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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Description Research finding: We found that our method of simplified forest monitoring correlates strongly with scientific metrics including carbon stock, vegetation structure and biodiversity in SE Asian lowland dipterocarp rainforest. This will enable users such as the palm oil industry, NGOs and government projects to robustly monitor forest set-asides and conservation areas, enabling better management, ability to meet auditing criteria and boost biodiversity, carbon stocks and other ecosystem services from forest habitat, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Non-research findings: We developed a smartphone application for monitoring forest quality. It can also be used effectively by non-experts and end-users involved in field trials reported that it was easy to use, and that it would improve efficiency and data management. This will enable a diverse range of users in DAC listed countries in SE Asia to effectively standardise, organise and manage their monitoring procedures and data.

The management decision support tool built into the app will facilitate effective adaptive management based on monitoring results.
Exploitation Route This is an innovation project and we hope that the FIA smartphone tool will be used widely in SE Asia and beyond by industry government and NGOs to better monitor and manage tropical forest set-asides and conservation and restoration areas. This will have benefits for businesses to meet sustainability standards and access certification, and will provide benefits in terms of biodiversity, carbon storage and ecosystem service provision supported by healthy forests.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description 1. The FIA smartphone app is being developed to be used by a wide range of people and organisations involved in forest monitoring, particularly those without the expertise or resources to conduct detailed scientific monitoring. The tool is still in the final stages of development but is already being included in the RSPO's Malaysian National interpretation for managing and monitoring High Conservation Value areas. We are also trialling the FIA app as a biodiversity monitoring tool in the Kuamut Rainforest Conservation Project, which aims to finance the protection of 83,391ha in Sabah, Malaysia through carbon offset credits with project partner SEARRP, and two Indonesian oil palm companies are trialling the tool to monitor biodiversity in their High Conservation value forest set-asides. 2. The project outcomes contribute to the following SDGs: Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture, because it will enable effective implementation Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil certification standards by palm oil growers in SE Asia through the improvement of management and monitoring of set-asides. Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts, through maintenance and enhancement of forest carbon stocks by effective management and monitoring of forests Goal 15: Sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, halt biodiversity loss- by improving capacity for a wide range of users to manage and monitor forests regardless of prior knowledge of forestry or forest ecology and facilitate effective decision making for forest management. 3. Gender equality Our published analysis of survey effectiveness found that gender did not affect the way in which volunteers answered the survey, implying there are no gender-based barriers to using the tool. We have also trialled the smart phone app with gender-balanced user groups and ensured workshops included sufficient representation from both genders. We have also ensured that images used in the app and training materials represent diversity of gender and ethnicity. The project team is female led, and a gender-balanced pool of experts have been drawn on to input to the app development. Gender relevant health and safety issues, particularly relating to working in the field and travelling abroad were carefully considered in health and safety risk assessments for the project team.
First Year Of Impact 2022
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Description inclusion of FIA tool into RSPO Malaysia National interpretation for management and monitoring HCV areas
Geographic Reach Asia 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
Impact The FIA tool has been included as a recommended tool for monitoring forest set-asides in RSPO plantations in the revised Malaysian National Interpretation for managing High Conservation Value areas. We expect this to greatly encourage uptake once the product is released in Malaysia.
Description University of Oxford UKRI Covid 19 extension grant
Amount £9,994 (GBP)
Organisation University of Oxford 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2021 
End 06/2021
Description Golden Agri Resources user group (included in application) 
Organisation Golden Agri-Resources
Country Singapore 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution We ran a workshop introducing the FIA tool, in 2020 in which GAR participated. The company hope to use the FIA in their operations in Indonesia so improve management and monitoring of forest-set asides.
Collaborator Contribution GAR ran field trials of the app in their plantations in Indonesia, and provided useful insights for improvements which we have incorporated into the app features. They attended the workshop.
Impact Improvements to app features and usability. They hope to incorporate the tool into their monitoring procedures.
