The HCV Network and High Carbon Stock Approach have released the updated 2023 HCV-HCSA Assessment Manual, the result of learnings from five years of deployment, assessment and assurance. Here we share the main aspects of how this new manual addresses called-for improvements by producers and assessors, responding to make the assessment guidance and assurance process clearer, more efficient and focused, whilst maintaining its robustness and credibility.

Putting robust assessment into context

Globally, there are enormous efforts underway to tackle deforestation and conversion in diverse commodity production settings. In response to the widespread risks for deforestation to occur, business and commodity certification standards, have incorporated methodologies such as the HCV Network’s High Conservation Value Approach and the High Carbon Stock Approach (HCSA) which identify, protect, manage and monitor the most important areas of land to conserve for their environmental and social values.

When these methodologies are deployed, whether as part of certification processes or not, they need to be assessed for their robust application. To enable this to happen, those undertaking the assessments and their assurance need to know what framework of details to assess against.

Understanding the need to work across multiple commodity certification scenarios in diverse geographies across the humid tropics, the integrated HCV-HCSA Assessment Manual was introduced with that in mind. First produced in 2017, an update was needed to reflect learnings from the conduct and assurance of over 110 HCV-HCSA assessments, often in scenarios posing high risks to High Conservation Values – or HCVs, and/or where landowners, buyers, and other users such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil require independent validation of any claims made to protect HCVs or High Carbon Stock (HCS) forest.

Continuous improvement

The 2023 manual update considered inputs from a public consultation which saw over 300 comments from diverse stakeholders. What is most important to note from the outcome of this process and resulting manual version is that the 2023 Manual will increase the efficiency in assessments and assurance processes.

A big plus in this update is that the 2023 Manual provides a single document that gathers all existing requirements - including those from related guidance, to make the assessment process much clearer for both assessors and reviewers.

Other key points at a glance:

  • Clearer scope for assessment and reporting as unnecessary content about processes before/after assessments has been removed
  • Clearer differentiation between assessment and reporting requirements, including a detailed checklist of required contents and quality criteria
  • Firmer focus on content for what an assessment team needs, as the primary audience
  • Adapted reporting requirements, that now do not include preparatory processes, but instead confirm the assessor’s commitment to best practices through a sworn statement
  • Recognition of the existence of complex (i.e., with land conflict) and simpler (i.e., developments with no affected communities) assessment contexts when detailing assessment and reporting requirements

Getting to the right result

We all want assurance processes to be robust, but at the same time we also want to ensure that they do not inadvertently hinder progress towards certification. This review and update was a major opportunity to address the formulation of the manual to address elements which could potentially prolong the assurance process or even cause an assessment to fail, but not necessarily due to the right assessor’s performance-related reasons.

All processes of certification and related assurance can be improved by use and experience, followed by adaption to get them working effectively. So, the 2023 Manual addresses issues that were found as hindrances through assessments and reporting in real life. Here are some examples of issues, how they were leading to assessment report resubmissions, and how they have been addressed.

In conclusion: better quality assurance, better outcomes on the ground where it matters most

Inadequate identification of HCVs and HCS forest can potentially lead to inappropriate development and subsequent negative impacts on local communities, loss of biodiversity, degradation of ecosystem services, and more. So, it matters that we have assessment and assurance methodologies that support delivering better practices on the ground. Other producers, buyers, investors and regulators also build confidence in deploying approaches like the HCV and HCSA approaches, via certification standards for commodities with best practices, if assurance plays its part.

Photo: Kyle Pearce

Thousands more hectares of important environmental values for society can be protected through good assessment and assurance methodologies. We believe the updated 2023 HCV-HCSA Assessment Manual can help with this goal.

For any questions, please contact Ruth Silva.