Ten lessons learned on Independent Forest Monitoring from the FAO-EU FLEGT Programme


Forests cover just over 30 percent of the global land area, yet they provide habitat for the vast majority of known terrestrial plant and animal species. Unfortunately, forests, and the biodiversity they contain, continue to be threatened by illegal logging and land conversion for agricultural purposes.[1]

Independent forest monitoring (IFM) is a process by which civil society and communities living in and around forest monitor, document and report suspected illegalities in the timber sector and has become an important tool to help prevent illegal timber and timber products from entering domestic and global supply chains.

Through international commitments, such as Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) with the European Union (EU), tropical timber producing countries have defined ‘legal timber' according to the laws and regulations of the timber-producing country. This definition allows independent monitors to offer robust assessments of the behaviour of timber operators and, in many cases, feeds into nation Timber Legality Assurance Systems and other measures aimed to improve forest-sector transparency.

IFM has been a core area of support for the FAO-EU Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Programme, offering a broad base of experience to draw from.  Analyzing the main lessons learned from a sample of projects across Africa, Latin America, and Asia, this brief aims to inform future project design and improve Independent Monitoring approaches in the forestry sector and beyond. This work contributes to a larger reflection on IFM conducted by partner organizations, including: a briefing from the European Forest Institute, an article by the Centre for International Development and Training, a study from Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza and an upcoming study on Independent Monitoring in the Congo Basin led by the World Resources Institute.


Lesson 1: IFM is crucial for enhancing transparency, supporting forest law enforcement, and ultimately improving forest governance.

The growing role of IFM in the Congo Basin and Indonesia illustrates the importance of IFM approaches in fighting illegal trade and improving governance in the forest sector. In Indonesia, IFM has bolstered the credibility of the Indonesian Timber Legality Assurance System (SVLK), the tool used to verify legal compliance across the timber value chain.  Monitoring is undertaken by stakeholders outside the timber value chain, involving local and indigenous communities and other traditionally marginalized groups such as women and youth. Civil society organizations (CSOs) have worked closely with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MOEF) to identify illegal practices by operators, support enforcement actions and continuously improve the design of the SVLK control mechanisms. Equipped with strong knowledge of VPA and SVLK requirements, IFM organizations document, analyze and compile suspected illegalities into reports submitted to government authorities for further action. Monitors also regularly deliver important recommendations to VPA stakeholders, leading to national and international deliberations regarding forest governance priorities.

IFM is also a vital tool to encourage good forest governance in countries where the VPA process is less advanced. For example, in Côte d’Ivoire, international NGOs have typically conducted external IFM. Upon observing the positive impact of monitoring activities, the Ivoirian government recognized IFM as a key pillar in the "Forest National Restoration, Extension and Preservation Strategy" published in 2018. This was then included in the Forest law n°2019‐675 of 23 July 2019, and the implementation decree regulating its modalities is pending signature.  A recent decree, (Decret n° 2021-441 du 08 Septembre 2021 Portant Modalites d’exercise de l’observation independante) has also further officially recognized the role of IFM in Côte d’Ivoire.


Lesson 2: When strongly anchored in the VPA and regulatory frameworks, IFM is an efficient approach for combatting illegalities in the forest sector.

While some independent forest mechanisms are clearly outlined in the text of VPAs, others are not. In Indonesia, for example, IFM has a mandate that is strongly enshrined in the VPA and operational by law. Its implementation is therefore systematic, effective, and transparent.[2] Some other countries, such as the Republic of Congo, have less concrete terms for IFM outlined in the VPA, with a broader mandate to contribute to improving forest governance.[3] Elsewhere, in the Central African Republic, mandated and external IFM operates closely with the forest administration to combat forest sector illegalities, garnering positive results.

In practice: IFM is embedded in the EU-Indonesia VPA, and enforced through the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MoEF). Forestry regulations acknowledge the rights of independent forest monitors to access information and locations relevant to monitoring; guarantees the protections against threats prior, during, and after monitoring; and indicates the eligibility of independent forest monitors for sustainable financing from public and private sources. MoEF acts upon IFM reports through an official feedback mechanism. Thanks to this enabling environment, IFM plays a prominent role in Indonesia's forest governance, with high numbers of IFM missions taking place. From 2011 to early 2020, the Independent Forest Monitoring Network (Jaringan Pemantau Independen Kehutanan, JPIK) monitored 107 concessions and forestry industry management units and reported the monitoring results to parties related to SVLK, including 118 reports to DG Law Enforcement of MoEF and Police.[4]

While Perú and Panamá are not currently engaged in a VPA process, both have IFM initiatives recognized by both authorities and national legislation. In Perú, indigenous communities in the Amazon region can establish the forest "veedurías", specialized units consisting of local community members responsible for overseeing natural resource use in their territory. Indigenous forest "veedurías" contribute monitoring activities and receive technical training to understand forest management projects, negotiate proposals, and represent communities when advocating for forest and environmental issues. These IFM units are recognized by local authorities as "forest custodians" with the right to intervene when illegal products are transported on their land and to inform authorities of any non-compliance cases.


