TransparentForests (FS)

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Forest products such as paper, wood and composite materials are used in everything from construction to news distribution and energy generation, yet they may represent considerable environmental and social impacts. Today, knowing the origin and life cycle of product constituents is important for both retailers and consumers. Major corporations do not like to be associated with poor forest management: it is bad for business and for customer relations. 

Independent certification of raw materials provides manufacturers with confidence about their environmental and social integrity. The international standards developed by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) provide a globally accepted route to forest product certification. It is a continuous challenge to make sure forestry certification processes remain efficient, effective and transparent. 

The TransparentForests project builds on previous ESA Earth Observation Market Development (EOMD) activities with FSC. The team has now completed the Feasibility Study for a GIS based service that will better facilitate the certifier’s field inspection process and provide a centralized web-accessible database with controlled access for all stakeholders. It will combine accurately time-tagged optical and radar satellite imagery (at medium to high resolution) with geo-referenced in-situ forest management data to improve transparency and stakeholder engagement.

The overall objective of the project is to prove the viability and sustainability of an integrated software package and associated services aimed at delivering an independent source of data to support an improved and more cost effective forest certification. This will be based on the integration of Earth Observation (EO) and navigation technologies (GNSS) for in-situ sampling within an open source Geographic Information System (GIS) environment. The viability of TransparentForests will be assessed from technical, operational and financial perspectives.

Users and their needs

Umbrella user is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Other users are FSC’s accreditation body Accreditation Standards International, the Certification Bodies and the Certification Bodies’ clients, the Forestry Organisations. 

FSC stakeholders such as ENGOs (e.g. WWF and Greenpeace) and forest communities will also be granted access to the service platform.

FSC forest management certification now certifies over 150 million hectares of temperate, tropical and boreal forests by on-site evaluation the standard of forest management.  The recent rapid expansion in area certified has led to concerns about quality. For large scale and complex forests, current certification methodologies provide no spatial information on the range of forests set within the broader context of land use planning, especially where the landscape concerned is highly heterogeneous. This is a particular problem in mega forest operations which often cover millions of hectares, where physical access to the more remote and inaccessible operational areas for inspections teams is limited by the level of audit fee. In addition, the availability of temporally and spatially accurate data and records vary from audit to audit. Furthermore, audit teams rely almost exclusively on data and information provided by the forest management and auditors have little opportunity to access data independently. 

FSC needs to mitigate the risks associated to conventional certification and has set-out to further raise its standards, increasing transparency, stakeholder confidence and, consequently, brand value. FSC will adopt technological solutions where applicable and cost-beneficial.  

Service/ system concept

The diagram above presents a high-level representation of the TF system / service architecture. The TF Online Service lies at the centre of the architecture, acts as a central data store and interacts with three main interfaces with the users as well as the EO Product Provider. Two space assets are used by TF: Earth Observation and Satellite Positioning. 

TF  provides  three  interfaces  for  users:   TF  Web,  TF Desktop  and  TF  Mobile.  TF  Web  is  a  WebGIS application, accessed through the user’s web browser and allowing (amongst other things) FOs to upload management data, CBs to plan audits and Others to view data and make comments. 

Although TF Web provides functionality for users to upload spatial (vector) datasets, some will find this more efficient using their GIS of choice. TF Desktop therefore provides an interface allowing users to provide and retrieve spatial datasets directly from their GIS. 

EO products are used heavily by CBs when planning / performing audits. EO Products are requested by the user and generated on-demand by the EO Product Provider. Once available, the generated EO Products will be stored on the TF server. 

TF Mobile provides an interface for users (particularly CBs) located in the field. TF Mobile allows users to visualise their position in the context of TF EO & vector datasets, comments, notes and other related data.   It  also  provides  a  simple  interface  for  capturing and  geo-referencing  field  information  (e.g. photos or comments). 

The connection between TF Mobile and the central TF Service is shown as a broken line as TF Mobile will not require an internet connection while operating in the field. It will instead cache any required data before leaving for the field (when network connectivity is available) and synchronise any edits / new field data again on returning.

Space Added Value

Earth Observation

To provide an independent source of temporally and spatially accurate data (e.g. land use and land use changes across the audit period) to support better certification based on both Medium and High Resolution Remote Sensing data sourced from both optical and critically, radar as many forests are located in areas with a high incidence of cloud cover.

Products already validated through earlier EOMD projects on certified forest management units include:

  • Mapping and monitoring forest areas within the landscape (size, boundaries, type, change)
  • Detection of illegal encroachment
  • Identification and monitoring of High Conservation Value (HCV) areas
  • Monitoring and protection of buffer zones
  • Mapping and monitoring annual clear-cut areas and their location (identification of retention trees and mapping stand mosaic)
  • Mapping and monitoring forest diversity (e.g. species, structure)
  • Appearance and changes in settlements within the forest area

EO will also be a valuable source of data for the auditor to monitor legal and illegal activities outside the boundary of the forestry organisations being certified. 

Satellite Navigation

In-situ geo-referenced data is needed for several reasons:

  • relevant landscape information (e.g. protected areas and buffer areas) has to be integrated into EO derived data so as to link current status of the forests and the protected biomes;
  • management information (e.g. forestry management units, boundaries, roads) has to be spatially and temporally accurate when linked to EO derived data.
  • georeferenced physical field parameters are required in order to calibrate spatial imagery.

Therefore, operational maps, audit tracks, operational polygons, on-site photos and biophysical parameters measured in the field need to be geo-referenced and made available to selected stakeholders in a convenient and standardized manner, driving the requirement for automated, accurate and timely GNSS data within a single processing chain. 

