What is degraded land?

Degraded land is land that has lost some degree of its natural productivity due to human-caused processes. However, there is no single internationally-approved definition of “degraded land”.

In the context of developing policies to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+), degraded land refers to areas with low carbon stocks. These areas typically have minimal tree cover and an absence of peat, so they do not contain or sequester as much carbon as natural forests do. For example, according to Indonesia’s draft national REDD+ policy: “Degradation is the change in the forest that has negative impacts on the structure or function of stand or forest land, so that it reduces the forest capacity to provide forest services/products. In the REDD+ context, degradation may be interpreted as the forest carbon stock degradation.” The draft REDD+ policy suggests a threshold of 35 tonnes of carbon per hectare (C/ha) below which development could be considered “low carbon”. Lands with less than 35 tonnes of carbon per hectare usually imply no forest cover.

Government officials, private companies, NGOs, and academics have used the term “degraded” in multiple contexts to describe land with a wide variety of characteristics. General terms that have been used interchangeably with “degraded land” include:

Degraded forest – secondary or selectively logged forests that provide reduced levels of ecosystem services, including but not limited to carbon storage. Ecologists and environmental NGOs are concerned that allowing the conversion of these forests could result in significant carbon emissions as well as lost “co-benefits” such as biodiversity preservation.

Marginal/waste land – areas with low agricultural productivity and economic potential. Companies are concerned that these areas would be unprofitable to develop.

Idle/unused/abandoned land – areas that are devoid of human activity or not being used productively, often from a legal standpoint. These terms are controversial because legal designations do not always consider existing local or traditional rights, claims, or uses.

In Indonesia, related legal terms include:

Lahan kritis (literally “critical” land, often translated as “degraded”) — land legally designated as having reduced ecological functions by the Ministry of Forestry, based on biophysical characteristics.

Tanah terlantar (unused/abandoned land) — land on which a permit has been issued but has not yet been utilized by the permit-holder.

Lahan tidur (idle land, set-aside lands, literally “sleeping” land) — areas that are considered unproductive according to national or provincial regulations.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have their own definitions, too. For instance, a WWF study defines degraded land as land where the native vegetation has been altered by human activity resulting in a reduction in tree canopy cover, standing biomass or species diversity from which the system cannot recover unaided within a defined time period (Fairhurst and McLaughlin 2009).