ECC Platform Library


SDG15 – Life on Land: Saving forests for peaceful societies

09 May, 2019
Stella Schaller, adelphi

Around 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their livelihood, and about 2.6 billion people rely directly on agriculture.1 Deforestation, land degradation, and unsustainable management of ecosystems threaten those livelihoods and may contribute to resource-related conflicts and social unrest.

Shrinking spaces and unjust tenure systems can make parts of the population more receptive to terrorist recruitment or force people to migrate away from places that are no longer hospitable. The dire scenario of a rapidly declining nature revealed by the recently released IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services further underscores the urgency of conserving and restoring natural spaces for the sake of human security and well-being. Sustainable land and forest management thus needs to be an essential part of SDG16 activities on peace, justice, and good institutions.

The critical importance of land, forest, and biodiversity for core foreign policy objectives

As deserts spread, partly due to a changing climate, food insecurity and competition for the remaining fertile land increase. When forests stop providing fibre, fuelwood, shelter, and habitat for wildlife, rural livelihoods fall under pressure. When corrupt elites prevent efforts to manage resources better and share the benefits of the land and the forest equally, social and political conflicts loom. In Sudan, Somalia or the Lake Chad Basin where nomads clash with sedentary farmers, these processes add to an already conflicting and chaotic situation and hence undermine international efforts to de-radicalize communities and combat terrorism. Non-state armed groups are likely to exploit the changing access to and availability of natural resources. Decreasing land and soil productivity may also become one of the drivers of environmental migration, both voluntary and forced. People may migrate in quest of a more liveable and less vulnerable environment2, or move as a reaction to risks and tensions posed by conflicts resulting from resource scarcities3.

Fragile societies with weak economic foundations and insufficient state services, where conflicts are latent or manifest, are much more vulnerable to such environmental degradation - be it barren land or loss of forests and species. At the same time, the challenges of implementing SDG15 in fragile countries and risks of unintended side effects are much more significant. For instance, deforestation and forest degradation can increase in post-war situations, if forest territory earlier in control of armed rebels becomes accessible. Sustainable forest and land management in fragile and conflict contexts thus require a different, specifically conflict-sensitive approach.

Foreign policy can play a critical role in supporting sustainable management of land and forest resources by facilitating data exchange across borders, supporting the implementation of key international agreements in international fora, investing in and co-designing local restoration programmes and support community-based environmental stewardship. By promoting and supporting development plans that integrate conservation efforts and by investing in modern land management technologies, structural drivers of human insecurity can be eliminated, while at the same time creating resilience against slow and sudden onset disasters such droughts and floods, which again can contribute to forced displacement4.

The UN Security Council has called for risk assessment and management strategies that include coordinating policies, strategies, and programs addressing humanitarian needs, livelihood insecurity, climate change adaptation, and peace building. However, these considerations have not been adequately integrated into foreign/humanitarian policy processes yet.

Forests deliver a range of services to humans. They support the freshwater cycle (SDG6), infiltrate soils, and increase the overall resilience of landscapes and communities. They also offer habitat to biodiversity, which in turn provides essential services for human well-being and influences societies’ ability to alleviate poverty (SDG1), ensure food security (SDG2) and more generally, withstand shocks and respond to various disturbances. Conserving, managing and restoring forests and their services (addressed under target 15.2) are not only necessary to reduce CO2 emissions (SDG13), but will maintain and in some cases reinstate livelihoods and biodiversity, and help in preventing and strengthening the foundation of a socially and economically stable society (SDG16). The same holds true for combatting desertification and land restoration (addressed under target 15.3).

Biological diversity, which is addressed under target 15.5, provides essential services for human well-being and influences societies’ ability to alleviate poverty, ensure food security and more generally, withstand shocks and respond to various disturbances. Combatting the alarming trend of biodiversity loss and broadening the participation in decision-making processes for biodiversity conservation can, therefore, be a means to build peaceful and resilient societies. Besides, illegally sourced and traded wildlife products are often used by radical organizations as a source of income5 and indirectly endanger security6.

Illustration: poor forest governance fuels conflict in Myanmar

Forced migration of more than hundreds of thousands of people is a result of more than six decades of armed conflict and recurring outbursts of violence. Although Myanmar is in the process of negotiating peace, the southeast of the country is still facing acute humanitarian vulnerability with little prospects for stable livelihoods7. How is this linked to SDG15? Myanmar has the third highest deforestation rate in the world, losing about 2% of its forests per year8 due to unsustainable logging and extensive agricultural development. Land property rights in forested regions are poorly developed, and undemocratic governance and mismanagement of forest resources have fuelled political grievances and none-state actors taking control of territories using violence. The perception of unequal distribution of timber revenues sustains the tensions9. For a democratic transition and successful peace negotiations, the fair management of Myanmar’s natural resources is vital. Progress towards sustainable forest management (SDG target 15.2) and ensuring the conservation of mountain ecosystems, including their biodiversity, to enhance their capacity to provide benefits that are essential for sustainable development (SDG target 15.5) would yield high peace dividends.


Protecting life on land is essential to securing livelihoods of many populations around the world. Deforestation, desertification and biodiversity loss increase the grievances, exacerbate conflict and can be a driver of migration. Protection and fair distribution of natural resources provided by functioning terrestrial ecosystems is thus an important part of reducing conflict, especially in fragile societies, while conservation activities themselves can be a vehicle for building peace. Foreign policy can benefit from analysing the complex interaction of life on land and conflict and use its unique tools to set off positive dynamics of better resource management and socio-political gains, with a view to building resilience.


[This article appeared as part of adelphi’s Policy Brief “A foreign policy perspective on the SDGs” (2018) and its comprehensive annex.]



  1. UN Environment 2018: Goal 15 – Life on land. Retrieved 25 June 2018 from
  2. FAO 2016: Trees, forests and land use in drylands. Retrieved 29 June 2018 from
  3. Nett, Katharina and Lukas Rüttinger 2017: Insurgency, Terrorism and Organised Crime in a Warming Climate. Analysing the Links Between Climate Change and Non-State Armed Groups. Berlin: adelphi. Retrieved 03 May 2019 from
  4. IDMC 2018: Global Report on Internal Displacement (GRID) 2018. Retrieved 10.07.2018 from
  5. UNODC 2016: World Wildlife Crime Report – Trafficking in protected species. Retrieved 03 May 2018 from  
  6. UN General Assembly 2017: Note by the Secretary General. Globalization and interdependence. Retrieved 25 January 2018 from
  7. Norwegian Institute of International Affairs 2018: Myanmar: A Political Economy Analysis. Published via reliefweb. Retrieved 03 May 2019 from
  8. EEAS 2018: "San Pya" cook stoves to improve health and help preserve Myanmar's forests. Retrieved 29 June 2018 from
  9. Finaz, Clemence and Saw Doh Wah 2016: Bridging the Gap Between Forestry and Peacebuilding: Insights from Myanmar. Retrieved 03 May 2019 from
ArticleClimate Diplomacy
Biodiversity & Livelihoods
Environment & Migration

Global Issues


Adaptation & Resilience

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Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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