Climate-Smart Land Use Insight Brief No. 5- Sustainable soil management for enhanced productivity and climate benefits in ASEAN

Submitted by Cynthia Nitsch | published 6th Oct 2021 | last updated 23rd Nov 2021
Hand holding soil, only finger tips are seen around the brown soil

A handful of biochar. Photo: Simon Dooley, Flickr

Introduction

Deforestation, land conversion, and harmful agricultural practices, are resulting in soil degradation throughout Southeast Asia (SEA). Healthy soil is not only necessary for agriculture, but also for biodiversity, human health, clean water and air, protection from floods and landslides, and climate regulation. Soil degradation can impact crop productivity, the resilience of agriculture to climate change, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As the region is facing a number of threats from climate change, soil health must be a priority for adaptation and mitigation strategies.  

Sustainable soil management (SSM) encompasses a wide array of practices designed to make soil healthier. Techniques are most effective when the local context is considered in implementation. SSM aims to minimize soil erosion, add organic matter, improve nutrient and water management, protect the structure of the soil, protect soil from contamination, and prevent salinization, acidification, and alkalinization. SSM has proven to be useful for climate change adaptation and mitigation by increasing soil carbon storage, offsetting GHG emissions, and reducing the use of chemical fertilizers. It also provides farmers with increased crop productivity creating more sustainable livelihoods, which also contributes to building capacity for climate resilience.

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Methods of Adaptation and Mitigation

SSM offers both climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies to farmers. By increasing soil carbon storage, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, and can also reduce the need for chemical fertilisers, which produce emissions on their own. SSM can improve water absorption, which reduces irrigation needs and increases drought resilience. Better draining and protected soil can also be more resilient to heavy rains and can recover more quickly from floods. SSM techniques can also help manage saltwater intrusion, an issue plaguing much of the region as a result of sea-level rise. 

By reducing spending on inputs and providing protection of their landSSM helps farmers to enhance their resilience to climate change. Smallholder farmers are more vulnerable to the impact of climate change on agriculture. By increasing their incomes and savings, farmers can more easily provide for their household needs and potentially diversify their livelihoods. Therefore, SSM can help reduce socio-economic drivers of vulnerability. 

Gender and Social Inclusion

The context and social structures of the communities and farmers implementing SSM in Southeast Asia must be understood. This context is as necessary as technical appraisals in ensuring the success of SSM measures. This is especially true when farmers are asked to significantly depart from existing practices. If the technology and approaches being applied do not meet the needs of the farmers using them, they will not prove sustainable nor beneficial. Implementation practices must take farm labour, land tenure, gender roles, and other farming complexities into account. Not only do the needs of all stakeholders need to be addressed, but engagement and implementation planning should include them. Understanding how gender dynamics affect SSM adoption is necessary to build capacities appropriately and equitably. The knowledge of Indigenous Peoples also needs to be recognized, as their traditional practices protected the land for centuries before governments deemed them to be environmentally harmful. Specific support may need to be given to certain groups to ensure that inequalities are not created, and existing inequalities are reduced and not reinforced. 

Priorities for Future Studies

  • Communicate research findings on SSM practices to provide scientific evidence supporting their implementation in the region. This could include building on what has been outlined in the ASEAN Guidelines on Soil and Nutrient Management especially with regards to Good Soil Management Practices.  

  • Analyse soil health data to identify local, national and regional trends as well as commonalities across ASEAN countries (e.g. in specific landscape types, or in the cultivation of key crops) to inform policy and investment priorities and support agricultural extension programmes. 

  • Synthesise and expand the evidence base on how national policies in ASEAN Member States, as well as individual SSM projects implemented in each country, have impacted soil quality and land degradation, with a focus on identifying the most effective solutions.  

  • Build a more robust evidence base on gender and other social equity issues that are relevant to the implementation of SSM strategies, including successful approaches that explicitly address inequities and empower marginalised groups.  

  • Document and disseminate SSM practices of Indigenous Peoples in ASEAN. 

