New sustainable forestry standard puts smallholders front and center

Scientists and practitioners share development process at Forest Stewardship Council conference
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Forest test to evaluate draft FSC smallholder standard with rubber farmers in Thailand. Photo by Michael Brady/CIFOR-ICRAF

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Smallholders play a critical role in managing our planet’s forests. But until recently, certifications recognizing good forest management have largely been out of most smallholders’ reach, for a variety of reasons – including cost, accessibility, relevance, capacity and more.

To address this challenge, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), through its New Approaches Project and its Asia-Pacific Regional Office, has developed and tested a new simplified standard that’s designed with smallholders in mind.

“We’re trying to find alternate ways to demonstrate conformity,” said Thesis Budiarto, Policy Manager for FSC Asia Pacific, during a session on the topic at the FSC’s General Assembly for 2021–2022 on 10 October. “We also want to reduce the administrative burden, because for most smallholders it’s quite difficult for them to create complex reports.”

The standard has been piloted in four countries – India, Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia – which between them are home to about 550 million smallholder foresters.

“It’s been developed for several reasons,” said Keith Moore, the standard’s main drafter. “One is to bring benefits to the smallholders; the second is to improve the management of those smallholders’ forests; and the third is to bring the huge volume of what they produce into the FSC value chain.”

The certification applies to smallholders who own or manage individual units – plantations, woodlots, orchards, agroforestry, and blocks in strip form – of less than 20 hectares.

“We spent a lot of time trying to define what we meant by smallholders and what forest types were included,” said Michael Brady, the facilitator of the process and a principal scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research – World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF). “What was not included is natural forests owned by smallholders, or short-rotation agricultural crops, which are primarily grown while the canopy is still open.”

The team developed the standard systematically, by addressing each of the ten FSC principles and their criteria and International Generic Indicators (IGIs) and then working out where these criteria and indicators could be adapted or omitted to simplify the process and reflect the low risk and limited capacity of smallholders.

“The [original] IGIs are extremely wordy,” said Moore. “They’re complicated… because they were written to address a level of risk that is higher than smallholders’ by definition. We started from a point of simplification: the [new IGIs] were very much drafted to address the capacity, size, needs and amount of money that a smallholder might have to put into this.”

They managed to reduce the number of International Generic Indicators (IGIs) required for certification from 211 to 145, and simplified each of those.

They then forest-tested the standard in the four countries. “The aim was to assess the practical implementation of the draft standard,” said Brady, “looking at features such as clarity of the indicators, auditability, availability, and ability to generate information required to meet the indicators; the utility of guidance and self-assessment checklists for the standard; and the broader applicability for smallholders within the country context.”

Hartono Prabowo, FSC’s Country Manager for Indonesia, shared that the new standard was launched in that country in June. “We’re happy because many people have shown interest in the new standards – particularly smallholders, and also businesses and factories that source from smallholders,” he said. He also pointed out the largely untapped potential for smallholder certification in the country, which has around 34.8 million hectares of private forest, and in which the Ministry of Environment and Forestry is allocating 12.7 million hectares of state forest for smallholder management. As of now, just 24,789 hectares of smallholder-managed forest is certified – but plenty more is possible with this new process, said Prabowo.

Once the standard is adopted at country level, “we’re hoping there will be lots of new certifications for smallholders in the four countries,” said Budiarto. “With [the new standard] they should be able to comply with all the requirements.” However, he also emphasized that there is “still improvement that can be done, especially for those [countries] that have already been approved, to make sure there is no misleading information.”

The certification also offers an important opportunity for timber buyers to support sustainable small-scale management and meet environmental and social responsibility targets and expectations. Danang Raditya, a forestry manager at global furniture corporation IKEA – which was also involved in developing the standard – shared how the process of making certification more accessible aligns well with the company’s ability to meet its own sustainable sourcing targets. “It’s great to have [this standard] ready to implement,” said Raditya. “I think it’s a great opportunity for smallholders, and for the company. Looking forward, we still want to see on the ground that it’s proven to be more inclusive and feasible for smallholders – as well as more affordable.”

Moore highlighted that, while the new standard is simpler than its predecessor, the quality and reliability is still extremely high. “It followed the normative process: it was based on adapting IGI, and not trying to redo criteria,” he said. “I would say it was a vigorous adaptation and interpretation; and I think it was very successful. I think we addressed many of the issues that came up in all four countries that we worked in, and we’ve gained an adapted, modified, simplified standard that will soon be available for smallholders across this region.”

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