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The context of indicators in FAO

S.W. Bie, A. Baldascini and J. B. Tschirley
Research. Extension and Training Division, FAO, Rome, Italy


Since 1987, when the Brundtland Commission, World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) defined sustainable development as meeting the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, many different definitions have been proposed. While it is interesting to devise theoretical concepts of sustainable development, it is more difficult to determine what needs to be done to achieve it.

Sustainable development means sustaining human well-being over time. An essential corollary of this statement is the requirement that actions taken now which are likely to have negative repercussions on future human well-being be associated with a concrete form of compensation for the future. Since capital provides the means for the achievement of well-being, many experts of sustainable development agree that this compensation implies the transfer of capital stock from current to future generations. The issue of sustainability therefore translates into providing future generations with at least as much capital per caput as the current generation has (Serageldin, 1995).

The total capital we strive to sustain within and between generations consists of separate components:

¤ the natural capital (the land, the water, the air, genetic material, ecosystems, etc.);
¤ the human capital (knowledge, science, culture, health, nutrition);
¤ the institutional capital (schools, universities, research facilities, infrastructure);
¤ the social capital (democracy, good governance, civil rights, equity, social harmony).

The level of substitution between these components is an issue for debate. It is immediately obvious that only moderate substitutions may be sensible.


Putting sustainable development into practice means changing the ways in which decisions are made to allocate resources information is essential and indicators play a fundamental role in this context by acting as pointers to reveal conditions and trends in the development of a household, a community, a country or groups of countries. Indicators are a means to an end. They guide planners in making decisions about using their nation's resources. Traditional economic indicators (consumption, savings, investment, etc.) by themselves provide a distorted picture of progress and must be complemented by environmental and social measures.

In recent years, there has been a call for greater monitoring of nations' natural resources. This is especially relevant for poor developing economies which are dependent on their natural resource base for much of their income. In agriculture-dependent countries, environmental degradation and poverty may go hand in hand. The need to meet immediate food demand often leads to over-exploitation of the environment. Consequently the supply of basic agricultural goods and services is reduced, thus generating more poverty. And the cycle continues.

It is therefore essential that all countries but particularly developing countries take into account and closely monitor their natural assets (and the changes in these) through the use of indicators on land, water, forestry, fisheries, etc. In sustainable agriculture and rural development the integration of economic, social and environmental information into planning and decision making translates into integrating statistics on net farm productivity with measures of the natural and human resources in agricultural projects and their off-site environmental trends.


Probably the most ambitious undertaking with respect to indicators of sustainable development is being coordinated by the UN Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development (UNDPCSD). They have organized a number of technical meetings among organizations such as FAO, the World Bank, UNEP, Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE), World Resources Institute (WRI), and Eurostat to identify indicators for each relevant chapter of the Agenda 21. About 140 indicators have been identified and agencies have been preparing methodology sheets on how to calculate them. In late 1996 testing of the indicators in selected countries began.

UNEP has a number of activities under way related to indicators. One initiative of special interest is focusing on the establishment of national programmes in countries of the Mediterranean region in conjunction with the Mediterranean Action Plan (METAP sponsored by European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), European Union (EU), UNEP, WB). Countries are identifying a variety of indicators, primarily environmental ones relating to air, land, water and waste, that reflect national priorities. The interesting point is that beyond its monitoring and assessment objectives, a major component of the programme focuses on capacity building to collect, analyse and use indicators for planning and decision making. Approximately one-third of the programme will be dedicated to this important issue.

The World Bank also has a number of indicator initiatives under way, not the least of which relates to land quality. They have also established a unit that deals specifically with indicators.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is widely known for its effective use of indicators in producing the State of the Environment report. It was the driving force behind the development and application of the pressure-state-response framework (PSR) which is being used by a number of organizations in their indicator work. Other departments of the OECD are also developing indicators relating to agriculture and to rural development.

NGOs, too, have interests in the development and use of indicators. However, with the exception of the larger international NGOs (e.g., WRI, SCOPE, World Conservation Union: IUCN), their role so far has been rather limited. How to promote greater involvement at the national and sub-national levels is a valid topic for debate at this meeting.

