Adapting a participatory tool to measure forest biodiversity and carbon stock

More than a quarter of the world’s forests are managed by indigenous peoples, local communities and smallholder forest communities. To address the climate and biodiversity crises, we must urgently scale up Nature-Based Solutions that support forest communities to effectively protect and sustainably manage their forests, according to their local customs and wisdom.

A solution for some forest communities is to access incentive systems such as through carbon-linked finance, or the now rapidly evolving biodiversity credits. However, accessing these incentives systems requires data – and collecting data has a cost. For forest communities, deciding whether it is worth their while to access carbon-linked finance that supports the sustainable management and restoration of their forests, will in part depend upon the cost of data collection.

Cost-efficiency is particularly critical in community-based improved forest management (IFM) projects, due to the relatively smaller carbon gains of IFM to maintain and enhance existing forests – versus projects such as replanting, combined with the often small area of community forests. The cost of traditional forest inventory approaches to measure carbon will simply outweigh the potential benefits that could be earned.

These traditional methods - or the alternative of satellite imagery - also suffer from excluding communities owning the process of data collection to inform their decision-making. The more oversight and involvement a forest community has in assessing the condition of their forests, the more informed and inclusive their decision-making can be on how to manage their forests.

To find a cost-efficient and participatory solution to measure forest carbon and biodiversity, the High Conservation Value (HCV) Network, the Rainforest Alliance and WWF began piloting and field testing an existing forest monitoring tool - the Forest Integrity Assessment tool - in southern Cameroon, which is part of the tri-national Dja-Odzala-Minkebe (Tridom) Landscape.

The Forest Integrity Assessment (FIA) tool is a participatory tool for non-experts to measure the biodiversity condition of natural forests. With initial support from IKEA, the tool was developed by the HCV Network several years ago in collaboration with WWF. It has already been widely deployed in WWF projects globally, including with small enterprise forest managers to identify and manage High Conservation Values to achieve Forest Stewardship Council certification.

Using non-technical indicators to score the ecological condition of forests, FIA provides a bridge between the extensive traditional knowledge held by forest communities and a scientifically robust metric of forest biodiversity. In addition, by linking data on biodiversity and threats, it is particularly helpful for land managers to know if actions to manage threats are having the desired positive impact on the forest biodiversity.

Two birds with one stone - FIA to measure both biodiversity and carbon

Studies in the lowland forests of Southeast Asia have demonstrated a solid relationship between FIA results and measures of above-ground forest carbon stock. The potential to add carbon measurement to a tried and tested biodiversity methodology was a really promising development.

‘We realised this could open doors for forest communities to access a broader suite of incentives to maintain and enhance their forests. This led us to start working with two of our member organisations, the WWF and the Rainforest Alliance Forest program, who also saw the potential for this to meet criteria they were looking for in their local field programs with forest communities in southern Cameroon’. Olivia Scholtz from the HCV Network Secretariat.
Photo credit: WWF Cameroon.

Setting the scene in Southern Cameroon

A vast forested landscape and priority conservation landscape known as the Tridom is the backdrop to the pilot. The Tridom transboundary landscape – an area almost the size of Senegal – cuts across southern Cameroon, and the northern corners of Gabon and the Republic of Congo. Tridom is also home to spectacular but threatened wildlife, including elephants, chimpanzees and gorillas.

Here the local communities depend on their forest for medicines, food, firewood and building materials for their houses. For many communities they make a modest living from harvesting and selling some trees, yet they are also looking at other opportunities to secure additional income, such as expanding cocoa.

Illegal logging, agricultural expansion, poaching and mining threaten these forest areas, potentially leading to permanent degradation or loss. These activities also affect the ecosystem services they provide – not least carbon storage – and put pressure on the sustainability of the forest resources the communities depend upon to meet their livelihood, cultural and other needs.

Both the WWF and the Rainforest Alliance have long-term engagement in this landscape to support communities to sustainably manage and protect their forests.

Photo credit: WWF Cameroon.

