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close this bookLand quality indicators and their use in sustainable agriculture and rural development (1997)
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Open this folder and view contentsSESSION 1: RECENT EFFORTS TO DEVELOP INDICATORS
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J.R. Benites, Land and Water Development Division, and
J.B. Tschirley, Research, Extension and Training Division,
FAO, Rome, Italy

A workshop entitled Land Quality Indicators for Sustainable Resource Management held in FAO Headquarters, Rome was attended by FAO technical staff and invited participants from the Agriculture Canada, International Soil Reference and Information Centre, United Nations Environment Programme, World Bank, and private consultants. The workshop provided a technical forum to discuss issues relating to land quality indicators (LQIs) and their use by planners and policy-makers. LQIs can be used at the national and district levels to assess the qualities of land, to monitor its changing conditions, and to formulate policies and development programmes that take land quality into account.

Progress was made toward preparing a workplan for an LQI Programme including country case studies, development of a meta-database, research topics, location and funding of the Secretariat, financing, institutional contacts, membership in the Core Advisory Committee and follow-up activities.


There is much concern that land quality is changing, but there is not much formal monitoring of what is changing, in what direction or at what rate. Perceived improvements in land quality attributable to development programmes and projects are provided more by guesswork and wishful thinking than by the use of indicators or the results of planned monitoring.

Discussions in FAO and numerous international fora have contributed to the ongoing debate on indicators of sustainable development. Due in part to the range of interest and disciplines involved, there is not yet a consensus on the specific features of sustainability indicators or their strengths and weaknesses. How indicators are used can help to identify important problems and successes or may lead to confusion or misinterpretation.

FAO already plays an important role in collating information related to LQIs, but an important emerging challenge is to improve the quality of existing data, identify what additional data are needed, geographically reference FAO data, to develop linkages among the natural resources, social and economic dimensions and especially to make it more easily accessible among the developing countries.



The specific workshop aims were to:

¤ seek consensus on major issues related to measuring land quality;

¤ move toward an integrated set of LQIs for assessing the resource base and monitoring change conditions;

¤ identify sources of data and information required to develop indicators;

¤ establish linkages between social/economic issues and LQIs (and promote the use of LQIs by economists and social scientists);

¤ identify opportunities for practical testing plus application of LQIs in the countries.


The participants represented eight FAO Divisions: Animal Production and Health (AGA), Land and Water Development (AGL), Plant Production and Protection (AGP), Agriculture and Economic Development Analysis (ESA), Fishery Resources (FIR), Forest Resources (FOR), Rural Development (SDA), and Research, Extension and Training (SDR), as well as the Agriculture Canada, International Soil Reference and Information Centre (ISRIC), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), World Bank, and several consultants. The list of participants is detailed on page 205.


The workshop used formal presentations, discussion sessions and case studies to cover about 16 subjects in three sessions:

¤ Recent efforts to develop indicators.
¤ Sectoral issues in developing indicators.
¤ Thematic issues in developing indicators.

An external facilitator guided the discussions.


Major issues related to measuring land quality

The workshop concluded that different indicators are needed to track changes in each of the land’s main components (and their subdivisions) and that the data and information needs are so diverse, ranging from farmers to politicians, that a single, core set of indicators is probably not possible to develop over the short term.

Some generic indicators were presented in the framework of an integrated, holistic approach to land-use decisions and management and the changes in important biophysical and socio-economic attributes of land units that must be monitored, especially for:

¤ changes in the condition of land resources, both positive and negative;

¤ changes in areas arising from different land uses;

¤ rates of adaptation and adoption of recommended/suggested practices;

¤ changes in farm management practices;

¤ changes in yields and other outputs resulting from project interventions or other development;

¤ rural development issues such as land tenure, population density;

¤ water resources;

¤ fisheries and aquaculture;

¤ forest management;

¤ land-soil nutrients.

Different levels of planning and programming need to be distinguished. For farm-level change, detailed information is best achieved from observations and records from single farms. One also needs to find out over what area and on what percentage of farms similar results are to be found. The lower the level the more detailed the indicators become.

The amount of detail which needs to be recorded increases as one moves along the sequence of questions: (1) Is any change occurring, and in what direction - positive or negative? (2) What is changing? (3) How great is the change? (4) How rapidly is it occurring? (5) What processes of change are in motion? (6) Why have these processes of change been set in motion?

The pressure - state - response framework (PSR) was generally accepted, but questions were raised about its limitations in terms of cause/effect relationships, responding to changing state conditions, and ability to address biophysical, social and economic issues in a holistic manner. The importance of PSR being issue- or objective-driven and not indicator-driven, was underlined.

