Opinion & Analysis

TransparentForests Project – Its value for FSC
Charles Crosthwaite Eyre ( Project Manager) · TransparentForests

The FSC principles and criteria (P&C) and associated indicators require forestry organizations (FOs) to evaluate large quantities of information. This will increase with the introduction of International Generic Indicators (IGIs).



A few examples: FOs need to identify watersheds, commercial and recreational fisheries, landscape quality, and the forest’s contribution to regional biodiversity, recreation and tourism (Indicator 5.5.1L). FOs must assess the environmental impacts of their management activities at the level of the landscape (Indicator 6.1.1L), and features or areas of high conservation value (Principle 9). Even Indigenous People should identify and map their lands or territories (Indicator 3.1.1IP).

Detailed maps are needed to describe the forest resources including protected areas, planned management activities and land ownership (Indicator 7.1.8), and FOs must provide maps identifying compartment boundaries, protected areas and extraction routes (Indicator 5.3.6L).

Certification also requires communication among stakeholders, which in turn requires mechanisms to ensure that Indigenous People participate on an informed basis in land-use planning and decision-making (Indicator 3.1.7).

We have examined an early version of the draft IGIs and identified over 350 occasions (Fig. 1) where the maps and other capabilities from TransparentForests can help provide the information required.


The information needed for annual audits is sometimes difficult to obtain. Certification bodies (CBs) need to assess the performance of FOs against the indicators through inspections based on samples, and rely on maps and information provided by the certificate holder.


Google Maps and Global Forest Watch plan to provide free near real-time satellite-derived maps of most of the world’s forests. With the emergence of social networking, this information will be freely and widely available, and will have an impact on FSC and its stakeholders. In contrast, any attempt to obtain similar information by increasing the intensity and frequency of field inspections will greatly increase costs.

Fortunately, support for FSC by the European Space Agency (ESA) in demonstration and research across tropical, boreal and temperate natural forests and plantations means that FSC is well prepared. In 2006, we completed trials in Brazil, South Africa and the Republic of Congo and again, in 2010, in Russia, South Africa and Sweden. All these trials were fully evaluated and validated by trial partners, providing FSC with detailed analysis of their accuracy and potential value in certification. But maps are of little value without a user-friendly affordable software system in which to view and analyze data. We can now see a lot about what is happening in the forest without even going there.

In 2014, ESA funded a Feasibility Study for the design of a service providing independent maps of management units (MUs) using the latest Earth Observation (EO) sensors and mobile navigation technologies (GPS) within a customized and open-source Geographic Information System (GIS). Stakeholder engagement in the design has been crucial. We formed a Stakeholder Advisory Group to represent the interests of FSC stakeholders. The Conformity Assessment Body (CAB) Forum was formed to provide input from certification bodies. FSC created a project management team and links were established with Accreditation Services International (ASI). Surveys were conducted on stakeholder use and knowledge of the technologies we planned to use; SAG members were interviewed and workshops and webinars used to identify user needs. While some participants questioned aspects of TransparentForests, particularly its cost, there was general consensus that the conceptual service would be valuable to stakeholders.


TransparentForests must be simple to use, and users must not require specialized equipment or training; the service must maximize the use of free-of-charge and open-source data and software; it must increase transparency by giving stakeholders access to land-cover maps and changes, as well as management information that should be made publically available; yet it must also provide a secure environment for stakeholder information and maintain the confidentiality of commercially, socially or environmentally sensitive information.

FSC requires TransparentForests be cost neutral. Cost reductions and efficiency gains across the certification chain and the value of increased audit reliability, transparency and credibility through greater stakeholder engagement, should offset the costs of developing and providing the service. Unfortunately, FSC does not have good information on the precise location, shape or aggregation of the 200 Mha of certified forests, critical information for estimating costs. Using a model based on the boundary data of some 50 Mha of MUs, we estimate that the cost of obtaining the satellite data and operating the system will be about € 0.079/ha, or € 8,000 for an MU of 100,000 ha. Are there any indications that the cost-savings and other benefits will be greater?

TranspartenForests´ impact on increasing efficiency of FSC certification

How might TransparentForests reduce cost? Once boundaries have been loaded, CBs feel that FOs should see efficiency gains in audit preparation and support, and in land management. ASI will benefit from in-field records of CABs’ audit inspections. CBs see potential efficiencies in preparing, planning and executing audits, and welcome the value of independent maps. Calculations of standard requirements (e.g. representative sample areas as a percentage of the total MU; felling within protected areas; annual increase in road construction) can be automated. CBs will be able to generate standard reports and integrate them into both publically available and confidential audit documentation easily.

TransparentForests should increase the quality of audits without increasing the intensity of field inspections, a key limitation in the sampling system used by CBs and ASI. It will increase the transparency and credibility of FSC certification because all stakeholders will have access to maps and change maps, and CBs can instantly identify changes in management boundaries. Using the mobile app on mobile devices, affected and interested stakeholders can provide site-specific feedback on the impacts of forest management. This will facilitate review processes conducted by CBs and ASI, who can quickly assess complaints and recommend action. Forest communities can collaborate among themselves and with the FOs in negotiating and agreeing interests. It will help companies justify FSC certification as part of corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy. All this should help in detecting unacceptable or unreported activities and impacts in the forest which are not known or reported by the FO or stakeholders, especially for large and inaccessible areas where the chances of detecting infractions are lowest.

Critically, for the first time, FSC will be able to say with confidence that it knows exactly where certified forests are, and that it can monitor performance at a global level. TransparentForests will be a powerful tool for monitoring the impacts of FSC certification on forests, people and forest management practices.

FSC believes that TransparentForests provides a real opportunity to increase the quality and standard of certification without increasing conventional audits costs. With continued financial support from the ESA, the project has now moved to the Demonstration Phase in which we will finalize the service specification, build the software this year, and carry out trials in certified forests in the Republic of Congo, Canada, South Africa, Russia, Mexico, Sweden, the USA and the UK in 2015. TransparentForests, which is being developed exclusively for FSC, should become operational during 2016.

You are invited to contribute to TransparentForests design and development by coming to the TransparentForests Side Meeting at 1400 hrs on Wednesday 10 September, or contact:

  • Tim Synnott (timsynnott@prodigy.net.mx)
  • Charles Crosthwaite Eyre (charles.eyre@eyreconsulting.co.uk)

For more information, see:

http://artes-apps.esa.int/projects/transparentforests or https://ic.fsc.org/transparent-forests.552.htm