Policy and integrated management Environment

Posted October 1998

Indicators of sustainable development:
Selected FAO activities, 1998

For further details, contact: J. Tschirley, FAO/SDRN (e-mail: jeff.tschirley@fao.org)


During the past five years, there has been a dramatic increase in the attention given to environmental data and information, information systems, and the use of indicators to assess and monitor environmental performance. FAO has contributed to many of these activities through its partnerships within the UN community itself and with NGOs.

Work on the development and testing of indicators for sustainable development have occupied an large portion of the work FAO is carrying out. There are activities underway in each of the FAO technical departments. SDRs Environment & Natural Resources Service (SDRN) serves as a focal point for much of this work.

As the conceptual aspects and analytical frameworks for the selection and use of indicators have begun to be better defined, there has been a shift toward undertaking more activities at the country level. This is expected to continue into the forseeable future.

This brief is selective, it does not necessarily cover all indicator related activities that are underway in FAO but rather is intended to provide a sense of the major topics and types of work that are receiving attention.

Environmental conventions


Work to date: The Convention on Biological Diversity recommended developing indicators to measure the conservation, sustainable use and equitable sharing of biological resources. FAO is preparing a paper aimed at defining a framework and indicators for the social and economic aspects of agro-biodiversity. An internal draft of the paper is being finalized at the present time (August 1998).

Future plans: The paper will be reviewed by a selected group of technical experts and, resources permitting, will be discussed at a small workshop among the major partners involved in agro-biodiversity. It is hoped that the revised version will find its way to the CBD SBSTA and that some testing of the framework and indicators can be carried out through case studies.

Partners: FAO technical units, Secretariat to the Convention on Biological Diversity, IPGRI

FAO focal points: Jeff Tschirley, Linda Collette; SDRN


Work to date: Development of a core set of indicators and data bases aggregated at national and sub-regional levels in support of the Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD).

Future plans: Contribution to the preparation and implementation of "benchmark and impact indicators" as recommended at the first Conference of the Parties (COP 1) in September 1998.

Preparation and dissemination of a CD ROM which will include a series of statistics and derived maps with data and indicators on desertification related issues to be distributed to the COP 2 at the end of October 1998.

Possible preparation of a desertification information system called "World status of desertification". Data and indicators would be produced mainly at national and subregional levels.

Partners: FAO technical units, CCD secretariat, IFAD, UNDP, UNEP , OSS

FAO focal point: Dominique Lantieri, SDRN (Secretary of the interdepartmental working group on CCD)

Global Terrestrial Observing System (GTOS)

Work to date: GTOS is addressing 5 priority global issues: Changes in land quality; Availability of freshwater resources; Loss of biological diversity; Climate change; and, Impact of pollutants and toxic chemicals.

Some indicators for each issue are reflected in the Terrestrial ecosystem monitoring sites (TEMS) meta-database which is installed on the Internet (at the Swiss Forest Research Institute) and includes a broad array of terrestrial observations taken by scientific and research organizations.

Future plans: Further development of the TEMS meta-database; develop geo-referenced terrestrial indicators for the Food insecurity and vulnerability information and mapping system (FIVIMS); and, continue working to develop agrobiodiversity indicators. Discussions have been initiated with UNEP/GRID-Geneva to further develop and refine the indicators used to calculate net global terrestrial primary productivity.

Partners: ICSU, UNEP (GRID-Geneva), UNESCO, WMO, various universities, scientific and technical bodies.

FAO focal point: Jeff Tschirley, SDRN

Agenda 21

Work to date: FAO participated in an initiative coordinated by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) to develop indicators for each chapter of the Agenda 21. FAO developed more than 40 methodology sheets on how to calculate indicators in the areas of agriculture, biological diversity, desertification, fisheries, forestry, freshwater, land use, and mountain ecosystems. DESA has since published the methodology sheets and organized regional workshops in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Some countries in those regions are now testing the indicators for practicality

Future plans: Based on the experience of countries in testing the indicators, a revised set of indicators and methodology sheets will be prepared, likely during 1999. The expert group meets periodically to address issues related to indicators.

Partners: DESA, UNCTAD, UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, SCOPE, World Resources Institute

FAO focal point: Jeff Tschirley, SDRN

Well-being of nations

Work to date: A final manuscript has been prepared making use of data from FAO and other sources to develop a "barometer of sustainability" for the world. Twenty four indicators (in some case indices), were drawn from the environmental, social, and economic fields to arrive at estimates of well-being for each country. Each indicator is displayed on a world map. Most of the indicators for ecosystem well-being were derived from FAO statistics.

