25 Years Of Criteria & Indicators For Sustainable Forest Management

The 25-year history of C&I work in forestry has had significant positive impacts, though challenges do remain for the implementation of C&I and progress towards SFM. By Stefanie Linser and Bernhard Wolfslehner, European Forest Institute, Simon R J Bridge, Canadian Forest Services, David Gritten, RECOFTC, Steven Johnson, ITTO, Tim Payn, Scion—New Zealand Forest Research Institute, Kit Prins, Independent Forest Sector Consultant, Rastislav Rasi, National Forest Centre, and Guy Robertson, US Forest Service


For more than 25 years, numerous actors have been involved in the development of criteria and indicators (C&I) to conceptualise, monitor, assess, and report on sustainable forest management (SFM) at the international, regional, and national levels.


We use the definition adopted by the United Nations, which describes SFM as “a dynamic and evolving concept [that aims] to maintain and enhance the economic, social and environmental values of all types of forests, for the benefit of present and future generations”. 


All the following considerations on C&I are based on the widely applied definitions of FAO, whereby: “CRITERIA define the essential elements against which sustainability is assessed, with due consideration paid to the productive, protective and social roles of forests and forest ecosystems”; and “INDICATORS are parameters which can be measured and correspond to a particular criterion. They measure and help monitor the status and changes of forests in quantitative, qualitative and descriptive terms that reflect forest values as seen by those who defined each criterion”.


C&I are increasingly attractive to decision-makers and designers of decision-making processes, recognising that processes utilising C&I are viewed as being efficient, consistent, transparent, scientific, and impartial. C&I are also commonly recognised as appropriate tools for defining, monitoring, reporting, and assessing progress towards SFM.


The most comprehensive public sets of C&I for SFM have been developed in the forest sector. Based on the concepts of sustainable development and SFM, these C&I integrate environmental, economic, social, and cultural values, extending well beyond the narrow consideration of the provision of wood products and making these sets unique in their holistic approach to SFM.


After 25 years of experience, C&I for SFM are becoming increasingly important in the development of a knowledge-based society, including informed policy making. Indicators are frequently required in global processes, such as that involved in the SDGs. 


Indicators can cut across sectors through, for example, bioeconomy. On the other hand, indicators often require significant resources for data collection and monitoring, and efficiency and effectiveness are therefore crucial. 


We have identified six impact domains of regional and international C&I processes and their respective sets of C&I for SFM. These are closely interlinked, particularly strengthening the impacts of C&I on dialogue and communication.


Impact On The Discourse Of SFM

Securing agreement on the definition and components of SFM has been a difficult task, both nationally and internationally. Despite remarkable achievements in monitoring and assessing SFM using quantitative and qualitative indicators, some components of SFM are inherently hard to measure. 


The role of SFM in the provision of ecosystem services is a notable example of this. In addition, the discourse on SFM has focused increasingly on social and cultural aspects in the past decade. Various expert working groups (e.g., that of FOREST EUROPE on ecosystem services), projects and studies on recreation, well-being, and cultural values have helped build knowledge bases. 


Nevertheless, the comparability of indicators at the global or regional scale remains limited due to the heterogeneity of measures at lower spatial scales, thus limiting the potential for generalisation of such aspects in the SFM discourse. 


Examples of how C&I for SFM have impacted the SFM discourse for the consumers of wood products include the application of the pan-European C&I for SFM in the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) and the use of the Montréal Process C&I structure to inform the development of both Australia’s and New Zealand’s PEFC-endorsed forestry standards.


Impact On Science Applications

In the temperate zone, and in Europe in particular, forest science has a nearly 300-year history of development and broad application based on evolving concepts of SFM. 


The C&I concept has influenced SFM policy implementation, the scientific grounding of national C&I processes, decision support in SFM, and procedures for implementing SFM, especially in terms of participation and sustainable development frameworks. 


There are numerous and increasing C&I-related scientific publications; in some cases, however, research outcomes have not found their way to potential users due to various economic and political factors that make practical implementation difficult, but also due to a disconnect, in communication terms, between scientists and foresters. 


C&I development and revision processes are driven mainly by the interests of participating stakeholders, who may have insufficient understanding of the practical relevance of scientific results, and this can lead to the partial disregard of scientific methods and approaches. 


The regional and international sets of C&I for SFM are the result of stakeholder negotiations in broad-based, participatory, and democratic processes, rather than integrated scientific systems based on, for example, a systems approach to characterizing ecosystem components. Arguably, more complex systems approaches to C&I—in which science-based approaches connect SFM goals, objectives, actions, and outcomes in a stringent framework—have failed to reach the policy level. 


