International framework to address soil governance and resource security

Recognizing the importance of soils at global level

Soil protection has been recognised in 1982 by United Nations Environment Programme  as a finite resource. Back then this international institutional body has urged Governments to, “...agree to use their soils on the basis of sound principles of resource management, to enhance soil productivity, to prevent soil erosion and degradation, and to reduce the loss of good farmland to non-farm purposes”.
Within the framework of this UNEP-led policy, national governments have been encouraged to:
  • Commit themselves to the sound use of land (and water) resources;
  • Develop a land-use policy and the necessary legislative framework to implement it;
  • Increase awareness among all  sections of  the community of  the problems caused by the loss of productive soil and of the need for prompt action;
  • Identify,  map  and  assess  the  potentials  and  constraints  of  soil  resources,  map current  land  use,  assess  the  present  extent  of  soil  degradation,  predict  foreseeable hazards and develop methods for their prevention;
  • Adapt  soil  capability  classifications  and  methods  of  land  evaluation  to  local conditions;
  • Develop programmes to ensure the availability and wide application of fertilizers and other actions appropriate to the improvement and sustained use of the soil;
  • Establish an adequate legislative and  institutional framework for monitoring and supervising soil conservation development and management;
  • Impose obligations on users, with  the  aim of  ensuring  the most  rational use of land,  through  the use of  tax exemptions, subsidies, credit  facilities and other  types of financial devices;
  • Train an adequately paid professional cadre of extension workers to assist farmers in managing soil and water resources effectively;
  • Establish  and  fund  programmes, where  needed,  for  reforestation,  irrigation,  and reclamation of saline, flooded or other land not presently productive;
  • Actively  pursue  research  needed  to  develop  systems  of  farming  that  combine adequate production with resource protection and are compatible with socio-economic and cultural conditions;
  • Help  develop  local  institutions  to  secure  the  leadership,  assistance  and cooperation  of  farmers  in  applying  soil  and  water  improvement  and  conservation practices. Provide an adequate programme of environmental education  in  support of resource management activities.
In 1983 the same UN entity prepared Environmental Guidelines for the formulation of National Soil Policies.  
Other Multilateral Agreements relevant to soil protection
1972 Stockholm declaration - The Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment placed global environmental issues firmly on the international agenda for the first time and produced two principal instruments, The  Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment (Stockholm Declaration), and the Action Plan or the Human Environment. UNEP was established as a result of the Stockholm Conference.
The Nairobi Declaration pointed out that deforestation, soil degradation and desertification had reached alarming proportions and were seriously endangering living conditions in large parts of the world.

The 1972 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of World Cultural and National Heritage recognised soil resources as an important component of natural heritage and Humanity's stewardship to safeguard its existence for present and future generations.
The European Soil Charter of the Council of Europe. As part of the attempt to stop the steady deterioration of land in Europe, the Council of Europe in 1972 adopted a European Soil Charter setting out 12 basic principles. Adopted by the Council’s Committee of Ministers, it included the objective for member States to promote the protection of soils against damage from natural or human causes, and their rehabilitation. Europe is the only region of the world to use this form of non-binding instrument to develop special regional rules for soil.
World Conservation Strategy - The 1980 World Conservation Strategy is a non-binding plan of action for governments and public bodies around the world, to encourage nations to prepare national conservation strategies to address environmental degradation and resource depletion.

The World Charter for Nature of 1982 calling, amongst other, for the principle of maintenance and enhancement of soil productivity “through measures which safeguard their long-term fertility and the process of organic decomposition, and prevent erosion and all other forms of degradation”, was the subject of a United Nations resolution.
On its part, the Food and Agricultural Organisation published an International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides in 1985 (subsequently revised in 2002). This initiative gave a significant contribution to the safeguarding of agricultural soils.
The 1992 Rio Declaration and Agenda 21 (the action plan emerging from the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development) identified concrete steps to integrate environment and development. Subsequently, the eight Millenium Development Goals have been established.
On its part, the Council of Europe's  Soil Protection Policy of 1992 (Recommendation R (92) 8) recommendation contains the comprehensive definition of “soil” mentioned in section 1 of this report, which is a considerable expansion of the definition of “soil” in Principle 1 of the 1972 ESC. This Charter is currently under review by the Secretariat of the Council of Europe with the objective of enhancing it by incorporating new environmental concepts and standards.

In 2009, Montevideo IV Programme on the Periodic Review of Environmental Law included provisions to improve the conservation, rehabilitation and protection and sustainable use of soils and the strategy to promote the development and implementation of laws and policies for enhancing the protection and sustainable use and, where appropriate, rehabilitation of soils.
Work was also completed in 1994 on the Public Policies for the Protection of Soil Resources by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Way forward towards recognizing comprehensive soil security and protection as a separate domain

The 2015 World Soil Charter (updating the 1981 original statement) and the World Soils Policy - The first World Soil Charter and the World Soils Policy were prepared as conjunctive instruments over  33 years ago to encourage international cooperation in the rational use of soil resources. Since that time they have generally been accepted as the global “soft law” for soil. Although they are not legally binding environmental instruments, they have been influential in raising the profile of soil conservation as an international environmental management issue, as well as providing some relatively straightforward guideline material for States to adopt in the preparation of domestic laws and policies.  In June 2015, a revised World Soil Charter was unanomously accepted by members at the 39th session of the Global Soil Partnership held in Rome. 