The main reason for mentioning some of the above activities is that they have all adopted the PSR framework as their basis for organizing and applying indicators. In our view, the PSR has a number of important limitations when used at the national and sub-national levels for assessing or monitoring sustainable development. Thus, it is important to have a full discussion of the PSR, and other frameworks, at this meeting:


The literature on the methodology for developing indicators stresses the importance of making best use of existing methods and sources of data. FAO is the principal source of many kinds of natural resource data related to developing countries, and must therefore take advantage of this position to develop useful indicators. Some examples of how existing FAO data might be used to develop environmental indicators follow.

· Changes in area harvested of annual crops This statistic could be calculated by summing the areas of the individual crops, already reported by FAO. It may reflect or be an indicator of the expansion of agriculture onto more environmentally sensitive lands, or into forested areas;

· Intensity of timber production A combination of an estimate of natural regeneration and harvest data, this statistic is an indicator of the rate of depletion of a renewable resource that is often open-access;

· Changes in fish harvests, by species and location In combination with an estimate of natural regeneration of the stock and other oceanographic factors, this variable can reflect pressure on fish populations.

An important question we must ask ourselves is: where does FAO's comparative advantage lie in developing indicators for sustainable development? At the global level? At the national level? Or at the district and farm levels? Work in the different technical divisions of FAO is contributing to the development of indicators at each of these levels although the main emphasis is on building national indicators.

The Forestry Department, for example, is actively supporting the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (established within the framework of the Commission on Sustainable Development) in issues related to criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management. Qualitative or quantitative indicators monitor current forest management practices and their effects. The criteria are the principles of sustainable forest management against which the sustainability of forests may be assessed.

Criteria and indicators are being developed at the national and forest management unit levels. Indicators at the national level attempt to help policy-makers in reaching informed decisions regarding sustainability programmes including long-term forest management. Forest management unit level indicators are directly concerned with site-specific performance criteria and management practices. Whilst national criteria of specific forest areas have a wider scope and should not be used directly to regulate forest management in detail, it is clear that forest management indicators should be consistent with those at the national level. Clearly the two, although with somewhat different aims, are closely inter-related and need to be studied together.

The FAO Forestry Department assists intergovernmental panels, governments and NGOs by giving technical advice on the soundness and adequacy of the proposed criteria and indicators of sustainable forest management. An additional FAO initiative is to seek ways and means of involving countries and regions currently not covered by the ongoing national initiatives on criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management. These include the arid and semi-arid areas of Africa and Asia; Caribbean and Central American areas; and small island countries. Finally, the Forestry Department has been involved in developing global indicators such as forest area, protected forest area and harvesting intensity related directly to Chapter 11 (Combating deforestation) of Agenda 21, but also to the activities in Chapter 12 (Combating desertification and drought), Chapter 13 (Sustainable mountain development) and Chapter 15 (Conservation of biological diversity).

In Fisheries, the objective has been to locate and quantify the potential for subsistence and commercial warm water fish farming in ponds. National governments and financing institutions need information on where aquaculture development is most promising before committing scarce resources to development. A study has been carried out by FAO for Africa and a similar analysis will be repeated for Central and South America. Briefly, fish farming potential is assessed on the basis of temperature regimes, availability of surface water for storage in ponds, suitability of topography (mainly slope of land) and soil texture for pond construction, availability and variety of agricultural by-products as inputs, and local market potential. It is clear from this list that elements of land quality texture, slope, erosion - and the agricultural (crop and husbandry) systems on the land directly affect the quantity and quality of water for fishing.

The Statistics Division (ESS) is primarily responsible for consolidating and publishing many of the official data necessary to build indicators of sustainable development. So, for example, the extent of land characterised by over-grazing could not be measured and used for policy-making if planners did not have information on the number of animals populating given areas. However, the more direct relevance of ESS to indicator development lies in its intention to produce a manual on "Agricultural-Environmental Statistics and Indicators" for the use of countries. This manual would guide national statistical offices and assist them in compiling, interpreting and presenting indicators in the area of sustainable agriculture clearly bringing out what is essential, what is not wanted, and what is the context in relation to each indicator.

The emphasis here is on indicators for use at the national level. However, this is not to say that sub-national and local level information is ignored. The Farm Management and Production Economics Service, for example, is using the changes in farming systems which have occurred over the last twenty years in the Usambara area in Tanzania to analyse which quantitative and qualitative data should go into creating indicators related to this field.


