Conservation of land resources is a promising strategy for sustainable agricultural intensification in order to adapt dryland farming systems to climate, market and other stresses. At a local level, factors that drive the adoption of conservation measures operate and interact in specific ways. Linking our knowledge of the local specifications of these drivers to regional and global patterns of vulnerability can significantly enhance our understanding of land-based adaptation to global change. However, the factors that influence the adoption of conservation practices remain actively debated. Therefore, this study presents a meta-analysis of case studies that investigate the adoption of soil and water conservation measures, as an important approach to resource conservation. Synthesising 63 adoption cases in the drylands of western Africa, this meta-analysis reveals a multitude of factors that drive the adoption of soil and water conservation practices. The drivers differ strongly between particular practices and methods of analysis used in the case studies. Contributing to the broader debate on resource conservation, the findings highlight the adoption of soil and water conservation measures as an emergent property of farming systems. They demonstrate the need to better understand the socio-ecological foundation of adoption and the pathways along which adoption evolves in space and time. This study concludes with methodological principles to advance future research on the factors that drive the adoption of soil and water conservation measures as a pre-requisite of improving land-based adaptation efforts.