A look at the licensing scheme helping companies protect nature and communities

By now, more than 1 million hectares of land have been analysed by authorised assessors for values that are critical to nature conservation and sustainable livelihoods, with support from the High Conservation Value Resource Network (HCVRN). More than 40 percent of these need protection as agriculture and other types of development come near to key biodiversity hotspots and indigenous territories. Labelling these areas is no easy task; but since 2014, the HCVRN’s Assessor Licensing Scheme (ALS) has been supporting a growing number of specialists in improving their skills and reports in identifying valuable areas for conservation.

The ALS was created at a time when HCV assessments were falling short of expectations, undermining the work of the community using the HCV approach. The scheme, put together by HCVRN with support from WWF, RSPO, Proforest, and many others, shifted gears by issuing licences to professionals around the world, providing guidance for their field assessments and constant opportunities for learning, by bringing in over 50 experts to provide feedback to the assessment reports. ALS has proven especially useful in situations where agriculture is rapidly expanding, posing higher risks to natural ecosystems and local livelihoods.

Assessors focus on identifying HCVs, the first step in applying the HCV approach, and their licensing process moves from provisionally to fully licensed, based on their performance. “In order to obtain the licence, one had to have been part of a team that had completed three HCV Assessments*,” says Phillip Patton, a Licensed Assessor. “I did this in the DRC while traveling 1800km by boat along the Congo River to three individual plantations over a six-week period”, says Patton. “Each project has its own challenges and each country is unique (especially in Africa). The ALS has been particularly useful in helping to justify the need for proper management and ongoing monitoring of the natural areas within these concessions therefore allowing for follow-up surveys and more project work. The reference documents are extremely useful.”

Who uses the ALS?
Since 2015, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has been one of the main users of the scheme, asking oil palm growers to work with licensed assessors on HCV assessments before starting any new plantations.

Since late 2017, members of the High Carbon Stock Approach (HCSA) also need ALS assessors to run HCV-HCSA assessments. “The High Carbon Stock Approach is working closely with the HCVRN ALS team to ensure that training courses and evaluations of integrated HCV-HCSA assessments are of high quality,” says HCSA Executive Director, Judy Rodrigues. “ALS plays an integral role in providing credible quality assurance of HCSA toolkit implementation under schemes such as the RSPO to ensure certified operations are meeting its no-deforestation requirements and maintaining HCS forests and HCVs.”

“RSPO relies on the ALS to minimise risks that HCVs are lost through conversion of natural ecosystems for expansion of oil palm cultivation, conversions generally considered high-risk scenarios,” explains Anders Lindhe, technical advisor at HCVRN. “Recently RSPO has adopted the High Carbon Stock Approach (HCSA) – widening the scope of areas not for conversion to include most forests except the most degraded ones, not just those that hold HCVs. It is certainly one of the successes of the ALS that the HCSA Steering Group opted for the HCVRN to ensure the quality of HCV-HCSA assessments based on our procedures and experiences of setting up and running the quality assurance mechanism for HCV assessments.”

“Since we launched the ALS in 2014, we have noticed that most sites where HCV and HCV-HCSA studies took place identified presence of RTE species, and sites important for local communities,” says Paulina Villalpando, HCVRN’s executive director. “This means that if Licensed Assessors hadn’t evaluated those sites, critical biodiversity, forests, and local people’s livelihoods could have been damaged or destroyed. Licensed Assessors are really transforming how land development takes place around the world.”

While the RSPO and HCSA are the scheme’s main users, other certification schemes use it too, Anders Lindhe explains. “The concept of ‘high-risk’ depends on the scheme,” he explains, “the Better Cotton Initiative require ALS assessments before any major expansion of cotton crops, while the Rainforest Alliance requires them as safeguards for large scale, on-going operations that might affect landscape biodiversity or the rights of neighbouring local communities.”

But the use of ALS could also be expanded to other sectors. For example, financial institutions could request ALS-led evaluations of plantation projects before investing. “Currently only the oil palm industry uses the ALS,” says Jules Crawshaw, one of the scheme’s first licensed assessors. “I am hoping that other industries managing land (e.g. mining, infrastructure) take on the HCV approach, as well as other commodities (e.g. fish, rubber, sugar, soy, coffee) will adopt the scheme.”

“Together in the ALS, we have shown our capacity for constant improvement and learning, responding to the growing global concern for the future of our planet, as natural ecosystems and biodiversity gradually disappear under the pressure of human consumption and due to the impacts of climate change,” says Ruth Silva, ALS Quality Manager. “I believe ALS participants are helping HCV and HCV-HCS assessments to become a firmly grounded step, anchored on the best available science, pragmatic and effective conservation practices, and on the informed consent of local communities where production takes place. We hope with these assessments, growers, and the certification schemes they support will continue their path towards sustainability, and thus help build a better future”

* Access link below to see how requirements for assessors have changed.

How does the scheme work?
Assessors submit their reports for three rounds of evaluation by a Quality Panel of highly qualified professionals, specialised across many areas, e.g. environmental and social, as well as GIS or remote sensing. Each report evaluation is conducted by two or more QP members, who thoroughly read the report and evaluate its quality against ALS requirements and HCV and HCV-HCSA reference documents. If the panel approves the report, then a public summary published on the HCVRN website. Plantations can go ahead  only if assessments are approved. Assessors can submit reports in Bahasa Indonesia, English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish.

Want to become a licensed assessor? Check more here.

The photo of a botanical survey during an HCV-HCSA assessment was taken by Mike Senior, Licensed Assessor.