UN experts have also subsequently formulated the following instruments:
  • the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (specifically, goals, 2.4, 3.9, 12.4 and 15.3);
  • the post-2015 development agenda; and
  • the 2030 agenda for sustainable development  which reiterates the aforementioned four SDG statements while providing global targets which are expected to be implemented by EU Member States. 

Other international legislative instruments/ Treaties
There are a number of multilateral agreements with a role that could be used to promote sustainable use of soil but the provisions are generally tangential to the needs of the soil as such. Many of them pre-date the 1990’s (i.e. the UNCED period), are predominantly regional in nature, and do not establish specific rules for sustainable use of soils.
Three international conventions, in order of relevance, have a soil protection role: the Convention for Combating Desertification (UNCCD), the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) and, to a lesser extent, the Climate Change Treaty (UNFCCC), with its daughter arrangement on regulation of greenhouse gases  as part of better air quality objectives, known as the Kyoto Protocol (this treaty as well as later agreements stemming from it identifies soil as one of the major sinks for GHGs).
There is also a group of regional conventions, protocols and agreements that have a soil protection role (e.g. Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea Against Pollution, Protocol Concerning Specially Protected Areas and Biological Diversity in the Mediterranean, Convention Concerning the Protection of the European Alps, Benelux Convention on Nature Conservation and Landscape Protection, and so on), but only one of these is a specific soil instrument – “The Protocol for the implementation of the Alpine Convention of 1991 in the area of Soil Protection”. This is the only legally binding instrument in the world specifically for soil.
Other initiatives relevant to soil protection include the IUCN’s International Covenant on Environment and Development, and a Non-Government Initiative for a Binding Instrument for Soil –The 1997 Tutzing Proposal.
In 1999, the International Conference on Land Degradation (ICLD) in Thailand also passed a resolution “seeking the introduction of an international soil conservation instrument.”

Legal framework to affirm protection of soil security as a distinct domain

Given all of the MEAs just described - and still others not mentioned - that touch on many of the agricultural, hydrological, biodiversity, climate, and other functions of soil, an observer might initially conclude that international environmental law protects soil and its functions fairly comprehensively.  Despite its overlap with many soil functions, however, the "hodge-podge" of legal instruments actually ignores many important technical, social, and economic aspects of soil protection.

Furthermore, given the lack of an integrated focus on soil protection needs, the current regime would continue to miss many of these  facets, even if the existing MEAs’ specific targets, like biodiversity and climate, evolved to better recognize the roles of soil in those functions. 

The global legal framework and state of affairs (established up to 2002) for sustainable soils, from an institutional standpoint, were mapped out in a preliminary assessment compiled by legal experts commissioned by the IUCN- The World Conservation Union (click here to view report).

The European Dimension of soil protection

Why the need to press for more EU Action for comprehensive soil protection?

  • Soil degradation affects other environmental areas for which Community legislation exists. Failure to protect soil will undermine sustainability and long-term competitiveness in Europe.  Indeed, soil is interlinked with air and water in such a way that it regulates their quality.  In  addition soil  functions  enormously  contribute  to areas  such  as  biodiversity  and  marine protection,  coastal management,  and  to the mitigation of climate change.
  • Distortion  of  the  functioning  of  the internal  market  –  the  wide  differences between national soil protection regimes, in particular as regards soil contamination, sometimes  impose  very  different obligations  on  economic  operators,  thus creating  an unbalanced  situation  in  their fixed costs. The absence of such regimes and the uncertainty as regards the extent of soil degradation can, in some cases, also hinder private investment.
  • Food  safety  –  uptake  of  contaminants in  the  soil  by  food  and  feed  crops  and some food producing animals can have a significant impact on the safety of feed and food, which  are  traded  freely within  the internal market,  by  increasing  their  level of  contaminants,  hence  posing  a  risk  to human or animal health. Acting at source and at European  level, by preventing  soil contamination  or  reducing  its  level,  are a  necessary  complement  to  the  strict EU measures  and  controls  performed  to ensure feed and food safety.
  • International dimension – soil degradation is receiving increasing attention in international agreements and charters. By establishing an appropriate and coherent framework which will translate into better knowledge and management of  soil,  the EU can play a  leading  role  internationally, facilitating  the  transfer of know-how and technical  assistance  whilst  at  the  same time ensuring the competitiveness of their economies.
In addition, action at EU  level will also have an  added  value  by  contributing  to  the protection  of  the  health  of  European citizens  that  can be  impaired  in different ways  by  soil  degradation,  for  instance because of exposure to soil contaminants by  direct  ingestion  (children  in playgrounds)  or  indirect  intake  (through contaminated  food  or  drinking  water). Equally, casualties may occur in the event of landslides occurring as a result of mass soil displacement.

