International: A user-friendly tool for effective monitoring and management of forest conservation set-asides in oil palm landscapes

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Zoology


Tropical forest ecosystems are at risk of clearance for agricultural expansion and the palm oil industry is a key driver of deforestation across the tropics. To tackle this, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification standard requires oil palm growers to set aside and manage forests within their plantations. However, these sites are often managed by companies or smallholder groups that have limited access to knowledge of forest ecology or conservation. A lack of guidance about how to monitor and manage these areas means that the full conservation potential of these policies is not currently being realised.

Assessing and monitoring the quality of forest set asides is vital for applying appropriate management practices. However, existing methods for forest assessment are time-consuming, expensive and/ or require specialist expertise. As a result, monitoring of these forests is often done poorly, inconsistently, or not at all. Small farmers may be prohibited entirely from participating in certification schemes because of the burdens of management and monitoring. Thus, oil palm growers require a robust, inexpensive, quick and easy tool for monitoring forest quality and restoration efforts. They also need the knowledge to effectively interpret and act on the results of monitoring. The RSPO will benefit from a consistent, standardised method which will enable better auditing and assessment of the impact of certification on forest conservation.

NERC-funded research has huge potential to inform the development of simplified conservation tools. As part of PI JML's NERC Knowledge Exchange fellowship we used data on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning to develop and test a Forest Integrity Assessment (FIA) survey tool for SE Asian forest. Relying only on yes-no answers, with no need for expensive equipment, measurements or taxonomic identification, the survey results of volunteers ranging from post-doctoral researchers to plantation managers revealed strong correlations with a variety of scientific forest quality metrics. These results, combined with positive feedback from non-specialist users of the survey, indicates that the FIA tool is ideal for overcoming the gap between policy and effective implementation.

This project aims to convert the tool from its current paper form to a dynamic smartphone application. The benefits of this include 1) in-app training to improve accuracy, 2) the ability to quickly digitally record and store survey results, 3) improved portability and efficiency in the field, 4) integrated GPS mapping, 5) automated analysis of results 5) in-built decision-support to enable adaptive management.

Digitalisation will provide opportunities to build in further capabilities such as remote sensed information, machine learning, long-term storage, archiving and the ability to expand the product for different regions and sectors. These benefits will transform the usability of the FIA tool, enabling widespread uptake and delivering high quality environmental management.

A robust, evidence-based approach to conservation is necessary to ensure the best outcomes for conservation in vulnerable fragmented forest landscapes. However, the vast body of academic knowledge to inform the development of these approaches is largely inaccessible to end-users. The academic community is thus best placed to deliver this project, in close partnership with the key users of the tool, and in doing so build capacity in forest ecology and conservation expertise within the oil palm industry. Our partners include the RSPO certification standard, one of the largest oil palm growers globally, third sector organisations who work with growers and smallholders to implement sustainable practices, and key academic institutions. This consortium ensures that the tool will be incorporated into policy and guidance at the highest levels, be fit for purpose on the ground, and be supported by the latest world class science.

Planned Impact

End-user Beneficiaries:

RSPO- The most widely recognised certification standard for palm oil production. The RSPO is a multi-sectoral organisation, with representatives across the palm oil supply chain. It has >3000 members in 89 countries with >3.45 million ha of oil palm plantations RSPO certified across SE Asia, Africa and Latin America. One of RSPO's three pillars of impact is to "conserve, protect & enhance ecosystems". Its policy on environmental responsibility requires that High Conservation Value (HCV) Areas are "maintained and enhanced" within oil palm plantations, but processes and guidance for growers are currently lacking. Maintaining credibility as a certification standard is vital to the success of the RSPO and its member companies. This tool will enable consistent and evidence-based implementation for effective HCV management and monitoring activities. It also has the potential to provide crucial data that can assist RSPO in measuring and improving the impacts of its standards. Impact assessment is a requirement that RSPO needs to fulfill as a member of the global membership association for sustainability standards (ISEAL Alliance, see RSPO support letter).

SMALLHOLDERS- Certification can improve livelihoods of smallholders through improved yields and market access but is often prohibitively complex and expensive. Even when supported by companies and NGOs, there is a lack of capacity to fulfil technical aspects of sustainability commitments. Smallholders make up ~40% of palm oil production and there are efforts to increase levels of certification among this group. This tool will empower smallholders to engage with the conservation process and to easily understand, monitor and manage forest areas to meet RSPO commitments and ensure that forests continue to support smallholder livelihoods. Furthermore, by helping them map forest areas and demonstrate their protection - the tool could help smallholders access funds that provide compensation for forest conservation. (See support letter from smallholder liaison partner, Wild Asia)

LARGE GROWERS- Large RSPO member companies are tasked with maintaining and enhancing conservation set-asides but a lack of access to specialist conservation knowledge, combined with difficulties in justifying diverting resources to non-profit-making conservation activities, means set-asides are often not managed effectively. This tool will provide efficient and accessible guidance to enable the implementation of sustainability commitments and deliver targeted environmental management while building in-house capacity in conservation expertise. (See support letter from our large grower partner, GAR)

THIRD SECTOR- Many NGOs and social-enterprises work with the oil palm industry to improve sustainability standards. This tool will support their activities in conservation, training and facilitating smallholder certification by providing a simple, standardised tool that can be used as an educational aid as well as to directly manage and monitor forests, and has the potential to link to digitally integrate with other land planning and assessment tools and systems (See support letters from Proforest, HVCRN and Wild Asia).

LOCAL COMMUNITIES- Local communities benefit from proximity to healthy, functioning forests through protection of soil and water and other forest resources that support their livelihoods. The FIA tool will enable the maintenance and enhancement of natural forest areas in oil palm dominated landscapes, and will enable community participation in forest management and monitoring (see support letter from GAR).

WIDER IMPACT- This project will focus on the oil palm sector in SE Asia as a testbed, but our tool has potential to be used widely and we will maximise our reach across the tropics and sectors through our project partners, RSPO, HCV Resource Network and Proforest, ensuring our product is adaptable for future expansion.


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