Overall, while C&I appear to have shaped SFM discourse and methodology development on monitoring and data collection, they still are lacking to provide answers to whether or not, and to which level, SFM is being achieved. 


The highly political dimension of these questions could build the actual barrier between the scientific and political domain, and the policy aspect remains dominant over further scientific advances in the field of sustainability assessment of forest management.


Impact On Monitoring And Reporting Of SFM

Quantitative Information

The various regional sets of C&I for SFM reflect regional specificities, regarding, for example, forest type, maintenance of forest cover, reforestation/afforestation, indigenous rights, wellbeing, recreation, and emphasis on socio-economic or more ecological aspects. This makes it difficult to compare the regional and international sets of C&I for SFM.


To enable comparisons of data measured at the national level, further harmonisation is needed between the various sets of C&I for SFM. The collection of large amounts of data often imposes considerable burdens on agencies, which, in many countries, are under financial pressure. National forest inventories—the major but by no means the only means for generating data for forest-related indicators—often need additional funds to expand or improve data, especially for measuring new indicators developed in C&I for SFM processes. 


Support is also often requested to build capacities through education and training to implement and further develop global, regional, or national C&I. At least some countries in most regions have weak forest information infrastructure, meaning that even core data (e.g., forest area) are out of date, have no error estimates, are based on partial information, or are unavailable. Such countries are often those with the most urgent forest-sector problems. 


These countries would benefit from efforts to strengthen institutions to provide at least the minimum information needed to properly monitor the implementation of SFM and related policy decisions.


Online-based tools are increasingly applied to simplify the reporting and analysis of C&I-based data and the generation of periodic synthesis reports on SFM. Such tools enable efficiencies in data collection and information supply, with many of the data usable for multiple reporting requirements.


The guiding principle of “collect data once and use it many times” was a motivation for the revision of the ASEAN C&I for SFM in 2017, with officials emphasising the workload involved in collecting data for the various sets of C&I.


The FRA is the main source of information on the state of forests globally, and FAO has been working to improve comparability among countries for about 70 years. 


The multi-agency CFRQ is the fruitful outcome of a joint commitment of FAO, the UNECE and some C&I processes and an important step forward in reducing reporting burdens and improving data consistency. 


In a survey, the CFRQ is completely integrated into the FRA questionnaire to avoid double reporting; thus, data collected, validated, and processed through the CFRQ can be shared with partners, including three regional C&I processes. 


Focusing on quantitative indicators and on the most important and feasible indicators, the CFRQ covers about 40 percent of the Forest Europe indicators, 30 percent of the ITTO indicators, and 25 percent of the Montréal Process indicators; through it, data are requested from 104 countries, representing 88 percent of the world’s forests. 


In most cases, the requested data requested address essential core parameters such as forest area and growing stock. Nevertheless, it also addresses some increasingly important aspects not covered in some of the participating regional and international processes (e.g., on woody invasive species).


In cases where governments are challenged to invest more in forest monitoring and data collection, technologies such as remote sensing can help in generating data that previously were too expensive or technically impossible to collect. 


Continued innovation and meaningful investment in data collection and reporting mechanisms are required to further enhance harmonised monitoring and reporting on SFM. The weakest indicators are those that are conceptually weak (e.g., some of those addressing cultural aspects or ecosystem services), or which are outside the ‘comfort zone’ of forest inventory staff, such as those addressing non-wood forest products or economic or recreation-related aspects. 


Technologies such as remote sensing may not be very helpful for such less well-developed indicators. It is important to ensure that indicators are developed in collaborative and coherent ways, using new technologies where possible to maximise efficiency.


A number of global forest-related policy goals, objectives and targets, as well as recent trends in climate change and bioenergy, require information on aspects of SFM for which existing indicators, mechanisms and data are weak, particularly on socio-economic and qualitative governance aspects. 


These need further development. The use of a small number of streamlined indicators able to meet the reporting needs of multiple goals and processes (e.g., those of the UNFCCC, UNCCD, CBD, and SDGs) is an effective strategy for enhancing common understanding, information sharing, and efficiency. 


Using globally agreed indicators, data, and reporting mechanisms (such as the FRA, CFRQ, national reports to UN bodies, and the global core set of forest-related indicators) is highly cost-effective, especially if these are integrated in national data collection and reporting schemes. Harmonising reporting also helps to leverage limited resources to address data challenges.


