Emerging global trends provide new opportunities in soil and water conservation

Progressively, the geopolitics of soil and water conservation are shifting from agriculture, forestry, and other extractive services, to provision of environmental goods and services and global life support systems. The links among human welfare, ecosystem integrity, and land degradation are increasingly being realized, but the major policy decisions on control and mitigation are being made by urban people who are well meaning, but generally not highly knowledgeable on the tradeoffs possible to provide for an improved environment.

Global Trends Influencing the Agenda for Soil and Water Conservation

Climate change is one of the major global driving forces with potential to significantly impact our approaches to soil and water conservation (global agricultural GDP is projected to decrease by 16 % by 2020 due to climate change).The influence of this, however, is compounded by several social and economic driving forces that result from our continual initiatives for improved incomes and lifestyles. The current global recession is a direct consequence of the globalization of international markets, and may ultimately have some impacts on soil conservation policies. However, the consequences have yet to be sorted out.

The more important of the global driving forces are the following:

Increasing Human Footprint on the Environment

The human footprint on global terrestrial ecosystems is very large and growing exponentially.  Currently, fully 83% of the world’s land area is directly influenced by human interventions, and estimates are that by early in the next century, all land will be under some degree of management. This very extensive footprint originates as we continually expand our economic influence on the landscape.  However, the results are of lower resilience than the environmental goods and services provided by nature, and the consequences are often land degradation, desertification, poverty, and increasing marginalization of the world’s disadvantaged. Soil conservationists have a responsibility to explain the impacts of these human interventions on future human welfare, environmental services, and human health.

Urbanization of global populations is increasing dramatically; sixty one per cent of global populations are expected to live in urban areas within the next three decades. The impacts of this are two fold.  Firstly, cities and towns are the main consumers of most ecosystem services, and thus the ecological human footprints will increase dramatically as incomes and consumption increase. Secondly, the choices and actions of urban dwellers are more powerful than those of rural populations, and future political discussions on the environment will be increasingly controlled by these urban influences, including decisions on soil and water conservation.  Soil conservationists must be ready to play increasingly important roles in these strategic discussions.


Globalization is a relatively recent phenomenon but one with potentially significant impacts on soil and water conservation policies. This is because of the new driving forces on the use and consumption of natural resources, namely income growth, high energy prices, rapidly escalating food prices, emerging biofuel markets, and climate change. These dramatic changes are due to a series of interrelated factors, including increased global populations (expected to increase a further 30%), high economic growth, particularly in China, India, and Brazil, shifting rural-urban populations, growth of the middle class with higher incomes and changing consumption habits, reduced cereal stocks, the search for alternate fuels, and climate change.  Related to this is the growing power and leverage of international corporations on the production and marketing chain, including the horizontal consolidation that has occurred across the agri-input industry, with the top three agri-chemical companies accounting for roughly half of the total market. The concentration of marketing power in the hands of international corporations is not likely to benefit soil conservation since these companies emphasize food quality, food safety, and guaranteed supply at the required time, rather than global environmental benefits. However, they may be useful partners in promoting certification schemes for soil conservation. Regardless, the soil conservation community must recognize that there are new players on the field and that they wield considerable consumer and political power.

Information Power
The age of information and the age of globalization are parallel driving forces, but whereas the latter is driven by trade, the former is driven by new technologies and the evolution of new and improved skills and understanding. In contrast to the past, where nation states derived individual national policies on issues such as the environment, the evolving approaches are to move toward integrated, international solutions on global environmental problems. This is best illustrated by the growing influences of the international environmental conventions, administered by the United Nations. These are increasingly powerful instruments, with highly effective convening powers, centered primarily on the urban constituency. For example, in 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shared the Nobel Prize with Al Gore for their work on climate change. This was achieved through the collaboration of hundreds of scientists from many countries in the space of only about 15 years. Such impact has never been achieved before.

Emerging Opportunities and Next Steps

There are new driving forces that will influence the geopolitical agenda for soil and water conservation.  These include climate change, but also the rising consumerism in the global middle classes, including the rapidly urbanizing populations of China, India, and Latin America. The processes of globalization, modern technologies of knowledge management, and the rising influence of urbanites have the potential to considerably change the way we promote soil conservation. Also, there are new and increasingly powerful players on the soil conservation scene, including the nature-based nongovernmental organizations that are emerging as influential players in soil conservation. We must be cognizant of these driving forces and react to capture the opportunities they present.

There are many promising, new opportunities for soil conservation, as illustrated in the international environment conventions, the evolving, new programs under sustainable land management, and the evolving international environmental trading schemes. Benefiting from these opportunities will require some shifts in focus for the soil conservation community, a move from defining the processes of erosion and developing technological fixes, toward more involvement in the social and political processes of community led soil conservation, and removing the barriers and bottlenecks to soil conservation. In particular, the soil conservation community must be more proactive in mobilizing and empowering the farmers and herders of society in the fight against land degradation, since they are the immediate direct beneficiaries of improved land management and those who suffer the most from land degradation. The international environment conventions provide guidance and opportunities for such shifts, and some successes achieved with international institutions provide guidance on approaches.

The world has changed, and the science of soil and water conservation must also change. The soil conservation community must stop looking at what has worked in the past, but look forward to what is needed in the future. It must move from perennial studies of erosion and prescriptive engineering approaches to more holistic and participatory (social) approaches. It must move to procedures which integrate soil conservation, rural landscape management, and technological innovation, with profit generating activities and market opportunities.  We must get on board with the new driving forces and new program opportunities; we must catch the wave.

This article is a summary of the original published in the JSWC 2009 64(1):11A-14A. It derives from the keynote paper given at the XVII meeting of the Brazilian Society for Soil and Water Conservation and Management, 10 - 15 August, 2008, Rio de Janeiro

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