Independent Monitoring in the forest sector: moving beyond law enforcement

Forests and trees make vital contributions to both people and the planet. They bolster livelihoods, provide clean air and water, conserve biodiversity and respond to climate change. However, the world’s forests are disappearing at an alarming pace. The year 2017 was the second worst on record for tropical tree cover loss,1 and 2018 the fourth-highest annual loss since record-keeping began in 2001.2 Direct human action – such as the clearing of forests for agriculture (beef, soy, palm oil), logging and other resource extraction (minerals, fossil fuels) – is the primary cause of deforestation. And this is occurring mainly in developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia.3

The forest sector is extremely vulnerable to problems of poor governance. There is often weak law enforcement and widespread illegality in the timber industry, and endemic corruption in many forest-rich countries.4 Donor governments and multilateral institutions have invested heavily in initiatives that aim to reduce deforestation, including by improving forest governance.

The EU Forest Law Environment, Governance and Trade Action Plan (FLEGT)5 and the initiative known as REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests, and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries)6 have generated interest and momentum in developing countries with tropical forests. This interest stems from these initiatives’ potential to unlock trade benefits and access international funding.7 This enhanced international cooperation is accompanied by calls for reform and improvements in forest governance coming from citizens, officials, private sector actors and donors. In this context, international and national NGOs have developed approaches for civil society to constructively contribute to improving forest governance. One of these approaches, known as Independent Monitoring, or IM, is increasingly gaining traction.

The present policy brief is based on the findings of a more extensive study on IM commissioned by the EU REDD Facility. It draws mainly on IM experience in Central Africa.8 The study examined IM since its inception, its refinement under various processes to negotiate or implement Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPA) on FLEGT, and its evolution to adapt to other initiatives related to the forest sector, such as REDD+. This brief introduces the concept of IM, highlights some of its key strengths and weaknesses, as well as some recent innovations. It also considers possible future applications of the approach, with the intention of inspiring further discussions among practitioners and other stakeholders.

Independent Monitoring: an innovative approach

There are two broad types of IM:9

  • Mandated IM: involves an official agreement with a national authority, usually the Ministry of Forests, or sub-national authorities. The mandated IM organisation commonly assesses compliance with the relevant forest laws, and the effectiveness of official forest law enforcement systems.
  • Non-mandated IM: this type of monitoring is done by civil society organisations without explicit agreement with, or endorsement from, governments. It can cover a range of issues, including respect for social and environmental legislation (including human rights), social clauses of logging contracts, free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), etc.

Spearheaded in the early 2000s by international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as Global Witness and Resource Extraction Monitoring, the approach was tested and refined in countries including Cambodia, Cameroon, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).10 Following these initial efforts, the IM model was taken up by local NGOs, building on the experience developed by international partners, and initially focusing on monitoring the implementation and enforcement of forest legislation (known as IM FLEG11) in the context of logging concessions. Several organisations engaging in IM gained legal mandates and official recognition of their role in improving forest governance. Others have operated without official mandates, applying the approaches and methodologies developed by mandated independent monitors.

The characteristics of the IM approach that usually get the most recognition from government and civil society alike are the professionalism and methodological expertise developed by its implementers. This has even led some national authorities to rely on the field reports of mandated independent monitors to fill the gaps in their own monitoring of forest concessions. In a growing number of countries in Africa and Asia, independent monitors’ role in the forest sector has been acknowledged in key policy documents (both FLEGT and REDD+). They are also increasingly being consulted by international NGOs and buyers doing their due diligence to ensure they only purchase legally produced products. IM field reports are also increasingly being published on international platforms, such as the Open Timber Portal, further increasing their reach.12

An independent monitor during a field inspection, Cameroon.

Challenges to the IM approach

The respective strengths and weaknesses of mandated and non-mandated IM largely include trade-offs between:

  • The ability to acquire information that is not freely accessible, and to include state representatives in field missions thereby reducing the chances that the findings will be disputed (mandated); and
  • The freedom from having to rely on the goodwill of the State to carry out field missions, which can suffer lengthy delays, as well as closer relationships with local communities and the ability to be more openly critical (non-mandated).

Whether mandated or not, the main challenges facing IM as a systematic tool for oversight of forest governance are largely financial and human. The costs of each field mission are relatively high, and long-term predictable core funding for IM is hard to come by. Experiments in trying to address this issue include sourcing funds from taxes on logging concessions or other payments (from donors) and managing them through national funds dedicated to IM.13 Additionally, IM expertise is often concentrated within few individuals or organisations, and the lack of coordination at the national level has led to multiplication of methodologies and varying quality of investigation and mission reports. Another challenge to IM is ensuring that the recommendations from field reports are acted on by the relevant authorities.

