Technical Updates

Tuesday, 20 September 2022
Smallholder Access Program: A Successful Pilot for Smallholders

In 2017, Rainforest Alliance approached FSC International and FSC US with an innovative streamlined smallholder certification concept that was developed in partnership with FSC certificate holders and other stakeholders. The Smallholder Access Program (SAP) pilot was initiated in 2019 to evaluate the streamlined concept in South and Central Appalachia. This region provided a perfect testing area with its biodiversity-rich forests, and low levels of risk for some elements of responsible forest management. The forests are predominantly managed by small private owners, who have traditionally rejected forest certification and rarely harvest more than once a generation, with little forest management activity between harvests. However, when harvest occurs, it is typically done for the greatest possible financial return, leading to highly degraded forests that are not resilient to threats.

The innovative aspects of the SAP framework focus on increased simplicity and reduced costs, while ensuring responsible forest management. The framework has four key elements that are customized to the region where implemented:

  • Very small management units; in the pilot region less than 100 ha.
  • A streamlined standard based on assessment of risk and stakeholder engagement. In this pilot, a 31-indicator standard, based on potential risk to social and environmental values.
  • Short-term membership in an experienced FSC forest management group. In the pilot, 12-24 months, including harvest planning, harvest execution and at least 6-months post-harvest.
  • Enhanced monitoring during group membership; in this pilot, at least 3 site-visits to each harvest site: pre-harvest, during harvest, and post-harvest.

The benefits found during the pilot test included the following:

Cost reductions:

  • For family forest owners, there was little to no cost for participation.
  • For group managers, savings were driven by reduced audit time, lower administrative costs, and streamlined expectations for responsible forest management. One group manager reported $40,000 USD value added per five participating family forest owners.

Forest management improvements:

  • Increased on-the-ground time for group managers together with family forest owners.
  • Engagement of experienced and reputable foresters and loggers.
  • Harvests conducted under a plan.
  • Consideration of long-term ecological impacts, not just short-term financial benefit.
  • Assessment, consideration and protection of values beyond legal requirements.

The pilot successfully concluded in June 2022 with outcomes that demonstrate the SAP framework’s applicability and potential. Benefits include post-harvest forests that demonstrate similar environmental and social outcomes to traditional FSC group members, and are significantly improved over typical regional results (based on evaluations by 3rd party auditors and 3rd party experts). In addition, the pilot experienced a significant increase in group members from a size class that was previously inaccessible and not cost-effective.

The SAP pilot attracted forest owners previously uninterested in forest certification, introduced them to responsible forest management, and helped them realize how, with the right framework, they could have a positive impact on the forests they value. The pilot also helped certificate holders meet demand for FSC-certified materials in a region where supply is restricted by limited certification among the family forest owners who dominate. One participating certificate holder doubled the certified outputs from their forest management group, for example.

The SAP framework has great global potential. However, before making it available more broadly, testing in other contexts is needed. This additional data would help establish sideboards and safeguards for guiding customization of the SAP framework aligned with the risk profile and characteristics of a region, and for clarifying where it will likely be successful. This promising framework represents a potential solution for the challenges that family forests must overcome to implement responsible forest management. The SAP framework can help family forests contribute to global solutions for combatting climate change and generating other environmental and societal benefits.