Start Year 2020
Description RSPO- original application 
Organisation Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil
Country Malaysia 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution The software we are developing will help RSPO members to effectively monitor their conservation areas. It will allow RSPO to track the compliance with, and impact of their standards.
Collaborator Contribution RSPO have provided insight into the practical context, auditing requirements and usability of the tool and attended the workshop.
Impact The FIA tool has been listed as a monitoring tool in the Malaysian interpretation of the RSPO Principles and Criteria.
Start Year 2020
Description SEARRP partnership- original application 
Organisation South East Asia Rainforest Research Programme (SEARRP)
Country Malaysia 
Sector Multiple 
PI Contribution We have been co-developing the app with the aim of using it in SEARRP projects in Sabah, Malaysia. SEARRP has used the FIA prototype for education and training in country.
Collaborator Contribution SEARRP provided the workshop venue and support for translation of the app to local languages as well as insight into usability of the app and providing links to potential users.
Impact improvements to app features and usability.
Start Year 2020
Title Forest Integrity Assessment tool 
Description A smartphone application and supporting website for assessing and monitoring the quality of tropical forest, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia. The prototype is in the final stages of development and we are looking at licensing options. The aim is for the tool to be used by companies (especially oil palm companies) who must manage and monitor conservation set-asides, also for NGO, community and government forest restoration and conservation programmes, and as potential to compliment carbon accounting monitoring and as an educational tool. 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2022 
Impact Licensing options under discussion currently. 
Description Management and monitoring workshop with oil palm company 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact We ran a 5 day workshop of ~50 participants with a large Indonesian oil palm company, discussing their management and monitoring procedures for conservation set-asides across their 14 plantation estates in Sumatra and Kalimantan, Indonesia. We trialled the FIA smartphone app in the field as part of the workshop. As a result the company are revising and updating the M&M procedures, particularly in terms of data management and consistency and standardisation of data collection to scientific standards. We also jointly put together a set of recommendations for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil Biodiversity and high conservation Value working group (~20 people) on guidelines for effective biodiversity monitoring as a result of the workshop leading to much wider reach across the RSPO membership.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description Meetings with WWF, ZSL Proforest, RSPO, HCVRN 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact The meetings were to discuss integration of the FIA tool with existing policy guidelines, methodologies and forest monitoring tools and initiatives. As a result, the FIA tool is being included as a recommended forest management tool in the RSPO (Roundtable on sustainable palm oil) Malaysian National Interpretation. Discussions are continuing with WWF and ZSL about integration with their forest and conservation monitoring platforms.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020,2021
Description Meetings with potential users 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I conducted meetings with potential users of the app, including Lestari Capital, a company who links markets with carbon and biodiversity offset projects in SE Asia, RSPO, Yayasan Hasanah (A malaysian foundation supporting sustainability and conservatin in the region), High Conservation Value Network, Proforest, SEARRP and several oil palm companies, to discuss the potential market for the FIA app, and opportunities for roll out, with very positive feedback. Discussions about licensing and rollout are ongoing.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021,2022
Description Project initiation workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact A workshop was delivered in Sabah, Borneo with key potential users of the FIA smart phone app we are developing, to understand user needs. Oil palm companies, NGOs, Malaysian government representatives, conservation practitioners and other attended the event. The generated significant interest in the tool and offers to help in testing and trialling the tool, as well as vital input into tool development which will aid uptake of the finished product by a range of users. As a result of connections made during the workshop we were able to find a new partner to test the tool after one of our original project partners had to drop out citing capacity issues.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil Technical Committee for Principles and Criteria review 2022 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact The RSPO reviews is principles and criteria for sustainability every 5 years. I am part of the technical committee comprising experts, NGOs, growers and consultants, (~24 members including from Malaysia, Indonesia and latin America- specific numbers from DAC listed countries not known) advising on wording, new scientific advancements to improve sustainability of the palm oil sector. I was able to contribute insights into management and monitoring of conservation set-asides, and identification of important conservation areas.
RSPO is based in Malaysia, and has members internationally across oil palm growing regions including Latin America, Africa and SE Asia.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022