Coordination and flexibility are key

For IM to be effective on a national scale, coordination among the different organisations (mandated and non-mandated, central and local) engaging in this process is essential. One can cite two examples of national IM organisations banding together to develop networks to address these challenges: the Standardised Independent External Observation System (SNOIE or Système Normalisé d’Observation Indépendante Externe in French) developed in Cameroon (and under development in the Republic of the Congo); and the National Network of Independent Observers (RENOI or Réseau National des Observateurs Indépendants in French) in DRC.14

Improving the coordination of independent monitors through the establishment of formal networks

The Standardised External Independent Monitoring System (SNOIE) is a set of monitoring methods for the exploitation of natural resources currently certified to the international ISO standard 9001:2015.15 It encompasses structured collaboration among organisations engaging in observation, verification, communication and lobbying activities. The objective of the SNOIE is to harmonise methodologies and assist in coordinating non-mandated independent monitors in Cameroon. This model is also being piloted in the Republic of the Congo.16

In DRC, both mandated and non-mandated IM organisations have been collaborating to establish a national IM network, the National Network of Independent Observers (RENOI-RDC). The partners adopted a founding charter in November 2019, with the overall objective of contributing to enhanced law implementation and governance improvements in the natural resources extraction sector following a shared methodology. Similarly to the SNOIE, RENOI-RDC members aim to separate the observation, verification, communication and lobbying activities among members while ensuring close coordination. Initial intended scopes of application include:

  • Verifying legality of concessions and projects (FLEGT, REDD+ and others)
  • Oversight of REDD+ safeguard implementation
  • Monitoring the functioning of grievance redress and benefit distribution mechanisms

The basic principles of such collaboration include:

  • The development and use of shared methodologies.
  • Coordination between mandated and non-mandated independent monitors: this includes the division of tasks during missions based on their chosen scope of activities (that is, mandated IMs will focus on monitoring strict legality, while non-mandated IMs will look at the broader socioeconomic or environmental issues).
  • Coordination between national and sub-national organisations in identifying sites for investigations, carrying out investigations and providing training (where necessary, ensuring quality control of reports).
  • “Outsourcing” the advocacy work that follows up on the findings and recommendations from field missions to other members of the network. This enables mandated independent monitors to maintain their reputation as objective, technical actors.

An example of such coordination is taking place in the Republic of the Congo, where mandated IM FLEG and SNOIE-Congo are developing a joint strategy to coordinate their activities.17 Their collaboration is set to start in 2021.

Independent monitors are also beginning to coordinate at the regional level to harmonise approaches, share methodologies and build capacities. In particular, the Field Legality Advisory Group (FLAG), an NGO based in Cameroon, is currently the acting secretariat for an emerging regional network of independent monitors.18

Independent monitors during a field inspection, Cameroon.

An important strength of the IM approach is its flexibility. In several Congo Basin countries, local organisations engaged in IM have realised that the data collected on forest law enforcement and governance issues are also relevant to countries’ REDD+ and climate efforts. The high level of resources dedicated to REDD+ readiness activities, in the early days, led several of these organisations to apply their expertise to the REDD+ context to continue operating. These organisations adapted the IM FLEG methodology to enable scrutiny of selected aspects of the REDD+ process, particularly pilot project implementation, and with keen interest in ensuring that the emerging REDD+ safeguards are respected throughout implementation. The scope and application of IM is continuing to evolve as implementers test it and apply to emerging initiatives, such as the production of commodities linked to deforestation.

Independent Monitoring of FLEG and REDD+ in the Congo Basin

The initial scope of IM focused on forest law enforcement and governance (IM FLEG). However, with the increasing level of resources dedicated to REDD+ readiness activities, NGOs typically involved in IM FLEG have cast their net wider, starting to scrutinise the REDD+ process, particularly pilot project implementation.

In DRC, the evolution of IM to include REDD+ was spearheaded by the Observatoire de Gouvernance des Forêts (OGF) with support from the Forest Legal Advisory Group (FLAG) and funding from various donors and technical partners, including the EU REDD Facility. This initiative resulted in the definition of scopes of application for IM-REDD (including legality of REDD+ projects, social and environmental safeguards, grievance redress and benefit distribution mechanisms), as well as the development of a methodology, several diagnostic matrices and checklists comprised of indicators to evaluate performance.19 Members of the RENOI-RDC are building on this experience for the development of a unified IM methodology in DRC.