Recommendations

For Policymakers 

  • Prioritise SSM in land use and agriculture strategies, reflecting the critical importance of healthy soils for long-term food security, rural livelihoods, biodiversity and climate resilience. This includes addressing land degradation risks associated with land conversion and/ or agricultural intensification, integration of SSM in agricultural extension programmes, and realigning of farm subsidies and incentives to discourage harmful practices and facilitate SSM adoption.  
  • Integrate SSM into national climate change mitigation and adaptation policies and strategies, including Nationally Determined Contributions, as well in national policies designed to achieve biodiversity and land degradation neutrality goals. This raises the profile of SSM measures and may help attract international finance to support them. At the regional level, the ASEAN Climate Resilience Network can make this connection by collaborating with the ASEAN Sectoral Working Group on Crops to advance SSM in the region.  

  • Prioritise efforts to provide pathways to secure land tenure for farmers who do not currently own land. This is crucial to advancing multiple climate-smart land use objectives, and it is particularly important for SSM, as without secure land tenure, farmers have a strong incentive to maximise yields even at the expense of long-term soil health.  

  • Foster knowledge-sharing on SSM, at the subnational, national and regional levels, aiming to build expertise on best practices for SSM within Southeast Asia, including approaches tailored to the region’s landscapes, major crops and cultural contexts. Platforms developed for this purpose can also support the continued improvement of SSM guidance across ASEAN countries. 

For development partners and project implementers 

  • Tailor SSM interventions to the local context, ensuring that the chosen measures meet farmers’ needs and are economically viable. Equity and inclusion are key: SSM implementation should not benefit men while excluding or disadvantaging women, for example, and they should ensure that low-income people and marginalised groups can fully participate and benefit.  

  • Strengthen monitoring of soil health, in collaboration with agricultural extension programmes, and share the information with farmers (e.g. as soil health reports), together with advice on locally appropriate SSM measures. The data should also be used as part of a monitoring and evaluation framework to track the effectiveness of SSM interventions and further improve them.  

  • Work with businesses that supply agricultural inputs and provide services to farmers (e.g. tilling) to promote SSM measures such as conservation agriculture as well as more efficient input use. Financial incentives and policy support may be needed to ensure the interventions are economically sustainable in the long term.  

  • Invest in soil restoration early and work with farmers to consider how different farming techniques and inputs will impact soil health in both the short and long term. Preventing early stages of soil erosion will reduce the need for costly rehabilitation efforts.  

  • Work with local land managers especially Indigenous Peoples and local communities to integrate their knowledge into conventional soil and land management. 

Key Messages

Currently, unsustainable land use and farming techniques are resulting in rapid erosion and soil degradation jeopardizing food security. In Southeast Asia, the intensification of agriculture and deforestation has led to the available cropland lacking nutrients and the ability to retain water. Sustainable soil management (SSM) aims to protect and restore soil health through various techniques. These techniques can minimize soil disturbance, add protective covers, enhance organic matter, improve nutrient and water management, and prevent soil pollution. Implementation of SSM has the potential to reduce farmers’ costs on water, fertiliser, and pesticides. SSM can also enhance soil carbon storage, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as boost resilience to the impacts of climate change. 

SSM includes a variety of techniques, some of which have been successfully implemented within Southeast Asia. The concept of organic agriculture is gaining momentum. Even though SSM can be applied through many different methods, initiatives need to meet the specific needs of the local context and consider potential inequalitiesFor implementation to be effective, support must be given through policy, incentives, and financial assistance. National policies and regional frameworks currently support the use of SSM, but the integration of SSM into agriculture, land use, and climate policies and strategies needs to be further developed. Programmes need to be equipped with the comprehensive knowledge and tools needed to ensure the effective and inclusive application of SSM. 

Recommended Citation

Anschell, N., Salamanca, A., and Davis, M. (2021) Sustainable soil management for enhanced productivity and climate benefits, ASEAN Climate-Smart Land Use Insight Brief 5. Jakarta: Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ).

This Insight Brief is part of a series prepared by the Stockholm Environment Institute on behalf of the Climate-Smart Land Use (CSLU) in ASEAN project, which receives funding from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and is implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH in close cooperation with the ASEAN Secretariat. The Insight Briefs aim to raise awareness on the mitigation and adaptation potential of selected climate-smart land-use practices and approaches in order to contribute to their application in Southeast Asia as well as to enhance the technical knowledge exchange among ASEAN Member States (AMS).