Certifying the services of forests' ecosystems

Forests are already certified for the quality of their wood, amongst other things. A new study is looking at whether ecosystem services can be included in certification, says Sini Savilaakso


Led by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an independent NGO promoting the responsible management of the world’s forests, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and other partners have been working together to understand how the services provided by forest ecosystems can be included in the FSC’s certification scheme. The project, which is funded by the Global Environment Fund through the United Nations Environment Programme, has been conducting research in Chile, Nepal, Viet Nam and Indonesia.

ForCESAccording to Dr Sini Savilaakso of CIFOR, who was presenting at the 6th Annual International Ecosystem Services Partnership conference in Bali, Indonesia, 26–30 August 2013, the project aims to improve and promote sustainable forest management for ecosystem services and develop indicators for the services. CIFOR has finished designing the impact evaluation methodology and related indicators to be tested and all the countries will soon begin to monitor.

The project’s research sites in Viet Nam—Vinh Tu in Quang Tri province and Huong Son in Ha Tinh province—were presented as an example of the challenges faced by those implementing the project (in this case, Que Anh Vu Tinh, the project manager for Viet Nam and co-author of the conference presentation, and other team members from SNV Viet Nam).

At Vinh Tu, smallholding farmers are involved with 1000 ha of forests, of which 450 ha are natural forests and the rest are Acacia plantations. Of the latter, 250 ha were awarded certification for responsible management by the FSC in 2012. The sandy soils of the area pointed to one important service provided by the forests: erosion control and, by default, maintaining water quality in the watershed.

Ha Tinh presents a different picture, with the area dominated by a state-owned forestry company, Huong Son, that has no certification. Lowland and montane forests cover the area of around 38 000 ha, which is equally divided between production and protection categories of forest. In such an environment, carbon storage was an obvious service provided by the ecosystem.

The challenge for the researchers was the lack of a clear, common, international vision for monitoring forest ecosystem services. When the concept was first aired, it was decided by the FSC that, rather than develop singlehandedly a set of guidelines for certification that would be applicable across the globe, more innovation would be fostered if the pilot sites had free rein to try different approaches. However, this approach wasn’t particularly successful and so the FSC introduced four business approaches.. The first is ‘forest stewardship only’, where the knowledge that a forest is managed according to the FSC’s forest stewardship standard is enough and, hence, the provision of ecosystem services is based on trust. The second approach is ‘forest stewardship and monitoring of the provision of ecosystem services’. The third approach is based on performance, where as well as forest stewardship and monitoring the ecosystem services are properly accounted and ‘additionality’ and ‘leakage’ are addressed. In the fourth approach, a reward mechanism for the provision of ecosystem services is included in addition to the aspects incorporated in the third..

However, questions remain, such as at what scale should certification of ecosystem services take place? Should it take place at  the level of forest management units ? Or should certification boundaries be considered at the size of an entire landscape? As yet, this hasn’t been defined by the FSC and, consequently, this grey area will affect the type of monitoring and indicators that can be deployed. How to address ‘leakage’ and ‘additionality’ in a certification scheme in a feasible way is also critical. ‘Additionality’ means what might have happened if the certification hadn’t occurred. ‘Leakage’ means that even whilst a particular forest might be certified as well managed, the causes of the former poor management might shift to another site. As such, these two aspects need careful consideration if any certification is to reach its objective of ensuring the provision of high-quality forest ecosystem services

In the Vietnamese context, language was a challenge, specifically, the term ‘ecosystem’ rather than ‘environmental’ in the context of the services provided, because the latter is used in Government legislation. It wasn’t clear in Viet Nam whether an ‘ecosystem’ and an ‘environment’ were the same thing, especially in policymakers’ offices. Would payments or rewards be made if the terminology was different?

Further, the whole concept of certification is somewhat of a challenge. Compared to Huong Son, the people at the Vinh Tu site are more familiar with certification because some of the households in the community already share certification for their community-managed forest area. However, in Huong Son, the lower understanding of certification  is to some extent alleviated by the funds at the company’s disposal to work towards certification, which it desires to gain in the future. Both sites share the challenge to integrate ecosystem services into forest management plans but who would benefit from monitoring the management of the services? For Huong Son, there is clear demand because they want to sell the carbon to voluntary markets. But in Vinh Tu, the community is the one that benefits, so who should do the monitoring and how should the workload be shared? Another vitally important question for the team to try and answer is how to sustain the work after the research project ends?

Through this process of facing these considerable challenges and looking for solutions to them, the team cannot emphasise enough that building the capacity of the people at both sites will be the key to the project’s success; it has to be an integral part of learning and sharing knowledge uncovered during the project if they are to find solutions that will better support the services that forest ecosystems provide to humanity.


Edited by Robert Finlayson


More information

Forest Certification for Ecosystem Services


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The conference and this work have been supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.


Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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