Lesson 3: Harmonized systems and frameworks are necessary to ensure the quality of IFM and sound coordination at both regional and national levels, towards an ultimate goal of expanding IFM to larger forest areas.

Strong coordination calls for recognized methodologies and standards, tailored capacity building, information sharing, and coordination between IFM organizations. It requires careful choice of monitoring sites depending on each organization's strengths, core expertise and geographical anchoring. 

Monitoring tools and systems must be developed in a participatory manner and by organizations or through platforms that have a clear mandate for doing so to avoid the risk of duplicating initiatives. Harmonized systems, standards and quality assurance mechanisms can guarantee that the reports produced are impartial, exhaustive, and properly documented. Systems should be fully transparent and ensure accountability of the monitors, for example, through a complaint mechanism.

In practice: In Cameroon, The Standardized External Independent Monitoring System (SNOIE) is a set of monitoring methods and procedures for forest management and harvesting, certified to the international ISO standard 9001:2015.15. It provides the framework for structured collaboration amongst organizations engaging in IFM. The purpose of the SNOIE is to ensure that as many independent monitors as possible use the same approach, ensuring that reliable and high-quality reports are produced. Once reports are written, they are pre-approved by an external reading committee consisting of members of the private sector, civil society and government institutions to ensure consistency and accuracy.

Lesson 4: Involving local communities and Indigenous Peoples is important and has proved to be strategic in ensuring sustainable and regular monitoring of forest activities in remote areas.

The involvement of local communities and Indigenous Peoples capitalizes on their unique knowledge of forest resources. IFM organizations in Indonesia, supported by the Programme, have engaged traditionally marginalized groups, including Indigenous communities, youth, and women, through a mentorship programme to train future monitors. By doing so, IFM empowers forest-dependent communities with knowledge of their rights to actively participate in forest governance processes and the implementation of the SVLK.

A study by the Centre for International Development and Training (CIDT) in the Congo Basin found a perception that decreased presence of government authorities during the COVID-19 pandemic led to higher levels of illegal activities. CIDT found that Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities played an important and well respected role in protecting forests. The study recommended that IFM structures be strengthened and that technology for effective monitoring be made readily available, ensuring that legality, sustainability and inclusive development are at the forefront of the recovery agenda.

In practice: In Indonesia, IFM organizations, such as the PPLH Mangkubumi, consult with community members in selecting critical areas and segments of the timber supply chain to be monitored. By involving communities, the monitoring activities have become more inclusive and foster local ownership of governance processes. The communities' economic and environmental losses due to poor forestry practices strongly motivate them to actively participate in forest monitoring.


Lesson 5: Integrated monitoring, where monitors follow the flow of timber along the timber supply chain, is an effective approach to monitoring.

As IFM has grown, the focus has shifted from exclusively monitoring the production segment to include the entire value chain, including processing, transport, and export. This has significantly increased the understanding of illegalities and led to deeper oversight of value chains, such as timber laundering points, and allowed the detection of irregularities in the process of forest title attribution. This new focus necessitates new and innovative investigation methodologies and requires additional trainings for monitors.

In practice: Between 2019 and 2020, the Programme supported independent monitors to conduct investigations across the Assamela value chain in Cameroon. The investigations focused on checks at the export point in Douala Harbour to monitor compliance of exports with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), along with compliance with Assamela volume quotas. This data is shared with corresponding authorities. Monitors also investigated the legality of the permit granting processes in the South Region.


Lesson 6: Access to informationis crucial for the success of IFM.

In order to implement their functions efficiently and effectively, independent forest monitors need unrestricted access to data and information from government departments and ministries (for example, Forest, Finance, Customs) and the private sector (concessions, enterprises, traders). This remains a challenge; monitors often report reluctance to share information from government authorities and bureaucratic barriers, as well as reticence from forest companies afraid of reputational risks related.. Often documentation is scattered and not available digitally and where databases do exist, these are not freely accessible to monitors.

In practice: Successful results in Panama have been linked to the ability of monitors to review and analyze harvesting permits in preparation for IFM missions. This has allowed monitors to identify compliance issues in advance of field inspections and highlighted areas for improvement for regulatory and control institutions.


Lesson 7: Strategic partnerships with mass media are good tools to educate the public and put pressure government to act on illegal logging

In many countries, the findings and recommendations of Independent Monitors are not acted on, or the penalties are weak. This can be attributed to both a lack of resources (financial and human) and political will. To counter this issue, CSOs have worked to ensure widespread media coverage of IFM results, generating public interest and concern, placing pressure on governments to take action.

