FAO-EU FLEGT Programme

Community forestry: Recommendations on adapting timber traceability systems for community use


Timber traceability is a growing global trend. Governments and consumers require reliable tracking of products sold with claims to legality or sustainability from their origin throughout the supply chain. Timber traceability contributes to multiple forest sector priorities, including promoting legal compliance, encouraging formalization, suppressing illegal timber markets, increasing sector governance and transparency, and facilitating due diligence. Better timber traceability also contributes to more thorough monitoring and data reconciliation, and the improvement of forest statistics to inform policy development and planning in the forestry sector.

To help demonstrate legal compliance and meet market demands, stakeholders in tropical timber-producing countries have developed traceability systems that rely on customized software, documenting the origin and movements of timber along the supply chain while preventing products of an unknown origin from entering legal supply chains.

There are four primary features of a traceability system:

  1. Product marking and identification: The use of paint, barcodes, or Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, to document the unique harvesting location of logs. 
  2. Data collection: The collection of data along the timber value chain, including pre-harvest inventory, harvesting, transport and storage, timber processing, commercialization, and delivery. 
  3. Data centralization: Centralized data management in a single information system allowing users to access and manage information with integrity, coherence, and efficiency. 
  4. Data monitoring: Access and modification within the system is continually monitored to ensure the accuracy and validity of data, allowing for cross-checks and reconciliation to improve and facilitate internal control.

System designers adapt these features according to the mode of operation and the needs of each forestry operator. 

The case for traceability systems in community forests

Broadly defined, community forestry refers to initiatives that encompass the management of forest lands and forest resources by or with local people, individually or in groups, and for commercial or non-commercial purposes. However, the term community forestry, as used in this paper, refers to collaborative forestry (which is practiced on land that has a communal tenure and requires collective action) and excludes smallholder forestry (which is practiced by smallholders on land that is privately owned).

The community forest user groups manage the forest and resources upon which they depend, while also ensuring that the use of their forest area complies with legal and environmental requirements. FAO has found that illegal harvesting and trade are often associated with poor governance and a lack of recognition of the land and use rights and corresponding obligations of forest communities or indigenous peoples.

Community-managed forests can help provide income to local populations, improve sustainable food production, and preserve the environment. Yet, this management scheme presents some challenges, particularly for participation in formal timber supply chains, which can be facilitated by establishing reliable timber traceability systems. 

Often, rural populations are not sufficiently equipped to monitor timber production efficiently, making it difficult to precisely determine the quantity and type of timber removed by the communities or their logging partners, such as NGOs or private companies. While forest communities may outsource forest management and logging operations to third parties through formal agreements, they can often lack the capacity to adequately monitor how partners execute these agreements.

Due to a lack of digital literacy, many communities rely heavily on manual data recording, leading to errors which hinder management and decision-making. Without well-developed mechanisms to "manage the species in stock" (i.e., the commercial tree species present in the forest), monitoring of production data and documenting the legal origin of timber are made more challenging. The use of traceability systems can facilitate forest inventories and sustainable harvesting and enables communities to generate reliable and consistent information on the legal origin of timber which they can pass to buyers. The system captures an accurate picture of operations within community forests, preventing illegalities and ensuring that communities benefit from their forest resources.

However, timber traceability systems implemented in community forests must integrate local realities and accommodate local capacities. By sharing the lessons learned from the FAO-EU Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Programme (hereafter the Programme) on developing and implementing traceability systems for community use, it is hoped that this information can support future actions for other communities around the globe.

Experience in Practice: Examples from the field


Cameroon is home to more than 15 million hectares of production forest, mainly exploited by export-oriented large-scale forest concessions. Small-scale timber industries supply the domestic market and are heavily dependent on access to community and smallholder forest areas for the provision of timber. However, according to the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), up to 75 percent of timber sold on Cameroon's domestic market is of illegal or informal origin. In this context, adequate traceability systems can help document the legal harvest and production of community forests and help unlock an important source of legal timber. 