Knowing the characteristics of the forest sector and how it is changing is of only minor value unless the information is shared through public reporting and brought to the notice of decision-makers. Nevertheless, not all countries participating in regional or international C&I processes have used the relevant sets of C&I for SFM in their reporting. 


An analysis of the country reports for the 2015 FRA, for example, showed that 86 countries provided C&I-based reports, together accounting for 77 percent of the global forest area. These reports covered almost all the forest area in high, upper-middle, and lower-middle income countries; low-income countries, on the other hand, rarely used C&I in their reporting.


Qualitative Information

Most forest C&I sets include ‘qualitative’ indicators, which elicit information on laws, policies and institutions, thus drawing attention to the policy tools as well as to the physical outcomes. Often countries find it relatively straightforward to provide this information: the challenge is to analyse it and make a synthesis of non-comparable, non-numerical information. 


This process often occurs through synthetic or narrative analysis, and it points to the fact that, while many important aspects of SFM cannot always be addressed in quantitative fashion, they must nonetheless be considered. However, the information provided by countries on their policies, institutions and instruments for SFM is often problematic in their analyses and narrative approaches.



Qualitative indicators are equally represented in all regional and international processes, but, in most sets, there is no connection between quantitative and qualitative indicators. 


The most recent (2015) revision of the pan-European C&I for SFM, however, attempted to link the quantitative and qualitative indicators by aligning policy information under each criterion, alongside a separate subset of qualitative indicators on the overarching policy framework.


Impact On Sustainable Forest Management Practices

ITTO’s work in the tropics has shown that implementing the C&I at the level of forest management units (FMUs) and using them to monitor performance of concessionaires can lead to significant improvements in forest management. It can also serve as a bridge to the voluntary certification of forest management by concessionaires 


The use of C&I is highly variable and scattered, and often only a few indicators are used. A major obstacle to the practical application of C&I and the implementation of SFM on the ground is the complexity of the C&I and the burden imposed by data collection, with the costs potentially exceeding the benefits. 


This finding emphasises the importance of coupling top-down regional and international C&I initiatives with local bottom-up processes and allowing a gradient of C&I implementation rather than prescribing rigid approaches.


Drivers for the increased local use of C&I include a need for more consistent forest management planning and monitoring; requests for transparent, comprehensive objectives and the evaluation of progress towards these; the promotion of democratic elements, including public participation, through the use of C&I, including in community forest management; the need for tools to secure access to funding and to increasingly globalized markets; and the need to comply with various standards, norms, and legal instruments. 


In many countries where SFM is challenging, however, ensuring that C&I support participation and transparency can be especially problematic. 


Key issues include the top-down approach to forest management at the heart of statutory laws, and a lack of capacity, which undermines implementation and may further alienate forest communities. Such issues also apply to other aspects of forest management and policy; nevertheless, it is crucial that they inform the formulation and application of C&I sets, which must be sufficiently flexible so that efforts can be scaled to match local capacities.


In contrast to C&I, which are less developed at the local level than at the national, regional, and international level, forest management organisations use forest certification schemes to establish proof of SFM in FMUs. Such application may address some of the gaps in the local-level impact of C&I on SFM.


Two forest certification systems dominate globally: the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). Both address the same issues of monitoring SFM as the regional and international C&I processes but are focused exclusively at the FMU level and with a prescriptive intention to act as a voluntary market-based tool for promoting SFM. 


Certification schemes and C&I processes were developed in parallel in the 1990s and learnt from each other. Indeed, the PEFC (then known as Pan-European Forest Certification) took at its starting point the pan-European operational-level guidelines of the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe (which later became Forest Europe), developed on the basis of the pan-European C&I. The FSC, in contrast, developed its principles independently.


Both certification schemes have indicators in common with regional and international C&I, with minor differences. The relatively small spatial scale and producer focus of certification, however, sets these schemes apart from the C&I processes considered in this paper, which are considered at the national, regional or international spatial scales, encompassing different jurisdictions, management approaches, and forest goals. Still, certification has an important role in motivating the broad-scale adoption of SFM and related production techniques. 


It should be noted that ‘forest area under a certification scheme’ is viewed as an indicator of trends in SFM—for example, it is included in several regional and international indicator sets, and is also part of SDG indicator 15.2.1.


In 2017, 85 percent of the total certified forest area worldwide—about 430 million hectares—was in North America, Europe, and the Commonwealth of Independent States in the boreal and temperate climatic domains. Only 6.3 percent of permanent forests in the tropical domain have been certified to date. Thus, forest certification covers only a small proportion of the total forest area, which might be considered an opportunity to increase the local-level implementation of C&I, particularly in areas where the problems are most acute. 