It is also planned that new features will be added, such as integration of field audit information. It will be investigated whether current GNSS inaccuracy created by shading and foliage cover could be resolved via the inclusion of current and future GNSS systems including Galileo, GLONASS and COMPASS.

Satellite Communication

SatCom may eventually be considered for a limited subset of stakeholders (e.g. NGOs or forest communities) where internet connection is not available or not sufficient to provide operational access to the TransparentForests platform.

Product Benefits

Benefits identified in the TransparentForests Feasibility Study are:

1. Financial benefits:  Increased profits or reduced costs.

  • Certification Bodies (CBs) will use TF to improve the efficiency of their field assessments, through better planning and more focused inspection sites, improved stakeholder consultation and dispute resolution. They will be able to offer services at lower costs.
  • Forestry Organizations (FOs) will use TF to prepare for annual CB assessments more efficiently, by identifying and correcting problems before they are noted by the CBs, including a reduction in staff time for accompanying the CB staff.  Many FOs will also use TF to improve the quality and efficiency of their forest monitoring and mapping, improved stakeholder consultation and dispute resolution, resulting in some savings.
  • Accreditation Standards International (ASI) will use TF to improve the efficiency and quality of their annual assessments of CBs in the field, through better planning and more focused inspection sites, with improved stakeholder consultation and dispute resolution.
  • Stakeholders interested in mapping or monitoring certified forests will use TF to reduce the costs and improve the quality and efficiency of this work. TF will be major help for ENGOs and communities, for managing crucial sites and areas.

2. Quality, transparency and credibility: business ethics with market values.

  • TF will increase the credibility of the whole FSC system, effectively increasing the market value of FSC accreditation, certification and labelling. All users can have more confidence that standards are applied, and non-compliances are rapidly detected, allowing increased confidence in the value of FSC certification of all kinds (forest management, chain of custody, controlled wood and potentially Ecosystem Services).
  • CBs using the TF system will increase the credibility, acceptance and market value of their certifications, in the same way that FSC increases its programme credibility.
  • Certified FOs will increase the value of their certification and certified products, principally through increased market acceptance rather than higher prices.
  • The market credibility of all FSC Chain of Custody and labelling system will be improved (especially where the CoC is linked directly to the FOs using TF), currently applied to products worth about USD 20 billion.

3. Business opportunities: the potential of TF for growing markets and investments.

  • All users of TF can increase their business potential through the TF system:
  • The increased credibility of the FSC system will increase the uptake of new accreditation and certification, thus increasing revenue streams.
  • CBs will be able to increase their market share, by attracting clients from non-FSC systems, by reducing costs and increasing credibility.
  • The increased credibility of FSC certificates will help the market penetration of certified products, in competition with uncertified products.

Key Issues

The space-enabled solution being developed makes use of Earth Observation and satellite navigation. Incorporating these assets into an operational service required detailed analysis and assessment of stakeholder needs, both within the audit process and as a monitoring tool between audits. It is critical that EO maps are therefore generated at times determined by the planned audit, which can take place at any time of the year. As most FSC certified forests are either in high latitudes or tropical regions, continuous cloud cover and winter darkness means radar derived maps will have to be an integral EO component.  Furthermore, the land cover classes need to be comparable across different audits and certificate holders. This has all been reflected in the service design of processing chain and a minimum mapping standard. 

FSC has identified the following needs to improve conventional certification procedures:

  • An urgent need to improve the credibility and transparency of certification and of certified forestry, without increasing costs. New techniques are required to maintain the credibility of whole FSC system, now that certification is being taken up by FOs that previously had highly suspect reputations.
  • A particular urgent need for reliable independent maps about what is occurring in certified forests, without increasing costs, as part of the accreditation programme.
  • Urgent needs to maintain or increase the standard of assurance, especially in large and very remote areas, without increasing costs, to be used globally, as part of their certification programmes.
  • A need for Forestry Organisations to monitor impacts in their own forests, to help demonstrate compliance with the rules of FSC and the CBs.
  • ENGOs have strong institutional interests in monitoring activities in forests of all kinds, without increasing operational costs, especially in remote areas. TF is a uniquely accessible tool for these purposes.
  • Forest communities need a simple and free mobile tool for identifying their boundaries and locations of zones and sites of particular interest for them.
  • Government agencies need access to a common platform to carry out some of the forest monitoring which is their legal responsibility.

In addition forest management information (e.g. boundaries and observations of various types) have to be integrated within an open source GIS platform specifically designed to support the certification process at minimal additional cost.  

Any solution must not reduce the overall cost effectiveness of certification. 

Current Status

The Feasibility Study kick off date was 22 December 2012. The definition of the user segments and user needs, the specification for the TransparentForests system and service architecture was completed in the first half of 2013 and followed by the development of a proof-of-concept which was used in a viability analysis across all stakeholder groups, based on webcasts and interviews. 
The project has enabled the TransparentForests team to undertake a detailed assessment of user needs and requirements, which formed the basis of the TransparentForests service and system design. This will enable FSC to mitigate costs of certification, and reduce the potential frequency and severity of errors in the certification process. The potential for certifiers to access independent EO derived products defining land cover and land cover changes, combined with the potential for certifiers to record field inspections and tracks, will fundamentally improve the reliability, transparency and safety of certificates issued. Once operationalised, TransparentForests should result in an expansion of the FSC certified area, especially in high risk domains such as large tropical and boreal forests. 
The Feasibility Study was completed in January 2014 and has been followed by a Demonstration Project.

Status Date

Updated: 14 August 2015 - Created: 15 February 2014