Updated on 17 June 2022
One third of the world’s soils - including farmland, forests, rangelands, and urban land - are already degraded and it is estimated that this number could rise to almost 90% by 2050. Generally, soil erosion is understood as the accelerated removal of topsoil from the land surface by water, wind, or cultivation resulting in land degradation. Moreover, land degradation also includes deteriorating changes in the bio-physical and chemical properties of soil, water, and biodiversity. Land Degradation occurs naturally, but research shows that land degradation is increasingly caused directly or indirectly by unsustainable human activities, notably deforestation, overgrazing, mining or intensive agriculture.  This has driven biodiversity loss, desertification, and led to a significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions. 
Avoiding, curbing, and reversing land degradation around the world is key for sustaining livelihoods, food security, biodiversity conservation, as well as the achievement of climate targets.
Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) has been defined by UNCCD as “a state whereby the amount and quality of land resources necessary to support ecosystem functions and services and enhance food security remain stable or increase within specified temporal and spatial scales and ecosystems”. 
The LDN conceptual framework encourages the implementation of various measures that balance losses in land-based natural capital and gains through land restoration or sustainable land management. Following a people-centered approach with an emphasis on responsible and inclusive land governance LDN contributes to an enabling environment for LDN and provides multiple benefits to protect both ecosystems and community resilience. In 2022, more than 129 countries have committed to set voluntary national LDN targets under the UNCCD. As secure tenure is key to sustainable development and healthy and productive land, national land governance legislations shall be reviewed and adapted in order to support responsible land management and restoration.
International legal framework and policies
In 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has adopted Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) as a core target under Sustainable Development Goal 15 (Life on Land). Specifically, target 15.3. aims to achieve LDN worldwide. UNCCD adopted LDN as a key target in the same year and has supported many countries in establishing national voluntary targets since to increase food security, contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation. Together with the Global Mechanism, UNCCD established the LDN Target Setting Programme which helps countries to assess, measure, and achieve their LDN commitments. To date, 129 countries have committed to setting LDN targets of which more than 100 have successfully set their voluntary targets. 
In 2019, the Parties to the UNCCD adopted a landmark decision on land tenure. Decision 26/COP14 acknowledges the importance of secure land tenure for addressing desertification, land degradation and drought (DLDD), and for improving human wellbeing and livelihoods. In this decision, the Parties specifically requested the UNCCD Secretariat, in collaboration with FAO, to develop a technical guide on how to integrate the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT) into the Implementation of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification and Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN). The technical guide outlines nine action-oriented pathways to enhance tenure security through LDN initiatives according to national and local contexts. In the 15th Conference of the Parties, UNCCD Parties acknowledged that further work needs to be carried out, whether within policy or programming efforts, to integrate land tenure into the implementation of the Convention and called for further capacity building and support to turn the technical guide from guidance to action on the ground.
Challenges and risks
Among the main obstacles to Land Degradation Neutrality are deforestation for timber, fuelwood, or the expansion of farmland, grazing areas, and cities, draining wetlands, mining activities, intensive farming, and infrastructure development. LDN initiatives often face limited access to financial resources, lack of knowledge and experience, as well as insufficient public and private incentives. From a governance point of view, achieving LDN is challenged by increasing and often disputed claims on land resources and can result in major land use conflicts. 
That said, sustainable land governance is closely intertwined with achieving and enabling LDN. Accordingly, land tenure insecurity has been highlighted as a major challenge to implementing LDN measures including restoration practices.  Findings show how secure tenure rights encourage landholders and users to invest in and commit to sustainable activities, such as soil conservation, drainage, terracing, or agroforestry, for example.
Research findings also demonstrate that incorporating the VGGT into LDN initiatives can protect tenure rights in some cases.  On the contrary, in contexts of unequal land distribution, disputed or unclear tenure rights, LDN measures may add to pressure on and competition for land, forest, and water resources. 
Community, customary and indigenous land rights
Communities and households that are directly affected by degraded land are more prone to experience decreased agricultural productivity and water scarcity, loss of livelihoods, poverty, and food insecurity.  They are also more vulnerable to disasters and extreme weather events, e.g., droughts, floods, storms, or fires. Particularly, poor communities, women, youth, and indigenous peoples directly depending on the land for their well-being and livelihoods are affected by the effects of land degradation.
