Struggles in sustaining land resources

Written by Heidi Schmelzer

Humans make a lasting impact on the environment, often through land-use change: modifying the natural landscape, which can be temporary or permanent, occurring through human activity like agriculture, urbanization, and deforestation. While these all negatively impact the environment, there are positive impacts of land use change like reforestation.

Negative land-use actions do not only affect the local environment, they have wider reaching effects, like contributing to raising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere or impacting natural flood control (a type of ‘ecosystem service’). One obstacle with managing land-use change is that much of it occurs on privately owned land. Many governments don’t have systems in place to regulate activities in non-public areas, and this presents a challenge in preserving important ecosystem services. It can be difficult to persuade private landowners to adopt sustainable practices if it does not financially help them. Often, implementing sustainable use strategies can cause
them to lose money.

It is imperative to tackle this problem, as the actions on private land have far reaching consequences for widespread habitats and the global environment. We speak with Paulo Pereira, professor at Mykolas Romeris University in Lithuania. Together with his team (Marius Kalinauskas; Miguel Inacio; Katarzyna Bogdziewicz, and Luis Pinto), he investigates humans impact on the environment and how to address sustainability during the climate crisis.

A natural waterway. © Paulo Pereira. All rights reserved.

Q & A: Paulo Pereira

Please introduce your background and why you entered into environmental management.

I am a Geographer with a PhD from the University of Barcelona, working in different environmental fields such as soil science, fire impacts on ecosystems, land degradation, ecosystem services, nature-based solutions and spatial analysis. I always liked nature, but this love and search for understanding the interaction between humans and the environment appeared when I was finishing my bachelor’s degree. The curiosity and passion that I developed for science laid the foundation for pursuing a career as a scientist and contributing to the environmental management field.

How can land-use change impact ecosystems, and eventually negatively affect human society?

Land-use changes affect ecosystems dramatically. Nowadays, coupled with climate change, land-use change like agriculture intensification and urban expansion are among the most important drivers of ecosystem change. The increasing demand for food and resources exponentially converts forested areas into farmlands (e.g., Amazon or Borneo forests).

This represents a loss of habitats and biodiversity and different goods that can be supplied by these environments, such as carbon sequestration, water purification, nutrients regulation, pollination, air quality regulation, oxygen production, micro-climate regulation, wild-food, medicinal plants or cultural heritage sites. Some forests are sacred to indigenous cultures. Also, urban expansion on fertile soils drastically increases soil degradation (e.g., sealing, erosion, pollution) and reduces the areas available for food production.

Deforestation and urban growth negatively impact human society since they represent a loss of goods. Also, they can trigger the effects of extreme climate events such as floods and heatwaves that usually have tragic impacts on human health and life. Before cutting a tree or sealing soil, we need to understand the loss that this represents.

Evidence of soil erosion. © Paulo Pereira. All rights reserved.

What are some common conflicts between ecosystem services (ES) and property rights?

There are indeed many conflicts between ecosystem services and property rights. From a management point of view, public property is always easier to manage than private. The supply of ecosystem services depends on the land use type and the practices conducted. On public land, this can be regulated. Establishing specific land uses representing a benefit (e.g., flood retention) for the community is easier than on private land. Some local plans regulate land use at the municipal level that impose some restrictions on land use. It is more challenging to do so on private land. Encouraging farmers to diversify their crops, apply fewer agro-chemicals, and deep tillage practices because of the negative impacts on the environment (e.g., soil degradation, water pollution, biodiversity loss) is very challenging since their income depends on how much they can take from the land in a short period. These conventional agricultural practices are highly damaging to ecosystems and the benefits they provide to society. Of course, the owner has the right to use their land as they want according to the law. However, although the land-use practices respect the law, this does not mean that they are exempt from being harmful to the environment and the services that ecosystems provide to humanity.

Based on your team’s study published in Geography and Sustainability, how can we raise awareness about the benefits of a healthy ecosystem to land owners?

This was great work. Personally, I liked the outcomes very much. Raising awareness about the benefits of living in a healthy ecosystem is essential, but this depends very much on how the landowners implement the necessary changes. If this implies an economic loss, it is challenging to convince them. To overcome this, it is essential to show the long-term benefits of establishing a particular practice or land use. We can list and communicate to landowners many benefits, such as agriculture management with reduced impacts on the environment (e.g., no-till, cover crops, organic farming). Nevertheless, they may imply an immediate economic loss compared to conventional practices, and some are not willing to take these losses.

To raise awareness, it is vital to invest in education, transfer knowledge and show the advantages of having sustainable farming practices. Nevertheless, this is not possible in many cases, and some compensation (e.g., payment for ecosystem services) is needed for the owners to engage in sustainable practices.

Also, what should land-planning decision makers be considering, so we can meet our global sustainable development goals?

Definitely, it is needed to reduce our footprint on the environment. Decision-makers can do this by having better territorial planning. It is important to reduce deforestation and the expansion of intensive farming practices that are among the most important causes of land degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change. It is also important to limit urban sprawl and the consumption of fertile soils. Making cities greener will also be an excellent measure to reduce the impacts of climate change and urban heat islands. #

From an environmental perspective, by doing this, decision-makers would contribute significantly to several sustainable development goals:

  • Good Health and Well-Being (Goal 3),
  • Clean Water and Sanitation (Goal 6),
  • Affordable and Clean Energy (Goal 7),
  • Sustainable Cities and Communities (Goal 11), Climate Action (Goal 13),
  • Life Bellow Water (Goal 14),
  • Life on Land (Goal 15)

From a socioeconomic standpoint, decision-makers need to make urban areas more inclusive and invest in renewable energies. Doing this would contribute as well to other Sustainable Development Goals:

  • No Poverty (Goal 1),
  • Gender Equality (Goal 5),
  • Responsible Consumption (Goal 12).
A field being ploughed on agricultural land. © Paulo Pereira. All rights reserved.

Final thoughts

Passionate about the environment, Paulo explains how negative land-use changes can harm the environment and have a negative impact on humans. There are many valuable benefits nature gives us, described as ‘ecosystem services’, that are being disrupted by unsustainable practices like rapid urbanization and deforestation. This includes a loss of natural water purification and air quality control. Persuading private landowners to adopt more sustainable practices is challenging because it takes money from their livelihoods in the short term. Education can be an important tool for convincing them to adopt strategies for better conservation, but oftentimes, it is not enough.

Another strategy governments can use is to pay landowners the difference in money earned through using sustainable practices compared to higher pay-out conventional practices that deplete the land’s resources. Paulo’s interview highlights the fact that intervening in unsustainable practices requires multiple approaches to better conserve the land, protect biodiversity and mitigate climate change.

Portrait image of Prof. Paulo Pereira. © Paulo Pereira. All rights reserved.


Full professor at Mykolas Romeris University (Lithuania) and invited full professor at Beijing Normal University (China). He published more than 500 publications in books, peer-reviewed articles and conferences. Paulo received several international prizes (e.g., “European Geosciences Union Soil System Sciences Division Outstanding Young Scientist Award”). In 2020 was identified as one of the world’s most-cited researchers (Clarivate Analytics Highly Cited Researcher).



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