Level of aggregation of information

The question of when and when not to aggregate indicators is important in managing sustainability. Usually, indicators are considered part of an information pyramid going from detailed local information to more aggregated information at the national and global levels. Aggregation affects the quantity and quality of information that is passed along to decision-makers. When considering information it is critical to determine whether its aggregation will have a significant effect on the decision-making outcome. For example, at the farm level, in analysing the effect of fertilizer input on crop yields, the tendency is to focus on total fertilizer use instead of considering a more disaggregated indicator on the composition of the fertilizer (nitrogen, phosphate), which could be more relevant to determining crop productivity. Again, at a national level, the wrong indicators can suggest inappropriate policies for the resolution of food security problems. If fertilizers are applied to responsive lands to increase crop production, national figures may show an overall improvement but, in local terms, regions already producing satisfactory crops would be ameliorated, while the low-yielding areas (usually where the rural poor are located) would remain with low productivity.

Geo-referenced information

The identification of natural geographic units is important in natural resource management. Watersheds, for example, have long been identified as the preferred unit for integrated water resources management (World Bank, 1993, OECD, 1989). In a watershed, the upper land use practices are linked to the resource systems downstream through the hydrological cycle. As a result, many of the impacts (e.g., siltation of the river bed, deposition of chemical residues, flooding and droughts), which would be ignored in traditional project analyses, are accounted for when the watershed approach is used.

These natural biophysical units however rarely coincide with administrative units. The latter must not be ignored because they contain important social and economic information which determines how natural resources are used and managed. The challenge therefore consists of taking the data on production and natural resource management which is usually classified by administrative units, and geo-referencing them (i.e., transforming them to fit natural geographic units through the use of geographic information systems) to an agro-ecological zone, watershed or other geographic unit.

Linkages among economic, social and environmental factors

The use of indicators must be tailored to deal with specific issues regardless of the level of analysis. The most widely used framework at present is the pressure-state-response framework which is well adapted to an issues-oriented approach.

Let us take the issue of nutrient mining as an example. Nutrient mining is the unsustainable extraction of nutrients from the soil (for example, through logging, cropping or ranching). It requires that new land be constantly brought under production as nutrients are extracted in the forms of logs, crops or meat, while old, mined land is abandoned. One of the driving forces of this process is shifting cultivation with fallow periods that are too short for full recovery. The state or resulting condition is the state of the forest and the response or mitigating action could be to reduce government subsidies for cash crops.

To state simply that shifting cultivation with shortened fallows is the driving force of the problem does not help us identify appropriate solutions. The issue of why these farmers indulge in such an environmentally destructive land use is fundamental and must be analysed in the context of social and economic factors.

Firstly, in deciding whether to conserve or develop their lands, the individual farmers have no incentive to take account of the external benefits of forest conservation (such as watershed protection, erosion resistance and conservation of biodiversity, to name a few) because they accrue in unmarketed form (i.e., they have no direct price or market). This situation is further exacerbated in developing countries because governments may assume many of the costs of establishing the activity which involves forest land clearance through spending on infrastructure (e.g., building roads into forests), promoting financial aid to settlers and manipulating farm prices to lower food costs in urban areas.

In addition, the difficulty for these farmers to get access to credit, and the uncertainty regarding their rights to the resources, will further influence the farmers to undertake shifting cultivation instead of a more sustainable activity.

The review, with other agencies and NGOs linkages among economic, social and environmental factors in building indicators for sustainable development, will need to be addressed in this workshop. We trust that a common basis for future work will be found. No doubt there are still gaps to be filled, some of which relate closely to recent conventions on biodiversity and on desertification. Examples are:

¤ estimates for the value of genetic erosion
¤ estimates for the value of undiscovered benefits.

These, and other challenges, must form the basis for close collaboration among interested parties, and FAO is certainly willing to play its part.


OECD. 1989. Renewable Natural Resources. Economic Incentives for Improved Management. OECD, Paris. 157 p.

Serageldin, I. 1995. Monitoring Environmental Progress. Environment Department, World Bank, Washington, D.C. 72 p.

World Bank. 1993. Water Resources Management. World Bank Policy Paper (IBRD). World Bank, Washington, D.C. 140 p.

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