The Glasgow Leader’s Declaration on Forests and Land Use (2021, COP26) as well as the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA 2022) entail high-level commitments to respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples and to recognize legitimate tenure rights including customary tenure as consistent with the national legal framework. Both also emphasize the importance of affordable and secure access to land and natural resources and that vulnerable groups should participate and benefit from conservation, sustainable management, and restoration measures. Similarly, TMG’s findings of two pilot research projects in Benin and Kenya conclude that LDN and conservation initiatives can contribute to safeguarding tenure rights.  On the contrary, the reports also underscore how a failure to take account of tenure issues may inadvertently undermine tenure rights of communities.
It has been acknowledged that customary practices and knowledge of Indigenous peoples and local communities contribute to reducing, avoiding, or reversing land degradation.  More than 360 million Indigenous Peoples and local communities live in protected areas, managing more than one sixth of the carbon in the forests in the Global South.  In many cases, community-based sustainable land management addresses land degradation. Yet, these initiatives have remained largely unrecognized by governments and policy makers and lack access to technical and financial support. 
Climate change and biodiversity
Land plays a pivotal role in the intertwined crises of biodiversity loss and climate change. In addition to nature conservation, reversing land degradation has become a key part of climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies.  LDN targets and initiatives contribute to and are influenced by the implementation of national climate plans and vice versa. Land and ecosystem restoration measures contribute to increasing carbon stocks, curbing global warming, reducing the risk and intensity of natural disasters, and to the recovery of biodiversity and ecological connectivity. In conjunction with responsible governance and land use planning, Land Degradation Neutrality measures also strengthen the resilience of rural communities through securing and improving ecosystem services. 
Gender and land degradation & tenure
It has been established that women are disproportionately affected by the impacts of desertification, land degradation and drought. Drought and land degradation tend to increase the burden of unpaid care and domestic work shouldered by women and girls and to affect the health of women and girls through food and water scarcity. Yet, women face more obstacles to actively take part in decision making to address land degradation and associated activities.  This is closely tied to unequal access to land, water, credit, services, and training, limited female participation in decision-making, and the uneven distribution of benefits. UNCCD’s Scientific Conceptual Framework for Land Degradation Neutrality emphasizes inclusivity, participation, and gender-sensitivity in the design, planning, implementation, and monitoring stages of LDN initiatives. In many settings, LDN initiatives address gender inequality by incorporating locally recognized women’s groups or associations. Yet, LDN programming has not yet streamlined gender responsiveness accounting for gender disparities.  Among others, aligning LDN gender plans with local and national schemes or introducing gender-sensitive financing mechanisms, offer entry points for gender-responsive LDN projects.
Innovations in land degradation & tenure
LDN initiatives are increasingly found in global and regional policy agendas.  Various programs and initiatives have been developed to promote Land Degradation Neutrality at local, national, and global level. Specifically, the Land Degradation Neutrality Fund seeks to bring together public and private investors. Several countries have committed to fight desertification, land degradation and drought (DLDD). In a similar vein, the African-led initiative Great Green Wall of the Sahara and Sahel (GGW) and the Middle East Green Initiative aim to combat desertification by restoring altogether 300 million ha of degraded land by 2030.  In addition, projects with a more technical focus range from increasing the water retention ability of (desert) soils to locally produced fertilizer that reduces emissions and at the same time increases yields.
Authorship and acknowledgements
By Anne Hennings, peer-reviewed by Enni Kallio (JPO in Programme Management on Land Tenure & Gender at UNCCD), Francesca Romano (Land Tenure Officer at FAO) and Aurelie Bres (Land and Water Officer at FAO).
This brief has been prepared with the financial support from FAO and in technical collaboration with UNCCD Secretariat and FAO.
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 Montanarella, L. et al. 2018. The IPBES assessment report on land degradation and restoration. Secretariat of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, Bonn, URL: https://landportal.org/library/resources/unccd1072/ipbes-assessment-report-land-degradation-and-restoration;
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