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Land use

Despite being a minority activity in terms of income and employment, agriculture is the dominant land use in Europe. Since the 1950s, Europe has experienced a continuing trend towards urbanization at the expense of natural, semi-natural and agricultural land. The area under productive agriculture in Western Europe has fallen over the past 30 years - by 6.5 per cent for arable and permanent crops and by 10.9 per cent for permanent pasture (FAOSTAT 2000). However, the decrease has been accompanied by more intensive production methods. This intensification trend seems set to continue, and better integrated spatial and land use planning and management are required to tackle the problems associated with land cover and land use change. During the 1990s, in many parts of Central and Eastern Europe, pressure on land resources began to decrease, due to the collapse of centrally planned economies, the ending of state subsidies to large collective farms and depopulation of rural areas. The economic collapse also led to a sharp decrease in the use of agricultural chemicals, abandonment of huge irrigation projects and agricultural land, and a decrease in numbers of livestock with a generally beneficial effect on the environment. A substantial land area is being reforested, and this trend may accelerate with climate change.

In recent years, increased attention has been given to the restoration and protection of wetlands. About two-thirds of the European wetlands that existed 100 years ago have been lost (EC 1999). Wetlands are the only ecosystem type that is covered by its own international convention, the Ramsar Convention of 1971, under which signatories agree to include wetland conservation in their national planning and to promote sound utilization of wetlands. In 1985, the World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature launched a campaign to promote public awareness about wetlands and their importance. A major goal was to ensure that wetland development goes ahead only when all the implications are understood and when plans have been produced to ensure that the environmental consequences are minimized.

Policies and measures relating explicitly to land use planning and management have generally been the responsibility of national and local level governments in Western Europe, while in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) there has been an abrupt change from central planning to local or no planning. Since 1989, the agricultural policies of CEE have gradually moved into line with those of the European Union. A number of international policy initiatives also exist relating to land management (see box below).

International efforts to improve land management

International policy efforts to protect ecosystems and wildlife habitats through global conventions include the Ramsar Convention on wetlands, the biodiversity convention and the European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP) initiated by the Ministers responsible for Regional/Spatial Planning in the European Union.

The ESDP is intended to improve the spatial coherence of European Community (EC) policies. It examines both the achievements and the inadequacies of the main policy areas that affect the development of EC territory, including competition policy, policies linked to networks in transport and telecommunications, structural funds, agricultural and environment policy, and research, technology and development (EC Committee on Spatial Development 1999).

The Environment for Europe process also focuses attention on the European landscape. The European Biodiversity and Landscape Strategy was launched during the fourth Environment Ministerial Conference in Århus (1998).

These major international programmes all emphasize the need to improve statistical monitoring activities. The European Land Use/Land Cover Statistical Survey project (LUCAS) is a promising example which was approved by the European Parliament in April 2000.