Sustainable Development Goals Must Recognise the Importance of Soils

New knowledge for land policy

By Dr Jes Weigelt

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In recent years research towards sustainable land policy has become a central pillar of the work undertaken at the IASS. Transdisciplinary projects with our partners from academia, society and politics have generated knowledge that can drive the transformation to sustainable land management.

Our soils are not in good shape: according to conservative estimates, 24 million tons of fertile soil are lost across the globe every year. The per capita area of available agricultural land has halved since 1960. But soil, this vital resource that is not renewable in human timeframes, is not just threatened and scarce; it is also very unfairly distributed. We see this not least in the unequal distribution of access to land between the sexes. To sustain their consumption patterns, countries like Germany use soils in other parts of the world and are thus complicit in the negative ecological and social consequences of this land use. To achieve the objective of a “safe and just space for humanity” – to use the title of a chapter in the Social Science Report 2013 – the Earth’s soils must be used differently and distributed more equitably. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are due to be adopted in September 2015 and subsequently implemented by UN member states are an appropriate framework for this transformation, since they encompass targets to reduce land degradation and improve access to land for particularly vulnerable population groups.[1]

We now need to address the urgent question of how transformative knowledge can support the successful implementation of the SDGs. With its various research projects on soils, the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) has taken up this challenge. In the course of this research it has become clear that transdisciplinary work can help to make scientific knowledge transformative.[2]

An integrated approach to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals

Land use is central to the SDGs. In an IASS Working Paper on the role of biomass in the SDGs we show that up to 1,015 million additional hectares of agricultural land would be required simply to achieve the targets for food production, bioenergy and biomaterials for industrial purposes. Yet according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), only seven countries are in a position to convert large quantities of land into agricultural production areas: Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Sudan, Argentina, Columbia and Bolivia. The trade-offs inherent in the implementation of the SDGs become apparent when we consider the SDGs on climate protection and the preservation of terrestrial ecosystems that exist alongside those I have just referred to.

To deal with these trade-offs, an integrated approach to implementing the SDGs is required. But let me make one thing clear: it is not my intention to advocate a reorientation of the SDGs here. It would be much more important to integrate mechanisms for identifying and resolving trade-offs into the post-2015 Agenda, that is into the follow-up and review process. To ensure that, the current focus on monitoring the extent to which individual SDGs have been achieved needs to be supplemented with an integrative perspective. For example, participative multi-stakeholder dialogues should support the implementation process at national level. In this way very different forms of knowledge could feed into the process, trade-offs could be identified, and a space could be created to discuss solutions.

The IASS has actively supported the SDG process in the area of soils from the outset. The negotiation process was both a point of departure and an addressee for the results of our analyses. Here, ‘addressee’ should not be understood merely in terms of a recipient of those results. The participants of the negotiation process were rather co-creators of the research products, since it was only through the negotiations that formulations could be found that took account of the various stakeholders’ perceptions. So there was also a strategic dimension to our research interest, since partnerships made it possible to better integrate knowledge-based positions into the negotiations.

A local civil society organisation mapping and discussing resource use in a village in Rajasthan, India. © Judith Rosendahl

A local civil society organisation mapping and discussing resource use in a village in Rajasthan, India. © Judith Rosendahl

Developing strategies for land rehabilitation

One objective that the SDGs are meant to achieve by 2030 is the avoidance of land degradation. If land degradation persists nonetheless, it is supposed to be offset by land rehabilitation elsewhere (land-degradation neutral world). This doesn’t just raise the question of how land rehabilitation can happen on a large scale. Since technologies cannot always be used by poor segments of the population, the question of who will profit from land rehabilitation is also uncertain.

Sustainable land management is seen as a promising approach, but it is dependent on very different conditions in different regions. Several factors have been identified that are crucial for the way in which land is managed – and they in turn depend on a wide range of different political, economic and ecological contexts. It is these factors that determine whether farmers decide in favour of sustainable land management. But given that land degradation continues to be a major problem for food security in many parts of the world in spite of the progress made, in its work on land rehabilitation the IASS seeks to identify starting points for the implementation of sustainable land management. The land rehabilitation project revolves around the questions of how soil organic matter can be increased to boost productivity in the long term and how land rights can be secured. In order to safeguard their livelihoods, the farmers who benefit from land rehabilitation must have secure rights to the rehabilitated land in the long term. Together with stakeholders, we develop research agendas on these issues, which we then pursue in cooperation with scientific and non-scientific partners in the hope that the results of this knowledge can be put into practice as transformative knowledge.