Future plans: Following publication in early 1999 of the main report covering global conditions, it is intended to seek support for undertaking regional assessments which would provide for a more detailed level of data aggregation and analysis. A priority region is southern Africa.

Partners: Robert Prescott-Allen is the main author. Co-publishers include the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), and World Conservation Union (IUCN).

FAO focal point: Jeff Tschirley, SDRN

Forest management

Work to date: National, regional and ecoregional initiatives continue to be active in developing common criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management , with the guidance and support of the intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF). The initiatives operate within the framework of a globally agreed core set of national-level criteria around which sustainable forest management can be defined. FAO, in its capacity of focal point for the issue among UN agencies, is promoting these international initiatives.

Inter-governmental activities for criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management have been conducted in the framework of the following international initiatives: the Pan-European or Helsinki process which focuses on boreal, temperate and mediterranean-type forests, the Montreal Process on temperate and boreal forests outside Europe, the Tarapoto Proposal, the Dry-Zone Africa initiative, the Near East process. and the Lepaterique process of Central America.

Future plans: Countries are encouraged to select indicators applicable to their individual social, environmental and economic conditions and test them at the forest management unit level. Increased stakeholders' involvement, improvement of countries' capacity to develop and implement criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management and the intensification of corresponding research is expected.

Partners: IPF, UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, CBD, World Bank; ITTO, IUFRO, CIFOR, African Timber Organization (ATO).

FAO focal point: Christel Palmberg-Lerche, FORM


Work to date: The OECD is developing a set of agri-environmental indicators. A stocktaking report is under preparation, which will cover about thirteen agri-environmental issues as identified by OECD's Joint Working Party. Each section will be discussed among the members countries, international organizations participate as observers. FAO is participating to the preparation of three of the thirteen sections (indicators for agro-biodiversity, soil quality and land conservation).

Future plans: An OECD workshop on agri-environmental indicators will be held in September 1998 in York, UK, consisting of the presentation of nine thematic indicators papers to be included as sections in the stocktaking report.

Partners: OECD

FAO focal point: Jeff Tschirley, SDRN

Land quality indicators (LQI)

Work to date: The land quality indicators program seeks develop a set of national and regional integrated indicators for national decision makers. They are intended to monitor the effects of agricultural policies, the level of development of institutional capacities, the durability of land management, etc. At the regional level, the objective is to measure the performance and the impact of agricultural projects. The indicators of land quality take into account spatial differences and national disparities, using administrative and agro-ecological boundaries. An information system for land quality issues has been set up on the internet.

Future plans: Case study testing is needed to identify information gaps, especially in developing countries. Also, case studies at the national and sub-national scale are planned in Central America, supported by the World Bank, CIAT and UNEP.

Partners: World Bank, UNEP, UNDP, CGIAR centers

FAO focal point: Jeff Tschirley, SDRN


Work to date: FAO is preparing documents for a technical consultation hosted by the government of Australia on sustainability indicators in marine capture fisheries. The purpose of the consultation is to produce technical guidelines for the development of such indicators, and to provide an opportunity to review the progress made in other areas on the issue of sustainability indicators.

Future plans: About 5 papers will be presented by FAO during the meeting (planned for January 1999), among a total of 30 documents. This will result in an proceedings report, discussions on technical guidelines vis a vis FAO's Code of Conduct for Fisheries, and an FAO Fisheries Technical paper.

Partners: Australian government, UNEP

FAO focal point: Serge Garcia, FIRD

University of Rome

Work to date: Possible FAO collaboration is presently being explored.

Future plans: The European Society for Ecological Economics ESEE is leading an initiative with Interscience to establish an international network of organisations aiming at making scientific information more useful for decision making. An internet a discussion group - Janus Working group - will produce an overview of methodological tools to assess the environmental impact of agricultural practices in relation to their possible use: (i) on different scales; (ii) in different types of agricultural production; (iii) in different ecosystems.

The overview will be organized according to the following areas: indicators of environmental loading; bioindicators; indicators of agroecosystem stress; ecological footprint of agricultural production; indicators of global ecological impact.

Partners: The lead organization in this initiative would be the European Society for Ecological Economics (ESEE), and the International Journal of Agricultural Resources, Governance and Ecology (IJARGE)

FAO focal point: Jeff Tschirley, SDRN

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