Satellite image of open pit mine in Palawan, Philippines. Photo from Google Earth

Land use change: trends, drivers and ways to safeguard ecosystem services

Biodiverse ecosystems around the world are under considerable pressure from changes in land use which often go at the expense of local communities and put severe pressure on vital ecosystem services such as the water supply, food security and climate resilience. What are the main trends in and drivers of these land use changes? And how to engage the various stakeholders towards green and inclusive policies and practices to safeguard ecosystem services?

Header photo: Satellite image of open pit mine in Palawan, Philippines. Photo from Google Earth

In 26 landscapes across Asia, Africa and Latin America, almost 200 civil society organisations work in strategic partnership with the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, WWF Netherlands and IUCN NL, towards safeguarding vital ecosystem services such as the water supply, food security and climate resilience.

Considerable pressure

“The biodiverse ecosystems in these landscapes are under considerable pressure from land degradation,” says Maxime Eiselin, Expert Monitoring and Innovation at IUCN NL. “Although the situation is different in each landscape, we can identify general trends regarding land use change and its drivers.”

Trends and drivers

Based on two decades of satellite images, Eiselin highlights the following trends and drivers:


Forested landscapes are mainly affected by the expansion of agricultural land. However, the scale on which that happens, varies across continents. “In Africa, the degradation of forested landscapes happens at a relatively slow pace,” Eiselin explains. “But in recent year, this pace is accelerating. It is mainly driven by small-holder farmers that clear forest in order to grow subsistence crops, which leads to the conversion of closed canopy forest land to agro-forestry systems and finally to intensive cropland.”

In Latin America, on the other hand, land has been cleared on a large-scale to make way for corporate cattle ranching and industrial agriculture. In Asia, forest landscapes made way more gradually, mainly due to the expansion of middle-sized industrial timber and oil palm plantations. 


Mining is the second largest driver of land use change, especially in Asia and Latin America. “Mining causes loss of nature in a direct and indirect way,” Eiselin points out. “The amount of natural lands that is being lost for the mining pits itself, is relatively small. Yet the related road and processing infrastructure has a major influence in fragmenting and degrading a natural landscape.”

Not to mention the consequences of extractive activities on water and soil quality. “The disastrous effects on water and soil quality usually don’t show on satellite images,” Eiselin says. “Except maybe in the change of colour. Clearblue waterways turn in to muddy streams.”


While small, man-made fires to produce charcoal are common practice in West-Africa, large parts of Latin America inadvertently went up in flames this year. Although natural fires are usual during the dry season, this year, the scale of the fires and their distribution were highly unusual. In an article on these forest fires, Mariel Cabero, Expert Environmental Justice at IUCN NL, explains that the forest fires in Latin America have been fueled by trade deals and policies which favour land clearing for soy, cattle and ‘biofuel’. Land clearing using fire, coupled with the dry season, high temperatures and winds have resulted in devastating wildfires in the region.

Safeguarding ecosystem services

The extreme forest fires in Latin America are just one example of the severe consequences of unsustainable land use. Nature is fundamental to our well-being and we need to safeguard vital ecosystems to avoid natural disasters and to ensure the supply of water and food.

It takes involvement of all stakeholders in a landscape to ensure healthy ecosystems. That’s why our civil society partners set-up collaborations and engagement mechanisms to get all stakeholders in their landscapes on board. This way, they aim to ensure sustainable land use planning and to have both the public and private sector implement policies and practices that allow ecosystems to thrive.

Sustainable land use planning 

In many of the 26 landscapes, our partners work closely with (local) authorities to ensure that their spatial planning includes sufficient green infrastructure to ensure clean water, fertile soils and climate resilience, also in the long-run. Strategic Environmental Assessment processes can be instrumental towards achieving this goal. Our partner Sawit Watch, committed to ensuring sustainable land use planning to improve climate resilience in Indonesia, shares four lessons to ensure an effective Strategic Environmental Assessment process.

Green and inclusive governance

Sound legislation and governance are key to sustainability across the various activities in a landscape. That’s why our civil society partners advocate green and inclusive policies and practices, with a focus on coherence between local, national and international policies and improved implementation and enforcement of existing legislation.

These efforts have resulted in various improved policies and practices, such as the moratorium on new permits for oil palm plantations in Indonesia, a law toward more sustainable nature management in Suriname and a decree that ensures the protection of wildlife corridors.

Greening business operations

Business engagement is another strategy towards ensuring sustainable land use management. With support of for example the IUCN Business and Biodiversity Program, our partners engage the private sector in order to protect or restore vulnerable ecosystems. The strategies adopted range from pushing companies to comply with existing regulation to stimulating businesses to improve their operations or to actively contribute to enhanced biodiversity.