The IASS research project on land rehabilitation is part of the ONE WORLD – No Hunger special initiative of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). The knowledge it generates on the factors behind sustainable land management feeds directly into transformation processes in five partner countries. At the same time, new research questions present themselves during this transformation process. Thus the project is a further example of “change through knowledge – knowledge through change”, the motto used by IASS Executive Director Klaus Töpfer and others in the context of the knowledge-based support of the Energiewende.

Land policy: reinforcing human rights

In many parts of the world, hunger is a rural problem. The proportion of starving people who are also landless shows that access to land and other resources determines whether or not somebody goes hungry. The problem is exacerbated by human rights abuses in land conflicts, which underline the necessity of land policy reforms.

In reaction to the surge in land-grabbing and the public discussion of its effects, Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT) were adopted within the framework of the Committee on World Food Security. The VGGT are the first international, rights-based document to regulate access to land. They were negotiated in a multi-stakeholder process with the participation of representatives of civil society and science. Thanks to the inclusivity of the process, many government and civil society actors refer to the document, thereby lending it weight. The IASS is actively promoting the implementation of the VGGT, for example, by formulating a Technical Guide on Tenure Rights Related to Commons. Here too, a multi-stakeholder approach was adopted: the Technical Guide integrates the experiential knowledge of civil society groups, the insights of development organisations like the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) and the FAO, as well as the findings of scientific analyses.

In the politically contested domain of land use rights, knowledge can also be transformative by giving a voice to those who are often unheard in public and political discourse. By involving them in the process, transdisciplinary work can contribute to the empowerment of these population groups. But for this to happen, we need to think in terms of multi-stakeholder processes, rather than dwelling on isolated moments of multi-stakeholder interaction. Given the increasing use of voluntary instruments in different areas of global governance, the discussion of the VGGT should also be accompanied by scientific reflection on effective global regulatory instruments.

Enabling dialogue – shaping dialogue

As I mentioned earlier on, soils – and other natural resources – cut across many of the SDGs. Yet this fact is not sufficiently acknowledged in the current formulation of the goals. When implementing the SDGs, we need to stop thinking in silos, i.e. focussing on measures to maximise the achievement of the goals in individual sectors. The experience of organising the Global Soil Week has shown that the necessary dialogues must be actively shaped to ensure that they really incorporate different forms of knowledge. And another thing, science also needs to change if it wants to play a role in political processes – and there is no doubt that transformation processes need to be undergirded by science. However, policy advice, where scientists simply provide policymakers with information, is not the solution. What we really need is a dialogue in order to understand problems and find answers to existing challenges.

This dialogue shouldn’t just be sought with decision-makers from politics, industry and civil society. A successful post-2015 Agenda depends on new forms of citizen participation. Through its joint publication of the Soil Atlas and the production of the animation films “Let’s Talk about Soil” and “Better Save Soil”, the IASS has contributed to awareness-raising in this area. And here too, it’s not just a question of communicating science. In transdisciplinary work these activities are themselves the subject of reflection, for example as hypotheses with which to test the assumption that transdisciplinarity furthers transformations.

Transdisciplinarity and governance for the the post-2015 Agenda

Sustainability governance is both a theoretical concept and a practical policy approach to shaping sustainability transformations. Some 25 years after the emergence of governance research, it’s still striking how differently people use the term ‘governance’ in theory and practice. The aim of transdisciplinary work is to bring these diametrically opposed understandings of governance into dialogue with each other. The experiences gained in the aforementioned projects show that research carried out on transformation processes as they unfold is necessary to fulfil this interface function. As a meta-reflection on transdisciplinary work, this also involves critical reflection on the concepts and methods underlying that work.

For Germany too, the goals of the post-2015 Agenda are a major challenge. To rise to that challenge, contributions by scientists to transformative knowledge are urgently needed. The projects referred to above also show, however, that the academic system should be more systematically supplemented with transdisciplinary work in order to generate transformative knowledge.

[1] With a view to the major global challenges we face, the UN decided in 2010 to formulate an agenda for the period after the expiry of the Millennium Development Goals: the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda or, simply, the post-2015 Agenda. The Sustainable Development Goals are laid down in this agenda. In order to involve as many people and countries as possible in the consultations on this new agenda, the UN launched a broad consultation process at national, regional and global level in September 2012.

[2] I refer here to reflections on transdisciplinarity that emerged in discussions among Klaus Töpfer, Alexander Müller, Carolin Sperk, Falk Schmidt, Sebastian Unger and myself.

This article first appeared in GAIA 3/2015.

Header photo: Judith Rosendahl

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