Environment, Development and Sustainability

, Volume 22, Issue 1, pp 447–468 | Cite as

Defining and measuring sustainability: a systematic review of studies in rural Latin America and the Caribbean

  • Cerian GibbesEmail author
  • Allison L. Hopkins
  • Armando Inurreta Díaz
  • Juan Jimenez-Osornio


Research on sustainability was ignited by the Brundtland Report and further fueled by the recognition that sustainability is a critical challenge for the twenty-first century. The explosion of sustainability literature necessitates continuous review and synthesis. This targeted review focuses on sustainable rural land use in Latin America and the Caribbean. A systematic selection process yielded 57 articles published between 1980 and 2016. The articles were categorized based on the definition of sustainable land use, measure(s), and their contributions to sphere(s) of knowledge—environment, economic, and/or social. Almost half of the articles were categorized into one sphere of knowledge, one-fifth in two spheres, and the remaining third in all three spheres. Generally, the definitions of sustainability matched the measures of sustainability and the spheres of knowledge. This results in high variation in definitions and measures across studies depending on which sphere or combination of spheres is emphasized. Recent studies are applying complex indicators of sustainability that cross all three spheres, thereby addressing the limitations of using a reductionist approach to measure the complexity of studying of multiple intersecting and overlapping land uses. This important trend will support the comparison of current land-use practices to sustainable goals and facilitate comparison across land uses. The development and incorporation of theoretical frameworks are generally absent from these studies limiting the generalizability across study sites.


Sustainable Sustainability indicators Rural Land use Latin America Caribbean 



The authors would like to thank their respective academic units for support in carrying out interdisciplinary research, which is critical for addressing issues of sustainability. The authors are also appreciative of the support and constructive comments received from the editor and reviewers which has enhanced the quality of this review paper.

Author contributions

CG and ALH equally contributed to the paper through the conception and design of the project, review of the articles, analysis of the data, and writing of the paper; the conception and design of the review were substantially enhanced by the AID; the JJO substantially contributed to the design of the project. This review was edited by all authors.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Geography and Environmental StudiesUniversity of Colorado, Colorado SpringsColorado SpringsUSA
  2. 2.Department of AnthropologyTexas A&M UniversityCollege StationUSA
  3. 3.Department of Management and Conservation of Tropical Natural ResourcesUniversidad Autónoma de YucatánMéridaMexico

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