The high cost of certification can pose a significant barrier to its adoption, particularly for smallholders in developing countries. The application of C&I can serve as a stepping stone towards certification by putting aspects of SFM in place, making it easier to obtain certification in the future.


Impact On The Assessment Of Progress Towards SFM

Indicators are usually developed based on existing data and information needs to report on the state of forests and forestry. 


While the quality and range of the available information has increased tremendously over the past 25 years, it is still challenging to state unambiguously whether a country’s forests are sustainably managed or whether a country is making progress towards SFM or other global forest-related goals. 


Part of this stems from a lack of relevant information, but even in the presence of an extensive information base, significant divergences in interpretation may still arise. This fact may be construed as a failing of C&I frameworks, but it simply reinforces the observation that good information is necessary but not sufficient for SFM. 


In Southeast Asia, for example, the challenge starts with a lack of consistent basic forest data such as forest cover, this is further undermined by the political importance of the data itself (i.e., if forest area is increasing or decreasing). The issue is magnified by the lack of capacities and resources for the collection and dissemination of basic data revolving around SFM.


When, for instance, the pan-European C&I were being negotiated, delegates were aware of the fact that the system under construction could not produce a single objective ‘assessment’ of the sustainability of forest management. 


Their response was that the system would generate information, and that it was upon users of the information, i.e., governments, NGOs, lobbyists, or journalists, to use it as they thought fit. Also, a missing clear link between C&I and overarching SFM goals in a systematic way hampers such assessment. 


Experience, notably with the SEMAFOR pilot study, seemed to show that (1) the C&I system would have to be significantly redesigned to serve as an objective measure of overall sustainability; (2) that this redesign would be complex; and (3) that the political dimension to carry out this redesign is overly sensitive.


The future development of global, regional, international, and national indicators should focus on their suitability for the assessment of goals and targets—because the ability to monitor state behaviour has become a critical tool of international governance. 


Existing C&I-based forest assessment procedures suffer from a lack of explicit objectives. Above all, however, with the partial exception of the ITTO C&I, C&I for SFM were designed to describe and monitor the sustainability of forest management but not to ‘assess’ it. 


Such assessment, although often mentioned in accompanying texts, would necessitate agreement on thresholds and an objective and quantifiable definition of what constitutes SFM at the national, local or FMU level. When most C&I sets were being developed in the second half of the 1990s, no quantified goals had been agreed at the international level, and governments were unwilling to accept the introduction of thresholds for agreed indicators; they considered, rather, that this was a matter for sovereign nations to decide and that conditions varied too widely to allow uniform, internationally agreed thresholds. 


Targets or thresholds for individual indicators have only been developed, on a pilot basis, in SEMAFOR; as part of the State of Europe’s Forests Reports 2007 and 2011; and in Austria’s indicators for SFM. 


Such thresholds are politically sensitive and difficult to homogenize at the global, regional, and international levels. Montréal Process countries generally use a narrative approach, highlighting key observations and areas of concern emerging from their indicators and discussing their implications for sustainability in a synthetic fashion.


New Zealand, a Montréal Process country, uses a hybrid approach in its latest report, combining a narrative analysis with judgements of indicator trends as positive, negative, or neutral. 


In any case, strong political commitment is needed to support the assessment of SFM, which implies benchmarking and performance assessment. Although pilot approaches are being implemented the process is far from complete, and a systematic and widely accepted assessment methodology has not yet been developed.


At the same time, many countries are gaining increasing experience in using C&I frameworks to inform decision-makers and policy discussions about SFM by using indicator-based reports or deriving summary assessments or synthetic narrative approaches to address forest sustainability. 


The question of how to monitor progress towards globally, regionally or internationally agreed forest goals and objectives, and the link with C&I, is still under discussion. Nevertheless, it is clear that the various sets of C&I for SFM, and the processes behind their development, have drawn attention to the challenges, pointed to possible solutions, and identified technical and political difficulties to be avoided.


Impact On Dialogue And Communication

The impacts of regional and international C&I processes on dialogue and communication signal that they have been instrumental in defining and specifying the content of SFM and making it more comprehensible. C&I are widely recognised as suitable for defining an SFM framework that informs policy-makers and stakeholders and supports communication with the broader public. 


They are perceived as a transparent means of communication for informing policies and decisions about the status of forests and forest management. Statements on assessments as to whether forests are sustainably managed or certain sustainability goals are reached are in demand, but the concepts and their implementation still need considerable development. 


