Aerial view of a Transition Forest area in Bokito, Cameroon.
Aerial view of a Transition Forest area in Bokito, Cameroon. | Credit: Mokhamad Edliadi/CIFOR

We Need Land-Use Planning to Prevent Deforestation at the Agricultural Frontier — And It’s Harder Than You Think

By Daniel Evans

Global sustainability initiatives like the UN Sustainable Development Goals have a land problem: How to achieve multiple land-intensive goals when there is only so much land to go around. Urgent needs for land, especially in developing countries, include protecting and restoring carbon-rich forests, conserving habitats to preserve the diversity of life on Earth, and producing enough food to sustain human populations.  

With agriculture driving deforestation, global climate protection and biodiversity conservation goals seem to collide with the drive to produce more food. Researchers warn of an impending “food security-biodiversity-climate” crisis and “looming land scarcity.” 

Land-use planning can help meet these challenges. When successful, land-use plans allocate land efficiently and equitably. Planners assess the suitability of land parcels for different uses, put available land to its “best” use, meet diverse needs of multiple stakeholders, and create a lasting governance framework for people to resolve conflicts.

But how effective is land-use planning? How often does it work as a tool to sustainably manage land? More specifically, how effectively does national land-use planning prevent agricultural expansion into forests?

A new paper from the ProLand project addresses this question by reviewing available evidence: National Land-Use Planning to Prevent Deforestation at the Agricultural Frontier: A Synthesis of the Evidence and a Case Study from Cameroon.

The paper finds that land-use planning can be effective, but there have been only a few cases where evidence shows that it has worked, largely because few developing countries have established the foundations needed for national land-use planning to succeed.

Cameroon is a notable exception. Cameroon’s land-use planning efforts to protect its rainforest reduced deforestation in a 2.4-million-hectare area where agricultural expansion is the principal threat. Cameroon’s experience highlights steps that other governments should consider taking, as well as common challenges that practitioners are likely to encounter, and that donors should anticipate.

Ultimately, the paper identifies five important conditions for land-use planning success:

  • Land-use planning should be authorized by laws or regulations with mechanisms to enforce compliance.
  • Land-use planning should be based on information that permits a thorough assessment of land resources in the planning area.
  • Participants should have technical and managerial capacity to design and implement land-use plans.
  • Financial resources for planning and implementation are essential.
  • Land-use planning should include broad participation of multiple stakeholders.

The paper also addresses key challenges. Successful land-use planning critically depends on good governance. But many governments in developing countries have low capacity to design land-use plans or assure adherence to the rule of law and transparent and equitable implementation. Land-use planning might require decades of investment supported by donors, reveal broad weaknesses in governance, and bring to light divergent objectives between donors and the governments they support.

National land-use planning can help achieve multiple, land-intensive development goals, but development practitioners should be prepared for a long, costly process and be ready to provide consistent support for good governance

Strategic Objective
Carbon, Emissions, Low Emission Development, Conflict and Governance, Food Security, Climate-Resilient Agriculture, Forest/Forestry, Land Use, Land Tenure, Mitigation, Sustainable Landscapes
Daniel Evans Headshot

Daniel Evans

Daniel (Dan) Evans is a researcher and writer focused on sustainable international development. He has a PhD in landscape ecology and has worked as a technical advisor on USAID development projects since 2014.

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