To ensure the legality of timber originating from Cameroon's community forests, the local NGO Support Service for Local Development Initiatives (SAILD), with Programme support, implemented one of the first community-based traceability projects. The project operated over two phases in the Eastern region between 2017 and 2019 and established a centralized database system, the Community Timber Legality Verification System (CLVS).

This system aims to ensure the legality of community timber by monitoring the legality of the forest entity and tracing the timber derived from it. This is achieved through Community Timber Tracks (CoTTracks), a set of IT applications based on software used by large companies[1] and adapted for community use, allowing the collection of data in the forest and their transmission and storage in a remote server accessible online. 


More than 80 percent of national territory in Gabon is forested. As with many Central African countries, official timber production in Gabon is almost exclusively export-oriented, whilst a large part of domestic wood supply comes from small informal producers. Community forestry was introduced in the Forest Code 2001 to provide a legal channel for communities to benefit from the forests they depend on and increase supply of legal timber to the domestic market.

Following the success of CoTTracks in Cameroon, KEVA INITIATIVE[2], a non-governmental organization based in Gabon, sought to adapt the system for use in Gabon's community forests, targeting five community forests. As a result, a Community Timber Legality Verification System (CLVS-Gabon) was established to improve the credibility of community forest timber by providing reliable tools for communication and dissemination of information on their operations.

As in Cameroon, CLVS-Gabon  is based off larger private sector software developed by Pallitracks and offers of a set of IT applications (CoTTracks Gabon), allowing legality verification and timber traceability at a community level. 

How does the CLVS work?

Cameroon and Gabon CLVSs encompass procedures to collect, transmit and disseminate information from community forests and the timber supply chain. The targets of these systems are community forest managers, who can monitor the movement of timber and the legality of timber harvested in their forests, and consumers requiring assurance of the legal origin of timber.

As such, the CLVS is divided into two subsystems:

  • A forest entity legality verification system that allows demonstration of compliance with the legality definition or grid of the National Timber Legality Assurance Systems developed during the negotiations of the bilateral Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) signed between the European Union and Cameroon and Gabon, respectively. The system works using a mobile application installed on a smartphone to scan the documents or verifiers identified in the relevant legality grid and transmits this information to the central server via the internet. The system administrator then verifies the authenticity of these documents, and the data is uploaded to the website (http://communitytimbertracks.com in Cameroon and https://cottracks.ga/ in Gabon). 
  • A timber supply chain verification system that includes traceability procedures and IT tools to monitor the community forest timber from harvesting to market. The traceability system works by affixing barcode labels to trees and products and recording information through a smartphone application (or physical forms).  

Data collected is centralized and available at two levels:

  • In the traceability web application, accessible only to community forest operators and administrators called Community Timber Tracks (CoTTracks); and
  • On publicly available websites, users can verify the legality rates in the community forests and track timber harvested by entering the corresponding barcode.

How was the software adapted for CoTTracks?

As the traceability software used in CoTTracks was initially designed for private companies it required adaption to meet the needs of the communities without technical specialization in forestry and experience in traceability. To this end, developers conducted preliminary studies in Cameroon and Gabon to understand the timber legality and traceability situation in the local community forestry sector before developing CoTTracks. Moreover, extensive field visits undertaken at different stages by the system developers enabled a better understanding of local realities and meant that the mobile application design built on the existing practices in the targeted community forests.

Notably, the following adjustments were made to the system to adapt it to community use:

  • Data collection: A simple, downloadable mobile application compatible with any smartphone was created to facilitate data collection in the field, replacing previous paper-based data collection. A smartphone equipped with the CoTTracks traceability application allows forest operators to easily collect data on timber exploitation, processing, and transport. This data is then synchronized in the traceability web application. 
  • Transmission of information: Due to connectivity issues observed in rural and remote areas, the application was designed to enable offline data collection and synchronization of the data with the server once internet access is available. The system also allows manual entry of data collected on paper forms in the web application.
  • Scope of data: The number of data modules was reduced to align with the national legal frameworks governing forestry (e.g. in Gabon, all modules relating to the export of raw logs were removed from the traceability software to reflect the total ban on log exports) and the reality of harvesting operations conducted in community forests. These are based on artisanal processes where primary processing is carried out in the forest immediately after felling. Accordingly, the main modules of CoTTracks are the following: (i) inventory; (ii) selection for harvest; (iii) felling; (iv) sawing; (v) skidding; (vi) transport. 
  • Accessibility: As the original application was designed for large companies, it included a wide range of complex data analysis tools requiring advanced technical skills and multiple inputs to get a response. However, these features were not in line with the needs and capacity of community users. As such, available queries on the community end-user interface were reduced and simplified, with all major information regarding production, stock, and sales easily accessible with minimal inputs.
  • Other features: The implementing partners (SAILD in Cameroon and KEVA in Gabon) played a critical role in generating community engagement and provided training in local language on using the traceability application. This role was key to building local capacity and ownership of the process.

Once the system was set up, the developers and operators tested it in the field to identify and resolve any potential issues before the application was finalized and delivered to the communities.


Programme experience demonstrates that timber traceability systems initially designed for large timber operators can be successfully adapted to community use. A few detailed recommendations are presented below for policymakers and practitioners seeking to support similar initiatives. These can be applied in different contexts to develop traceability systems appropriate to the needs and capacities of local community forest operators. 

Survey to determine local realities: Even if traceability principles are the same, the local implementation differs from one context to another. Surveying before implementation enables a proper understanding of communities' unique challenges and allows key aspects to be addressed at the early stages of system development.

The preliminary studies conducted in Cameroon and Gabon allowed local NGOS to understand the context of timber legality and traceability in the local community forestry sector which fed into community timber traceability system development. 

Involve local organizations with experience in the field: Local organizations enable direct contact with the most appropriate persons within local communities and help overcome language and cultural barriers.

As the Programme experience demonstrates, choosing organizations with established reputations and experience working with rural communities on sustainable management of natural resources is key to securing community engagement and buy-in throughout the process and facilitate the adoption and implementation of traceability practices. 

Simplify the technology as much as possible: Even if the technical solution relies on cutting-edge information technology implementation, the end-user interface must be as simple as possible. This includes using practical terminology which reflects existing local practices and providing support documentation on step-by-step procedures to solve specific problems rather than technical information. 

The success of CoTTracks lies mostly in its simplicity and user-friendliness based on clear procedures, readable operating manuals, and easy-to-use tools.

Field test with a technically capable team and involve forest operators in testing: The applicability and feasibility of the system should be tested in the field involving both the system designers and community forest operators to identify and address any gaps or glitches.

This proved to be very effective in improving CoTTracks as all batches of field tests were conducted by forest operators and technical staff capable of implementing the required changes without delay.

Conduct appropriate training of local people: Community members often lack technical specialization in forestry and timber traceability. Conducting preliminary surveys on the local community forestry sector may help to gain insights on communities’ capacities, and training needs to design appropriate trainings.

As much as possible, the training should be conducted in a modular format by selected and pre-trained community members who can use local languages or rely on local customs to overcome resistance to change. A cascade training model can be applied, as implemented by the project in Cameroon, where a training-of-trainers was provided to SAILD staff, which in turn selected and trained community focal points who then provided training to community members. 


The Programme would like to thank Mr Soh Ndeh Jean Gilbert for his contributions to this piece. 

The FAO-EU FLEGT Programme of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations is a global demand-driven initiative that provides technical support and resources for activities that further the goals of the EU’s FLEGT Action Plan. The Programme is funded by the European Union, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office of the United Kingdom.


Read more about the FAO-EU FLEGT Programme’s support to the development of timber traceability systems here


[1] CoTTracks is based on the Pallitracks web-based forest management and traceability application developed by the Cameroonian company Prosygma and designed for private forest companies.

[2] Created in 2016 with headquarters in Libreville, the NGO KEVA INITIATIVE's mission is to contribute to land and resource management in harmony with human well-being.