Adapting the FIA tool to the region

To test the robustness of the FIA tool, the Rainforest Alliance worked with HCV Network and local forestry experts in Cameroon to collect field-level data of carbon stock using a traditional approach of forest inventory plots and allometric equations, and compared this against FIA data collected at the same sample points. The results showed a solid relationship, with FIA data estimating the above-ground forest carbon to an accuracy of 70%. According to Olivia from HCV Network ‘Calibrating FIA to measure forest carbon stock in central Africa was a huge stress test. The structure and carbon densities of central African forests are quite different from those of the Americas, and Southeast Asia. We’ve learnt a lot from this pilot in Cameroon and are confident improvements in the accuracy levels can be made in the future.’ While this level of accuracy may not be sufficient for carbon measures needed to access voluntary carbon markets, it can still be used to make claims and report on change in forest carbon stock over time for multi-stakeholder programs like the Rainforest Alliance’s Forest Allies program.

‘Monitoring carbon in community forests is very costly and challenging due to their rather small size and the small carbon variation of natural forests when well managed. We were also looking for a tool that was participatory in nature, to put communities at the center of the management of their forests. The Forest Integrity Assessment tool met these criteria, while being simple, cost-effective and, as we have now demonstrated, credible. It further enables us to evaluate, in one survey, the status of both biodiversity and carbon, minimising the cost of collecting and analysing data.’ Emmanuelle Bérenger, Forest Lead at the Rainforest Alliance.

Deploying FIA with the communities

Consequent to these promising results, WWF convened a train-the-trainer workshop. Facilitated by the HCV Network, the workshop brought together the knowledge and experience of participants from WWF and the Rainforest Alliance field programs and its local partner SAPED, as well as forestry experts from local universities and forestry institutions, to create a draft procedure manual – adapted for southern Cameroon – to measure biodiversity and carbon using FIA.

This laid the foundation for forestry experts and SAPED to introduce the adapted FIA procedure, as they worked with Community Forests to update their forest management plans. With support from the Rainforest Alliance, Gervais and his team from SAPED integrated FIA into training and data collection with communities. The FIA results allowed the community to make informed decisions on which sectors to harvest for timber, as well as the need to more actively control illegal timber harvesting in their forests. As a simple and accessible monitoring methodology, participants also felt more capable of meeting the regulatory requirement that Community Forest members monitor their forests.

Photo credit: WWF Cameroon.

The communities really appreciated the participatory aspect of the tool and specifically the fact that they were involved in the data collection.

‘FIA is an innovation for Community Forestry in Cameroon, which needs a new way of doing forestry that goes beyond harvesting timber and non-timber forest products. FIA helps open the door to biodiversity conservation and carbon stock within community forestry, and it helps the forest communities actively participate in forest management rather than being sidelined as observers due to exclusivity and difficulty in data management and use. Finally, given the fact that FIA is a participatory tool, it provides accurate field information which will lead the entity managing the Community Forest to take informed management decisions based on evidence coming from the field’. Gervais Nsibeuweula, Executive Director at SAPED, and who has been working in the community forestry sector in Cameroon for over a decade.
Photo credit: SAPED.
‘Collecting forest management data in newly allocated forest areas using the FIA tool allows community forest managers to become aware of the state of biodiversity and threats faced by the forest. This helps them propose more realistic management measures, such as good delimitation of five-year management blocks and their allocation as areas of restoration, protection and conservation of species and habitats, with a view to guaranteeing sustainable management of the community forest.’ Alphonse Ngniado, Forest and Climate Coordinator with WWF Cameroon, and who has been working with forest communities in Cameroon for over two decades.

What’s next to scale up impact

The adapted FIA procedure manual for Cameroon will shortly be published, and pilots will continue in southern Cameroon as the Rainforest Alliance and WWF plan to roll out and further embed FIA when updating Community Forest management plans. Following the presentation of the work at the COMIFAC – Central Africa Initiatives Pavilion of COP 28 in Dubai, there is potential to leverage the benefits of this work for communities and forest biodiversity through regional and national institutions and platforms of the Congo Basin.

FIA has already been adapted to the natural forests of several regions from Scandinavia, the forests of Southeast Asia and Latin America. The HCV Network wants to build on this work, by making the adaptations more accessible to Community Forest projects, adding the carbon measurement, and building a tech-based support-platform for FIA that works for communities.  

Briefing Note on FIA

Download here a briefing note that gives an overview of the Forest Integrity Assessment Tool and gives two examples of how FIA has been used for biodiversity and carbon monitoring.

Contact us

If you would like to find out more about FIA, and how it could help you with HCV Management and Monitoring and Community-Based Nature Solutions, email us at


This work has been possible through the generous support of: Rainforest Alliance, P&G and Kingfisher through the Rainforest Alliance initiative Forest Allies, WWF.