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Ten Facts about Land Systems

Land systems are key to overcoming existential challenges facing humanity and achieving sustainable development. Land System Scientists from around the globe synthesized their knowledge into 10 Facts on Land Systems that together light the way toward a sustainable future. 

Wise use of global land is at the heart of:

Shaping sustainable food production and securing the livelihood of farmers

Eradicating poverty and ensuring equity

Making cities and urbanization sustainable

Mitigating and adapting to climate change and conserving biodiversity


Multiple values and meanings

  • Land provides food, energy, and raw materials. However, understandings of land as being “valued,” “useful,” or “degraded,” are deeply cultural.

  • These multiple values and meanings complicate international efforts to address degradation and restoration.
  • Top-down policy agendas, often rooted in one dominant value system, can be contentious and resisted. This underlines the need for governance processes that bridge diverse knowledge and values.

Land as complex systems

  • Land systems are complex and behave in unexpected ways. Interventions intended to solve a particular problem can fail when they ignore complexity.
  • Land systems can undergo periods of abrupt change, e.g., large-scale deforestation in southeast Asian countries, rendering inaccurate predictions based on past trends.
  • Developing land use interventions, practices, or policy options that are more likely to be effective requires considering how such policies might inadvertently lead to new or different challenges.



Irreversibility & path dependence

  • The conversion of land from one use to another, such as clearing old-growth forests, peatland drainage, or converting farmland to urban area, creates impacts that resonate over decades or centuries.
  • Though crucial, restoration efforts may not bring land back to a state that truly matches pre-conversion conditions. Once such “lock-in” situations develop, land systems become less resilient.
  • Perceptions of land as an inherently-plentiful resource, as seen in the huge enthusiasm for land-based climate solutions, run counter to ecological reality.

Large impacts of small footprints

  • Some seemingly local land uses can have large impacts that spill over into surrounding regions and beyond. Cities, for instance, consume large amounts of resources that are often produced elsewhere using vast amounts of land.
  • It’s very challenging to predict the impact of a particular policy when ramifications are spread out and not always visible.
  • Multiple sources of information and evidence are needed to understand spillover effects – unanticipated impacts that often affect distant areas – versus direct impacts.



Distant connections

  • Globalization means decisions on how to use any single piece of land can be influenced by distant people, policies, or organizations.
  • These ‘couplings’ link ecosystem services and benefits from land, appropriating them from rural areas towards cities, and internationally via both sea and air.
  • Some international trade concentrates production on land with the highest efficiency, but some leads to expansions into less-suitable areas.

Used Planet

  • People directly inhabit, use, or manage well over three-quarters of Earth’s ice-free land. Even land perceived as “unused” or available for new uses is always already contributing multiple services, goods and benefits to human societies.
  • Land uses including clearing and tillage for agriculture, mining, settlements, grazing, forest harvests, and hunting can have large environmental impacts. Land is increasingly in demand, which can undermine or support people’s livelihoods, depending on policy design.
  • Even landscapes shaped by intensive agriculture can be reshaped to produce additional benefits including space for nature, mitigation of air and water pollution and urban heat, water provisioning, carbon sequestration, and cultural and psychological well-being.



Prevalence of trade-offs

  • Land uses deliver a range of benefits, but any specific piece of land cannot deliver them all simultaneously.
  • Trade-offs among uses are ubiquitous.
    Some trade-offs—such as a view prevalent in the Global North prioritizing tree planting, without acknowledging the impact on communities directly affected—demonstrate that different groups in different locations, or across generations, experience benefits or dis-benefits from land use differently.
  • Land use decisions involve value judgments. Often land use that is economically beneficial in the short term, or the land use valued by those in power, takes precedence.

Multiple, overlapping, contested land tenure claims

  • Access to land is established through ways of making claims, of which legal titles are only one form. Rights can also overlap.
  • Land tenure can be complicated. A single parcel can have several distinct claims associated with it, such as surface and mineral rights. Indigenous rights overlap with most other tenure categories.
  • People and groups serve multiple roles in society, with overlapping interests. Social complexity can undermine the effectiveness of interventions if not incorporated into the land use decision-making process.



Unequal distribution of benefits

  • Land distribution is highly unequal. Risks, such as climate change impacts on crop yields, disproportionately affect poor populations in particular.
  • The top 10% of landowners —across urban and rural areas—owns between 35 and 80% of the land area and 45 and 60% of the land value, across a set of low- and middle-income countries.
  • Inequality in land ownership is often further aggravated by social (ethnic, caste, or gender) hierarchies. These are likely to be reproduced by land-use interventions unless explicitly addressed.

Multiple dimensions of justice

  • In contemporary land dynamics, people mobilize multiple visions of justice, including recognition justice, the acknowledgement that some groups’ distinct identities and histories are particularly and intimately linked to their lands.
  • Procedural justice considers who is involved in decision making. Distributive justice looks at how goods and harms are distributed or concentrated. Understanding the irreversible impacts of land use requires intergenerational justice, as land-use dynamics may constrain benefits to future generations or their opportunities.
  • Many interventions over-rely on legal or other formal, inherited mechanisms created by previous generations instead of exploring more inclusive processes that acknowledge competing rights and interests.
    Governance processes are not neutral. Processes that do not acknowledge distinct forms of justice will likely be considered unjust by some.


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