The time aspect was also raised, especially change and trend analysis as being more useful than static, assessment-types of information. For time-to-time comparisons, the same individuals/groups/farms/sites should be used to provide directly comparable time-series of data.

Regarding integration of different indicators within FAO aimed at measuring sustainability, the agro-ecological zoning (AEZ) approach was endorsed with the request that it be expanded to a more detailed scale and include social and economic information layers.

Some open issues and problems to be solved include:

¤ sources of data are numerous, but how can they be best structured and classified?
¤ how to integrate and link natural science with social science indicators and approaches?
¤ whether “simple” indicators are operationally possible or desirable.

Pilot case studies should be considered to answer the above questions.

Management and interpretation of data and information to develop indicators

It is important that the available data and information are interpreted adequately and that the resulting indicators are communicated effectively and quickly in a manner which can be easily understood. The task of monitoring staff therefore includes:

¤ reducing the mass of detail into clearly labelled tables;

¤ integrating similar materials from various parts of the information system;

¤ assembling results over time or by geographical area, so that trends and inter-area comparisons become apparent;

¤ ensuring that analysed and interpreted material are credible and, if unexpected or unusual, backed by specific supporting evidence (quality assurance);

¤ preparing brief, concise and clear narrative material which is timely and designed for the specific target audience.

Valuable data are useless if they are not analysed and presented in a decision-support context. On the other hand, an excess of analysis using statistical techniques misapplied to data that do not fulfil statistical requirements may result in presentation of results with spurious reliability and coefficients that the user does not understand.

Testing and application of LQIs in countries

Field projects are one way to gain experience and test methods that can improve the measurement of changes in land qualities, but many countries are also capable of carrying out their own LQI programmes - and this is indeed highly desirable. Country studies could address:

¤ examples of improvements in land quality (e.g., results of soil conservation and land-use planning case studies);

¤ country case studies based on a matrix of AEZ x land-use intensity x data availability;

¤ use of land quality information for policy analysis;

¤ development of a meta-database of land quality information sources;

¤ development of improved AEZ case studies;

¤ experience in compiling farm-level indicators;

¤ experiences with regard to data quality and aggregation;

¤ district level land-use mapping by farmers;

¤ LQI data aggregation.

Guidelines are needed to assist analysts in following common approaches to studying and developing land quality indicators.


A meeting of the core LQI co-sponsors was held to discuss options, prepare a short-term workplan for the programme, financial support for programme activities, location of the Secretariat, main institutional contacts, and membership in a Core Advisory Committee.

To date, the following proposals have been submitted for funding:

¤ development of global metadata information system to the Netherlands Government;

¤ case study in temperate regions of China to the Canada Government;

¤ technical support to the LQI secretariat and a case study in West Africa to the French Government;

¤ a joint FAO-UNEP project has been implemented to develop an integrated approach to planning and management of land resources as part of FAO’s responsibility as UN Task Manager for implementation of Chapter 10 of Agenda 21 1.

1 Programme of Action for Sustainable Development, signed at the United Nations Conference held in Rio de Janeiro, June, 1992.

Other support might be possible from Norway (Norwegian Aid Society for International Development: NORAD) for South America, from Denmark, Germany (German Agency for Technical Cooperation: GTZ), the Swiss Government, Australia (Australian Agency for International Development: AusAid) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Enquiries would, also be made with foundations: Rockefeller and Ford as well as Kellogg, MacArthur and McNamara.

FAO, Land and Water Development Division (AGL), agreed to pursue the following areas of work to assist in development of LQIs:

¤ refinement of the AEZ zonation to include at least one more level of detail;

¤ refinement of estimates of land suitable for cultivation (development of more stringent criteria) and characterization of potential arable lands;

¤ refinement of the “anticipated yield” calculation.


1. An Indicators Working Group should be established to elicit inputs and participation from a range of technical units for the LQI initiative.

2. A detailed workplan should be prepared for the LQI programme.

3. Guidelines for LQI country case studies should be developed as soon as possible; FAO, Research, Extension and Training Division (SDRN) should take the lead on this.

4. An LQI Core Advisory Committee (CAC) of scientific advisers should be established to develop and guide the LQI programme. Membership would be ad personam, and would be no larger than 10-12 members.

5. It was recommended that a transitional period of about a year be used to launch the LQI programme. During this time the World Bank would play a key role in bringing together the technical groups and organizations, and seek funding. During the first quarter of 1997 the Secretariat would be transferred to FAO-Rome. The model used by the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) Secretariat of the Consultive Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) was considered appropriate to the LQI initiative in terms of providing a rapid response and access to high-quality personnel.