In the Republic of the Congo, the EU REDD Facility has encouraged discussions with IMs from DRC to enable regional exchange of experiences on IM-REDD. This has led to the elaboration of a scope of activities for IM-REDD+ (legality of deforestation, degradation and reforestation activities and REDD+ projects, social and environmental safeguards, verifying the application of project management procedures and manuals, compliance with contractual obligations, and benefit distribution mechanisms), the development of initial methodologies and some pilot testing.

In the same vein, the Congolese Observatory for Human Rights (OCDH) developed a guide for external independent observation conducted by local communities and indigenous peoples as part of the FLEGT, REDD+ and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) processes.20 It is based on the recognition that all three processes share the objective of improving governance of the exploitation of natural resources, and the essential role played by local communities and indigenous peoples in this endeavour.

Independent Monitoring of commodity production

To be effective and sustainable, the implementation of corporate zero-deforestation commitments in commodity-producing countries cannot be decoupled from actions to address local and national governance challenges, such as land-use planning, land registration and monitoring, as they are important preconditions for zero-deforestation production.21 These actions can be initiated by, and enshrined in, policy declarations,22 leading to the development of jurisdiction-wide plans or policies23 and/or public-private partnership agreements (where subnational governments work in conjunction with agribusiness, farmer groups and civil society).24 Such approaches are attractive as they can potentially cover a range of products along the supply chains in a region and help identify high-risk areas. They can also help link local-level producers to commodity buyers, thus improving transparency and helping the latter to mitigate the risks in their sourcing processes.25 Similarly to FLEGT and REDD+, such public-private partnerships or public sector commitments provide independent monitors with the legal “hook” necessary to hold commodity producers and investors accountable.

Furthermore, ongoing legal developments in the EU and the UK point to increasing regulation to take account of deforestation in all supply chains. In this context, IM could be called upon to provide companies in Europe with robust and credible information on the production of forest-risk commodities. In fact, SNOIE has already indicated that it will expand its scope to other commodities aside timber, as well as other countries of the Congo basin.

Many different aspects of commodity production could be subjected to Independent Monitoring, including:

  • Administrative legality: with appropriate mandates and funds, IM organisations could, as a first step, carry out similar activities to IM FLEG, namely verifying the legality of commodity production sites (land-use permit/concession contract, management plan). The illegalities detected could be communicated to both the government and the companies sourcing from the area.
  • Social and environmental obligations enshrined in national law: many zero-deforestation commitments involve commitments beyond strict “no-deforestation”, namely, to preserve High Conservation Value ecosystems and peatlands, as well as commitments to ensuring FPIC for land acquisitions.26 Often, but not always, these commitments are enshrined in national legislation (particularly human rights, biodiversity and environmental impact assessment legislation). Independent monitors could evaluate whether these broader social and environmental legal obligations were respected during the development of management plans and commodity production, drawing on their experience in evaluating environmental contractual clauses of logging contracts, or even REDD+ safeguards.
  • Jurisdictional sustainability commitments: where there is no applicable national legislation covering the different aspects of sustainability identified above, independent monitors could assess the implementation of (subnational) jurisdictional sustainability commitments. As mentioned above, jurisdictional zero-deforestation or sustainability commitments are often led by subnational governments and will generally include one or more public-private partnership(s). The “hook” for IM in these cases will be the policy declaration by the relevant government entity, and/ or the contract/MoU with relevant private actors, which outline the nature of the commitment. These can be used by the independent monitors to hold governments or commodity purchasers accountable. How to evaluate progress towards achieving these goals is nevertheless a challenge. EFI is supporting the Indonesian Government to monitor jurisdictional sustainably indicators to enable stakeholders to demonstrate progress towards sustainability targets.27 independent monitors could use some (or all, depending on their capacity) indicators such as these to define the scope of what they will evaluate and structure their reports. This could help prevent independent monitors from defining the scope of what is to be evaluated too broadly, instead selecting limited criteria.
  • Deforestation linked to commodity production: monitoring producers’ impact on deforestation will likely involve acquiring information on demarcated production sites (primarily plantation/concession maps) and comparing them with data from remote-sensing approaches and geospatial tools. While such remote-sensing approaches are highly useful, ideally, where needed, these findings would be supplemented by field missions and/or data from field workers. This would enable an effective mapping of plantations or other production sites, which can subsequently be analysed by the independent monitors and cross-referenced with government land-use maps.28 However, access to this data is not guaranteed. For independent monitors to effectively track the link between commodity production and deforestation, better and possibly more formal coordination between the independent monitors in the capitals and organisations in a position to gather local level data is needed, as well as significant financial and technical support to develop monitoring capacity. Furthermore, there is a need to rely on independent monitors who have no personal relationship with the producers to be inspected. However, bringing in independent monitors from other parts of the country can increase costs significantly.