Pan-European funding and multi-stakeholder initiatives at various scales is one way to enable a better appreciation for this resource by decision-makers through the production of multi-variate documentary evidence and shared expert experiences. Design, implementation and post-evaluation of EU-funded projects in soil protection have been carried out, specifically over the last two decades. Further information. on a range of technical studies, with their respective conclusions and recommendations, can be found here.
Legislative framework

Three components act as the 'building blocks' of the European Union's Thematic Strategy for Soil Protection:
  • COMMUNICATION  on  the  Thematic  Strategy  for  Soil  Protection:  Why further action is needed?
  • IMPACT  ASSESSMENT  Report:  Analysis  of  economic,  social  and environmental impacts (click here and here)
  • DIRECTIVE  establishing  a  framework  for  the  protection  of  soil  risk  from erosion,  compaction,  salinisation,  decline  of  soil  organic  matter,  landslides, contamination, sealing and loss of soil biodiversity.
The above components are the culmination of a series of technical and detailed studies prepared by Europe's experts hailing from a number of Member States and other relevant stakeholder entities. Detailed situational assessments and recommendations, prepared by specialised Technical Working Groups (TWGs), appointed by the European Commission (back in 2002), have been included below for ease of reference:
The strategy, adopted by the European Commission on 22nd September 2006,  is one of seven Thematic Strategies that the Commission has presented over the years. The other strategies cover air pollution, the marine environment, waste prevention and recycling, natural resources, the urban environment and pesticides. Further information on these parallel initiatives can be found on the European Union's official webportal.
On its part, the aforementioned Strategy addressing this non-renewable resource identified the following soil functions that shape the wider environment quality as we know it:
- biomass production;
- storing, filtering and transforming nutrients, substances and water;
- biodiversity pool and acting as a carbon 'reservoir';
- shapes the physical and cultural environment for humanity;
- source of raw material; and
- archive for the preservation of geological and archaeological heritage.

In 2011, the Commission, adopted the Resource Efficiency Roadmap for Europe where the following milestones, with reference to soil protection, were established:
  1. By 2020, EU policies take into account their direct and indirect impact on land use in the EU and globally, and the rate of land take is on track with an aim to achieve no net land take by 2050;
  2. soil erosion is reduced and the soil organic matter increased, with remedial work on contaminated sites well underway. 
This initiative complemented its 2003 adoption of a Thematic Strategy for the Use of Natural Resources (COM/2003/0572 final).
Furthermore, the following Community-wide targets for this sector have been set out in order to reach the aforementioned milestones:
  • Annual land take (i.e. the increase of artificial land) does not exceed 800 km² per year at the EU level by 2020.
  • The area of land in the EU that is subject to soil erosion of more than 10 tonnes per hectare per year should be reduced by at least 25% by 2020.
  • By 2020 soil organic matter levels do not decrease overall and increase for soils currently with less than 3.5% organic matter.
These targets support and ameloriate other objectives set out in local systems adopted by individual Member states, not least Malta, which is already actively managing EU-based broad measures to maintain and restore land containing soil resources, for example, in the case of land parcels utilised for agriculture/farming purposes.

Further information about direct and/or indirect measures in place to support protection of soil quality can be found primarily within the following thematic links: Plant Health directives and measures, Agri-Environment action and Rural Development measures.
National action on the basis of the Subsidiary Principle
The analysis of the processes that have established which soils have been degraded over the years confirms the need for focussed national action. The latter overarching principle needs to be fostered with greater impetus by all relevant stakeholders if this resource is to be conserved for future generations to enjoy. Any action should be designed in such a way as to protect soils within a wider regional and/or international coordinated framework. Evidence at the global level has made significant strides as the international community has come up with refined and innovative solutions related this sphere of environment protection.

To implement any soil protection programme, it is essential that any national action is derived from the following overarching targets:
  • to identify the problems, to determine the main causes and effects and to gain better understanding of the links between the two; an appraisal of the current situation is the first step to be achieved (for instance, there is a need to register degraded sites in Malta by type and level of degradation);
  • to check the damages which have occurred and record trends, through the establishment of benchmarked and integrated monitoring network (though an appropritate thematic information database on soil resources) involving vulnerable soils, and to assess methodologies (analysis, models, inventories, description of uncertainty) with a view to harmonise the preferred local system with that of other Member States;
  • to take prevention measures to protect the soil from irreversible damages and to allow the soil to serve only for uses which cannot irreversibly alter or damage other uses ­ this precautionary principle leads to the concept of soil suitability and vulnerability; and
  • to use technical solutions, when they exist, for greatly reducing or remedying certain soil pollution problems bearing in mind that they entail enormous expenses and address, ultimately, the question is whether these expenses are to be financed mainly or in part by government or by the owners of the polluted/degraded land.