levels), as well as committed partnerships between various stakeholders. This is especially true in the case of land and soils, which often require long term solutions that can take years to implement. Yet in a world where many governments and populist movements are adopting an increasingly isolationist stance – and where domestic political resolve is being tested by economic uncertainties, security concerns, civil conflicts, migration, etc. – there is high risk that efforts to address sustainable land management and land tenure governance will remain fragmented, piecemeal and under-resourced.

Weak National Governance

The SDGs are likely to go unmet unless more attention is given to addressing governance challenges crucial to their implementation at the national level. Governance fundamentally underpins the ability to “get things done”, yet many countries are faced with weak governance in public sector entities, including endemic corruption, inadequate financial system controls, impunity for powerful elites, ineffective judicial systems, weak enforcement of environmental laws, etc. As noted previously, this is a particularly acute problem in the realm of land and soils, as land governance is, in many countries, beset with corruption and captured by entrenched interests.

Shrinking Civic Space

Compounding the above, the past decade has witnessed an unprecedented and contagious wave of measures by governments all around the world designed curtailing the ability for civil society (including journalists and even academics) to operate freely. These measures pose a threat to fundamental freedoms and human rights, and in some cases also lead to direct attacks on activists. The land sector has felt this particularly acutely, with rapidly rising threats to land rights defenders. According to Global Witness, more than four people were killed each week in 2016 by police, military private security or hired assassins. In these situations, ‘partnerships’ between state and non-state actors to achieve reforms to land governance and sustainable soil management become almost impossible.


Financing remains a key obstacle to implementation. The 2030 Agenda requires a significant mobilisation of resources to succeed; the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) World Investment Report 2014 estimated that US$5–7 trillion a year is needed to finance the SDGs. The Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing (ICESDF) calculated US$80–90 trillion in untapped assets for investment and offered blended financing as a major vehicle for ‘crowding in’ corporate funds. Proponents argue that traditional aid is not growing fast enough but it can be used to encourage private investors to put their own money into projects that otherwise seem risky.

However, this approach remains controversial. Critics argue that public-private finance initiatives are often opaque and generally only attract corporate partners that can make a return on their investments, skewing the policy agenda towards business interests. Furthermore, the evidence that blended finance actually works to pull private sector money into sustainable development initiatives is weak. One review published in November 2016 found that the limited data available on blended finance indicates that, even at high rates of growth, it would be almost impossible for it to plug the SDG funding gap – which is estimated to be as high as $3.1tn (£2.49tn) annually by 2030. Furthermore, most of the money so far has supported investments in wealthier developing countries and places with lower poverty rates. Energy, construction and mining projects received much of this finance. This suggests that, on a global level, there is still a considerable funding gap with regards to wider SDG implementation, including for land based sustainability measures.

Managing Competing Interests

Forming effective partnerships between key groups of stakeholders, such as rural communities, civil society organisations, companies, public officials and academics, is widely recognised as a critical component to achieving the SDGs (as indicated by Goal 17 itself). However, forging lasting partnerships between diverse groups is easier said than done. For a start, who is considered a stakeholder? How are they identified, and by whom? What are the complimentary or potentially competing interests between these groups?

Such questions are often vital with regards to land interventions, as land may be occupied or used by farmers, pastoralists, fisherfolk, indigenous communities, recent settlers, transient workers, etc. Furthermore, the interests of ‘communities’ maybe stratified by age, gender, ethnicity, religion and social class. Similarly, when discussing the ‘private sector’, it is important to consider what type of business is being brought into the process and understand their different interests; e.g. between multinational corporations, national companies, local entrepreneurs, social enterprises or cooperatives. Then there is the question of how to convene these various interest groups, as not all will feel comfortable with, or be able to meet in, the same sorts of venues.

It should also be recognised that the SDGs will sometimes involve trade-offs between interest groups. This may involve difficult political choices that create “winners” and “losers”, at least in the short term. Again, this is particularly relevant to land, as land use decisions tend to favour one set of interests over another. For example, biodiversity could be threatened if forests are cut down to expand agricultural production for food security. Conversely, food security could be threatened if land is switched from food production to growing biofuels for energy security, or to build hydropower facilities for greenhouse gas mitigation.

Tracking Progress

Another important issues will be the monitoring standards used to track progress towards meeting the SDGs. A robust, transparent and participatory accountability mechanism is necessary for people to monitor progress and hold their governments accountable for implementing the SDGs. As highlighted by the UN Secretary-General in his 2014 Synthesis Report, there is a need for a “new paradigm of accountability” to spur people-centred, planet-sensitive development, and to fulfil the 2030 Agenda pledge to “leave no one behind.”

The UN Statistical Commission agreed a first set of 230 indicators to track progress in March 2016. But a third of these were classified as ‘Tier 3’ – meaning they still needed to be developed. Data are lacking for many other indicators (including around land rights). In some cases these gaps are spatial (i.e. no data at national level), in others temporal (i.e. missing data for certain years), and in others lack disaggregation by sub-populations of interest, such as women, or racial, ethnic and religious minorities groups.

Fortunately, opportunities to develop new ways of tracking both environmental and socio-economic trends are emerging due to the pooling of multiple data sources and improving technologies. For example, instead of collecting data on land clearance or desertification at a local level, officials can now obtain sophisticated geospatial data from an analysis of satellite imagery at national, regional or even global levels. Information technology is also making economic and social data available more quickly. Regular dialogue and engagement with stakeholders can also be an integral part of data gathering processes.

Nonetheless, the lack of agreed standards for measuring progress towards a large number of indicators is an ongoing concern. In the absence of a robust accountability instrument, the risk of dilution and selectivity in the process of measuring and reporting on progress remains high.


Note: For full references to papers quoted in this article see



Go To Top