Independent monitors during a field inspection, Republic of the Congo.

Independent Monitoring of Nationally Determined Contributions

Many nationally determined contributions (NDCs) include targets for reducing deforestation, and there is potentially much to be gained by framing IM activities as contributing to the transparency and implementation of NDCs. Without significant improvements to governance, including more effective monitoring, initiatives to mitigate carbon emissions from the forest sectors contained in the NDCs risk failing, not to mention potentially threaten the land rights and livelihoods of vulnerable communities.

While increased participation in, and accountability of, NDCs is desirable, the capacities and mechanisms for civil society to monitor and track the emission reductions from forest sector mitigation activities are currently limited due to its technical complexities and lack of access to government data.29 In the short to medium term at least, the greatest potential added value of IM in relation to NDCs is to focus on the governance aspect of forest, and potentially land-use mitigation actions. NDCs are prepared and implemented in several stages, including the design of the mitigation measures, the elaboration of implementation and investment plans, the improvement of capacities and institutions, and finally, implementation.30 Each stage could potentially be subjected to IM. However, at least in the short-term, the most pragmatic application of IM in the context of NDCs could be to focus on monitoring the implementation of individual activities contained in government action plans. This could include monitoring of their adherence to legal requirements and sustainability requirements (enshrined in law, in safeguards linked to the delivery of funds, or in specific contractual agreements between implementers and local governments and/or populations). The high-profile and multi-stakeholder nature of national NDC dialogues can also provide a new forum for highlighting some of the weaknesses of land-use governance and for driving forest and land-use governance reforms.


IM is not a specific tool, a single system or a one-serves-all approach. It is rather a diversity of approaches and initiatives with the purpose of increasing transparency and improving governance through constructive, evidence-based engagement and rigorous application of professional methods. Independent monitors have increasingly built on the legitimacy acquired in the fields of FLEGT and applied their skills to other fields within the natural resource sector, such as REDD+, with further expansion potentially including commodity production and possibly even NDCs.

It is important to emphasise that, for IM to truly have an impact on natural resource governance, after the investigations and production of analytical reports, these findings need to reach the appropriate audience. These are, for instance, national governments of both producing and consuming countries, the EU in the VPA context, the World Bank and the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI). In the REDD+ context, this audience is the Green Climate Fund (GCF). For tracking progress on NDCs, the audience is also the UNFCCC. And in the context of commodity production, the audience are international NGOs, private sector actors and the general public. Also, the role of IM is not primarily to engage in advocacy. Rather, it is to generate trust by producing reliable, rigorously documented evidence, linked to the performance of legal or contractual obligations. The establishment of networks between mandated and non-mandated independent monitors, as well as more advocacy-minded organisations engaged in the scrutiny of natural resource governance, can be an effective way of leveraging the respective strengths of the different network members. This will in turn influence natural resource governance and reform processes more effectively (subject to the availability of resources).

Ten years ago, the forest sector in most countries was centralised, opaque and non- participatory. Despite the major improvements made through FLEGT and REDD+, the situation remains critical. In these policy contexts, IM has earned its stripes as a legitimate activity through which non-state actors can influence natural resource governance. Its application to corporate and public sector commitments to decoupling commodities from deforestation or even NDCs can potentially help open up the agricultural, and more broadly the land-use sector to similar improvements.


