Land & Water

Sustainable land management decision-making

FAO assists member countries to create an enabling environment for the sustainable development of land resources with the aim of ensuring the food security of the world’s growing population. It assesses the physical, socio-economic, institutional and legal potential and constraints on land use and empowers people to make informed decisions on the allocation of land resources. 

For many years, FAO has been developing integrated landscape and ecosystem approaches to facilitate collaboration across sectors and scales aimed at improving natural resource management, making the best use of resources and inputs, and optimizing productivity. Technical and policy guidelines are available on integrated watershed and river basin management; mountain/highland, wetland and coastal area management; the conservation and sustainable use of agricultural biodiversity; agrosilvopastoral systems; and, more recently, climate-smart agriculture and the food–water–energy nexus. 

FAO provides regular technical advisory support to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) Committee on Science and Technology and to the United Nations Environment Management Group on Land through the preparation of sustainable land management (SLM) inputs to flagship reports. 

FAO implements projects on SLM using its multidisciplinary expertise, bringing together informal working groups and task forces and facilitating the involvement of all relevant technical divisions and regional and subregional offices. 

FAO project on decision support for sustainable land management


FAO launched the Global Environment Facility (GEF)-supported project, “Decision Support for Scaling up and Mainstreaming Sustainable Land Management (DS-SLM)” in September 2015. The project has 15 participating countries in Africa (Lesotho, Morocco, Nigeria and Tunisia), East and South Asia (Bangladesh, China, the Philippines and Thailand), Europe and Central Asia (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey and Uzbekistan), and South and Central America (Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador and Panama). FAO provides technical support, alongside the project’s main scientific partner, the World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies (WOCAT) Consortium, the secretariat of which is located in the Centre for Development and Environment at Bern University. 

There is relatively little documented evidence on the range of benefits generated by SLM in different farming systems and at different scales, yet such evidence is essential for convincing decision-makers to invest in the transition to sustainable practices. Recent studies in East and West Africa have demonstrated returns to small-scale farmers on SLM investments (forestry, soil and water conservation, and irrigation) ranging from 12 to 40 percent. The incentive mechanisms for change are often poorly understood, however, and there are barriers to uptake, particularly by small-scale farmers, because benefits may not be reflected immediately in improved economic returns. Estimating the costs of degradation and the benefits of SLM is complex, but inevitably it is more cost-effective to prevent degradation than to cure it.

The DS-SLM project is focusing on increasing understanding of land degradation and creating decision-support tools to promote SLM. The project’s global environmental objective is to contribute to combating desertification, land degradation and drought (DLDD) worldwide by scaling up SLM best practices through evidence-based and informed decision-making. In line with FAO’s global mandate to achieve food security for all, the project’s development objective is to increase the provision of ecosystem goods and services and enhance food security in countries and regions affected by DLDD by promoting SLM, integrated management, and efficiency in the use of natural resources. The project’s objectives will be achieved through three interlinked components: 1) national and local decision support for combating DLDD and promoting the mainstreaming and scaling up of SLM best practices; 2) the development of a global DLDD and SLM knowledge management and decision-support platform; and 3) monitoring and evaluation, impact assessment, and the dissemination of project results.

In preparation for the DS-SLM project, a review was conducted among land-management practitioners to provide information on the effectiveness of existing SLM approaches, methods, tools and technologies and how to enable the adoption, maintenance and scaling up of best land-use and management practices. The review identified more than 90 knowledge management platforms, databases and networks on SLM and land degradation. Information is fragmented, however, and there is no standard, all-encompassing platform. Moreover, despite the communications revolution, many rural areas lack adequate access to the Internet and electronic media and remain disconnected from the wealth of data and information available in urban areas and globally. There are also major knowledge gaps on the costs and benefits of SLM practices and the value and impacts (direct and indirect) of preventing or mitigating land degradation and sustaining or enhancing ecosystem services. 

The DS-SLM project recognizes these gaps, and the WOCAT methodology and tools for documenting best SLM practices are being made available through a global database. More than 50 partners and countries worldwide are already using the methodology and tools, and several national-level experiences in “SLM in practice” have been published. The 11th Conference of the Parties to the UNCCD in 2013 supported the UNCCD Secretariat’s role in developing a knowledge portal on SLM to unleash scientific knowledge and best practices in regional and national databases and to support scaling up. A contract between the secretariats of the UNCCD and WOCAT was signed on 15 April 2014 to develop and host the UNCCD SLM best-practices knowledge base, as part of the DS-SLM project.

The DS-SLM project will assist its 15 partner countries to assess, map and document SLM best practices and to use the findings to inform decisions aimed at promoting and investing in SLM for food security and climate change adaptation and mitigation, and to help achieve other national and global priorities and goals. 

The longstanding collaboration between WOCAT, FAO, ISRIC and other network partners, and the expanded WOCAT international partnership, provides a unique opportunity for further collecting, harmonizing and sharing SLM information across regions and globally. The knowledge platform is available in seven languages. 

The DS-SLM project has developed a modular structure, in which landscape management is an essential step for scaling up sustainable and productive on-the-ground management practices and land-use systems and for integrating sectors and investment in coherent development plans. The project uses a multiscalar assessment method developed in the United Nations Environment Programme–FAO–GEF “Land Degradation in Drylands” (LADA) project, which ended in 2011. The LADA approach comprises a global, national and local methodology for land degradation and SLM assessment and climate change analysis.

Below is a step-by-step guide to implementing a landscape approach in a country or area based on the DS-SLM project’s modular structure.

  1. Define the country-level strategy and an action plan for implementing SLM.
  2. Undertake a participatory large-scale assessment to define hot and bright spots and intervention priorities using the LADA mapping questionnaire.
  3. Based on step 2, select the priority landscape where ongoing SLM practices have not decreased the impact of land degradation, or where there is a significantly negative degradation trend.
  4. Within the landscapes prioritized in step 3, undertake a detailed landscape-scale assessment to select best practices based on livelihoods and natural resource condition. This can be done using the LADA local diagnostic tool and WOCAT tools (e.g. its questionnaire for technologies and questionnaire for approaches). 
  5. Implement a territorial plan with the participation (ideally through negotiation) of all actors and stakeholders.
  6. Based on the land-use plan (see step 5) and with the participation of all actors, scale up the implementation of best SLM practices, as determined in the landscape assessment in step 4.

Table 1 shows the 15 partner countries participating in the DS-SLM project. All suffer from land degradation due to, for example, water and wind erosion, salinization, landslides, soil fertility loss, productivity decline, soil acidification and deforestation. Land degradation has economic consequences, including the reduction of gross domestic product (GDP): for example, the total cost of land degradation has been estimated at 0.7 percent of GDP in China and 0.5 percent in Tunisia; in Nigeria, land degradation has been estimated to cost 5 percent of agricultural GDP.

The direct drivers of land degradation in partner countries include inappropriate agricultural practices, overgrazing, the overextraction of woodfuel, the inefficient use of water resources, the overuse of chemical inputs, and the reduction of fallow periods. Climate change, poverty, population growth and urbanization are indirect drivers of land degradation in many partner countries. Institutional and regulatory drivers include a lack of comprehensive planning and policy frameworks for SLM, a lack of clear land-tenure systems, and unfavourable price structures and subsidies for agricultural produce.