Currently, there is no strong consensus at the international policy level as to how and by whom overall sustainability of forest management should be assessed. Clarifying both parts of that question will be important to further develop C&I sets in this direction.


Regional and international C&I processes contributed to global negotiations on a non-legally binding instrument on forests, as well as to a possible legally binding agreement on forests in Europe, including by helping structure the agreements. 


C&I processes also contributed to the determination of the UN’s seven thematic elements of SFM and to the implementation of the SDGs. Nevertheless, there is a need and potential for further improvement of their communication function:

•The regional and international processes and the related sets of C&I for SFM are complex and too focused on issues of interest only to the forest sector. This complexity hinders the communication of forest-related issues to the public and to other sectors because information embedded in the C&I are difficult for many to comprehend.

•Most of the sets of C&I for SFM are static. This limits the ad hoc consideration of emerging politically relevant issues (e.g., climate change, ecosystem services, and bioeconomy) and hampers dialogue between and compatibility with other C&I processes. This is not an inherent shortcoming in the C&I approach, pointing, rather, to the need for ongoing review and adjustment of C&I frameworks. Such review and adjustment takes time and effort but is certainly possible—7 of the 11 regional and international C&I processes have revised their C&I at least once (and as many as four times).

•In the last decade, the regional and international sets of C&I for SFM have raised the attention and interest of other sectors in forest-related information, particularly in the climate-change, biodiversity and energy sectors. Challenges remain in improving consistency between the various areas of policy that influence, and are influenced by, forests and forest management. Regional and international sets of C&I for SFM may help these sectors identify and incorporate new information by explicitly organising available information and highlighting information deficiencies.


This study identified six domains in which, over the past 25 years, intergovernmental, regional, and international C&I processes have had positive impacts on the comprehension and implementation of SFM. Their C&I for SFM have: (1) enhanced the discourse and understanding of SFM; (2) helped shape and focus the engagement of science in SFM; (3) improved monitoring and reporting on SFM to facilitate transparency and evidence-based decision-making; (4) strengthened forest management practices; (5) initiated assessment of progress towards SFM goals, but still incomplete; and (6) improved forest-related dialogue and communication in and outside the forest sector, but still strongly limited to sectoral boundaries.


Thus, regional and international sets of C&I for SFM provide a vital structure for monitoring, assessing, and reporting on forests and their management and fostering progress towards sustainability goals. Moreover, the success of intergovernmental regional and international C&I processes can be linked to several unique features of the framework and the processes that maintain them. 


Namely, C&I are holistic and provide a comprehensive picture of all aspects of SFM. They are adaptable to different scales, applied from the local to the global level, and have led to the development of reporting mechanisms that fulfil the needs of countries. 


Furthermore, C&I processes are often highly participatory, involving many groups of stakeholders and providing a vital network to foster collaboration and support. 


Notably, C&I provide a common language that is consistent, credible, relevant, and usable. The further strengthening and promotion of these features by the organisations and member countries of the C&I processes in cooperation with international organisations will help increase the impacts of C&I in the future.


We have demonstrated various ways that C&I for SFM have had significant impacts in the last 25 years and advanced approaches towards providing a harmonized framework and demonstration of SFM. 


While the monitoring and data aspects are progressing, the issue of sustainability assessment will require further scrutiny, particularly in regard to the discrepancies between politics and science advances. 


Taking the next steps in development will involve surmounting a range of technical and social challenges. Paramount among the technical challenges will be to develop analytical approaches for showing progress towards SFM. 


The indicator sets reflect a complex system and require a mix of qualitative and quantitative data. New experimental methodologies such as SEMAFOR are providing insights into possible ways forward. Among the social challenges is ensuring that C&I processes move forward in tandem with other international indicator-using initiatives, such as the SDGs, and developing initiatives in other sectors.


With continued commitment by countries, intergovernmental bodies and fora, we see opportunities for further impacts on global forest policy statements, national forest strategies, development plans, and other policy instruments to strengthen progress toward SFM in all forest types and all countries. The issue of an overall SFM assessment will require particularly further political commitment.


Finally, C&I constitute a powerful policy tool for generating understandable information that provides evidence of the effectiveness of policy measures and management practices. C&I for SFM-based reports have proven their value in addressing pressing forest-related issues, such as the need to develop sustainable bio-based economies, maintain and protect biodiversity, or mitigate and adapt to climate change. The successes and lessons learned from forestry can and should be carried over to other sectors to advance sustainability goals more broadly.


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