  1. According to recent data from the University of Maryland reported on Global Forest Watch.
  2. Based on updated data from the University of Maryland reported on Global Forest Watch.
  3. FAO. 2018. The State of the World’s Forests 2018 – Forest pathways to sustainable development. Rome.
  4. Interpol (2016) Uncovering risks of corruption in the forestry sector. content/uploads/2017/12/INTERPOL_2016_Uncovering-the-Risks-of-Corruption-in-the-Forestry-Sector.pdf
  5. European Commission, Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT): Proposal for an EU Action Plan, COM (2003) 251 (Brussels, 21 May 2003), available at: PDF/?uri=CELEX:52003DC0251&from=EN
  6. Where REDD+ is most relevant to forest governance is that the provision of result-based payments for any achieved emission reductions is conditioned on countries ‘promoting and supporting’ social and environmental safeguards, which include ensuring “transparency and effectiveness of forest governance structures”, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties, Decision 1/CP.16 Appendix I paragraph 2. For general information on REDD+:
  7. See Global Witness (2009) Building Confidence in REDD+: monitoring beyond carbon. archive/files/pdfs/building_confidence_in_redd_finalen.pdf and Cashore, B., Leipold, S., and Cerutti, P., O., (2016) Global Governance Approaches to Addressing Illegal Logging: Uptake and Lessons Learnt in Kleinschmit, D., Mansourian, S., Wildburger, C., Purret, A., (2016) Illegal Logging and Related Timber Trade – Dimensions, Drivers, Impacts and Responses IUFRO Word Series Vol 35, Vienna.
  8. Taking consulting (2019), Independent Monitoring for FLEGT, REDD+ and beyond
  9. Forest Monitor, Resource Extraction Monitoring, Cercle d’Appui à la Gestion Durable des Forêts (2013) Independent Monitoring: A practical manual.
  10. and Brack, D., Leger, C., (2013) Exploring credibility gaps in Voluntary Partnership Agreements: A review of independent monitoring initiatives and lessons to learn. wp-content/uploads/2015/09/736.pdf
  11. In this instance, the acronym is spelt without a ‘T’ as the mandate of these civil society organisations is not to monitor trade.
  13. On 27 April 2017, an Independent Forest Monitoring Fund (IFM Fund) trust fund was set up, with support from DFID, to support the activities of independent monitors.
  14. See Young, D., (2016) Independent Forest Monitoring in Africa, update and OGF (2018) Stratégie d’observation indépendante de la gouvernance des ressources naturelles en République démocratique du Congo 2018 – 2023.
  15. The SNOIE is the first certified IM system in the world:
  18. FLAG (2018) Atelier de renforcement institutionnel de la plateforme régionale des OSC mettant en œuvre l’Observation Indépendante. Compte rendu final.
  21. EU FLEGT and REDD facilities (2017) EFI Briefing achieving zero deforestation commitments – lessons from FLEGT VPAs.
  22. For instance, the Rio Branco Declaration (RBD), under which 35 jurisdictions committed to reducing deforestation by 80% by 2020.
  23. Ranging from broad ‘green growth’ policies (e.g. East Kalimantan, Indonesia), to payment for ecosystem services programmes (e.g. Quintana Roo and Chiapas, Mexico), to initiatives that give value to sustainable agricultural and forestry products (e.g. cocoa in Huánuco, Peru; non-timber forest products in Amapá, Brazil). Stickler, C., Duchelle, A. E., Nepstad, D., and Ardila, J.P., (2018) Subnational jurisdictional approaches, policy innovation and partnerships for change.
  24. Nearly half of the 39 jurisdictions examined in a CIFOR review of jurisdictional approaches have established partnerships with companies (six of them with formal contracts) targeting formal preferential sourcing, financial investment, or technical assistance to the jurisdiction. Stickler, C., Duchelle, A. E., Nepstad, D., and Ardila, J.P., (2018) Subnational jurisdictional approaches, policy innovation and partnerships for change in Angelsen A, Martius C, De Sy V, Duchelle AE, Larson AM and Pham TT (eds). 2018. Transforming REDD+: Lessons and new directions. Bogor, Indonesia: CIFOR.
  25. SNV Smit, H., McNally, R., Gijsenbergh (2015) Implementing Deforestation-Free Supply Chains – Certification and Beyond. SNV.
  26. Castka P, Leaman D, Shand D, Cellarius D, Healy T, Mead ATP, de Franco MRB and Timoshyna A. (2016) Certification and biodiversity – How voluntary certification standards impact biodiversity and human livelihoods. Policy Matters, Issue 21. Gland, Switzerland: Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy (CEESP) and International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Issue%2021.pdf
  27. EFI (2018) Tracking sustainable palm oil and defining jurisdictional sustainability at scale. documents/15552/460846/Terpecaya-Study-English.pdf/fa9388e2-748f-901d-d0b8-ea3d08ae4c62 initial draft of indicators 3995-36209a55ac97
  28. The remote-sensing approaches would likely be sufficient in the case of unplanned large-scale deforestation. In the case of small-scale deforestation, for example due to cocoa production, partially under forest cover, there are obvious limits to remote sensing. These could be addressed by complementary IM work in the field.
  29. De Sy, V., Herold, M., Martius, C., Bottcher, H., Fritz, S., Gaveau, D., Leonard, S., Romijn, E., Roman-Cuesta, R., M., (2016) Enhancing transparency in the land-use sector Exploring the role of independent monitoring approaches. CIFOR Info Brief No 156.
  30. Röser, F. et al. 2016. After Paris: What is next for Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs)? New Climate Institute. GIZ determined-contributions-indcs