Transforming land use governance: Global targets without equity miss the mark

McDermott, C. et al. | Environmental Policy and Governance | 2022 | Peer Reviewed | Original research |


A confluence of concerns about tropical forest loss, global warming, and social inequality drive calls to transform land use governance. Yet there is widespread debate about what must be transformed, by whom, and how. The increasing equation of transformation with ambitious, quantitative global targets, such as “net zero emissions” or “zero deforestation” has gained widespread appeal as a means to inspire action and hold powerful actors to account. However presenting targets themselves as the end goals of transformation, obscures both the means of achieving them and the social and environmental values that legitimate them. The escalation of targets for land use, in particular, is disconnected from targeted geographies, lacks accountability to socially diverse knowledge and priorities, and is readily appropriated by powerful actors at multiple scales. This paper argues instead, for an equity-based approach to transformation that reveals how unequal power distorts both the ends and the means of global governance. We illustrate this argument with five case-study “vignettes” in Indonesia, Ghana, Peru, and Brazil that reveal how de-contextualized, target-based thinking has reinforced state and corporate control over resources at the expense of local access, while largely failing to deliver the promised environmental outcomes. We conclude that equity-focused, case study research is critical not only to unpack the local consequences of pursuing global targets, but also to make visible alternative efforts to achieve deeper socio-environmental transformations.