In addition to this, better collaboration between Ministries for information sharing could also foster action from the authorities, for instance, through joint project design or dedicated cross-ministerial agreements. 

In practice: One Programme partner in Congo Brazzaville, carried out a series of IFM missions in 2017, with a special focus on forest conversion processes. During a mission in the Northern Province of Sangha, they documented illegal mining activities causing deforestation and other negative environmental impacts. The international media channel France 21 relayed the information widely, placing increased pressure on the authorities, which led to the withdrawal of the mining permits to enterprises in this area.


Lesson 8: Sustainable funding must be made available to ensure effective and credible monitoring of forest governance.

IFM currently mostly relies on financial resources from international partners, which is unsustainable by nature. There is an urgent need to develop alternative funding options. Monitors can reduce mission costs by relying on field-level information gathered by local monitors and/or local organizations specifically trained.

In practice: In Indonesia, IFM organizations and donor agencies established the IFM Fund, a fund management institution for IFM activities.  To date, the Fund has largely relied on international support. They have identified several options for sustainable funding, including: i) a percentage of the V-Legal/FLEGT licensing tax; ii) the annual State Budget Allocation; iii) the Environmental Fund Management Agency; iv) REDD+ results-based payments; v) crowdfunding.


Lesson 9: Real-time monitoring allows communities to record and send georeferenced alerts on illegal activities in the forest, even from areas with no connectivity.

IFM is a demanding function requiring lengthy missions to hard-to-reach areas.  This can be overcome by training communities who already live in and around forest areas to use real-time community-based monitoring tools, such as Rainforest UK’s ForestLink system. This tool connects local people to law enforcement authorities by allowing communities to send alerts and evidence of illegalities even in remote areas with no mobile connectivity. These systems are comparatively low-cost to operate and can be adapted to address a range of threats, including illegal logging and illegal mining.

In practice: The Ivorian CSO, Initiatives for Community Development and Forest Conservation (Initiatives pour le Développement Communautaire et la Conservation de la Forêt, IDEF) partnered with the Rainforest Foundation UK (RFUK) to develop and deploy the real-time IFM platform ForestLink in Côte d’Ivoire. RFUK trained IDEF and two local CSOs on how to use the platform, who then cascaded knowledge to their respective members, building a network of real-time monitoring through the collective use of ForestLink. Local independent forest monitors are now able to use the system’s Collectaur application, used to report in real time any illegal activity witnessed.


Lesson 10: Expanding IFM outside the forestry sector could ensure more holistic monitoring of illegalities in forest landscapes.

As the scope and impact of IFM in the forest sector grow, there is increasing interest in expanding the IFM methodology to other commodities, such as palm oil, cocoa or coffee. Indeed, more robust governance in other supply chains is key to curbing illegal and unplanned deforestation.

Combining independent monitoring efforts between timber extraction and other commodities could prove cost-efficient as the above commodities often encroach on forest land. It is crucial that careful planning considers the different nature and modalities of extraction, and therefore the difference in illegalities, and that context-specific methodologies are put in place.

In practice: In Indonesia, JPIK has engaged in broader forest governance and the fight to combat deforestation by extending forest monitoring in the palm oil sector since 2017. JPIK are part of the Coalition on Palm Oil Moratorium to encourage the government to extend the moratorium to accelerate the countries governance reform of the palm oil sector. Meanwhile, in Bengkulu province, support from IFM helped one community advocate for protecting their forests, which were threatened by illegal encroachment by companies clearing land for palm oil plantations. Monitors joined forces with the media to disseminate their findings, bringing the issue to the attention of law enforcement agencies, ultimately leading to the arrest of responsible illegal loggers.


Read more:

Experiences from Frontline Forest Communities: Covid-19 impacts on Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, women and forest and wildlife illegality in the Congo Basin

NGO-state relations in the monitoring of illegal forest logging and wildlife trafficking in Central Africa

Inclusive independent forest monitoring bolsters good forest governance

New report highlights the importance of Indonesian Independent Forest Monitoring’s contribution to the SVLK


[1] FAO and UNEP. 2020. The State of the World’s Forests 2020. Forests, biodiversity and people. Rome.

[2] The Indonesian Timber Legality Assurance System (TLAS) provides assurance that timber and timber products

produced and processed in Indonesia come from legal sources and are in full compliance with relevant Indonesian laws and regulations, as verified by independent auditing and monitored by civil society. (Indonesia Annex. I Art. 1)

[3] Implementing the VPA is subject, inter alia, to the proper functioning of a legality verification system, timber traceability and an independent audit of the system. Congolese civil society, a stakeholder in the process, is to help implement the Agreement by means of a formal local structure based on the results of and experience gained in the IFM project carried out in Congo between 2007 and 2009 by Resources Extraction Monitoring and Forest Monitor. (ROC Annex IX Art 2)