Across the world, multiple certification schemes are using the HCV approach to strengthen their efforts to preserve areas of key value for people and ecosystems within commodities production and trade.

It was the late 1990’s when the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) developed the High Conservation Value (HCV) concept to make sure that forest managers could identify and maintain forests of critical importance for nature and people. The concept evolved into the HCV approach, which puts the conservation of key natural and cultural sites at the heart of land management and provides ways to identify and uphold those values that can be adapted to any place or commodity.

Standards and the HCV approach

Since then, several major certification schemes have embedded the HCV approach in their standards, and some are actively working with the HCV Network to make sure the commodities they certify protect environmental, social, and cultural values. Depending on their focus, the schemes leverage the HCV approach differently. Here are some examples:

  • Maintaining and enhancing HCVs has been central to FSC Standards. Forest managers must boost their efforts to find and safeguard environmental and social values in forest areas and treat any threat to HCVs as a threat of severe or irreversible damage. Engaging with indigenous and local communities that rely on HCVs is also a staple for FSC certification. Wood used in products with the FSC Mix labelled, must not be linked with the destruction of HCVs.
  • As part of its principles and criteria, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) requires palm oil growers to identify, manage, and monitor HCVs. RSPO’s Principle 7 dictates that land clearing must not cause deforestation or damage to any area required to protect or enhance High Conservation Values.  
  • Bonsucro leverages the HCV approach to assess the impacts of sugarcane production on biodiversity and ecosystems services, as well as social values.
  • The Better Cotton Initiative worked with the HCV Network on revising its principles and criteria to include the HCV approach and biodiversity management tools into the Better Cotton Standard, and to make them more accessible for smallholder farmers. The HCV Network also collaborated with Better Cotton Initiative to develop simple tools for cotton famers to map and maintain biodiversity on and around their farms.
  • Fairtrade uses the HCV approach as part of its Standards, and the HCV Network is currently collaborating with Fairtrade to provide producers – many of whom are smallholder farmers – with simple guidance to identify and maintain HCVs on and around their farms.
  • Companies that source Rainforest Alliance certified products are committing to protect HCVs. The HCV tools developed by the HCV Network in collaboration with RA for their newly updated Standard, is used by farmers to understand threats, maintain values, and how to put in place management and monitoring plans for these HCVs.

As of late 2020, we identified 18 certification standards using HCV in some way as part of their scheme. Some of these, like the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) require a set of assessments prior to expansion of cultivation to make sure that new plantings are not established at the expense of HCVs. Other schemes such as the FSC, Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade, use the HCV approach to protect outstanding values in all certified farms and forest management areas.

One-size-fits-all?
Across the years, the HCV Network has worked with several schemes to develop simpler, risk-based HCV tools for smallholders’ use, who often don’t have the needs of bigger companies.

Where the risks for HCVs could be low, the aim is to avoid adding requirements beyond those of the certification standard. This may require schemes to add to or amend their standards based on ‘HCV lens’ gap analyses. Where risks are medium, farmers need to adopt risk mitigation measures that lowers threats. Where risks are high and difficult to mitigate, e.g. for large-scale clearings and conversions of natural forests for cotton fields, schemes normally require HCV assessments conducted by a HCVN licensed assessor.

Looking forward
The HCV Network recognises that each standard has its specific uses and needs, and therefore we will continue to work with certification companies to tailor the use of the HCV approach to their needs. So far, the HCV Network has largely focused on developing tools to effectively operationalise HCV requirements, in particular on identifying HCVs. Standards also require more support, including: more operational guidance on HCV management and monitoring, auditing to verify that HCVs have been effectively identified and are maintained, as well as assessing how landscape applications of the HCV approach can support certification schemes to deliver environmental and social benefits beyond the farm and into the wider landscape.

It can be a significant challenge for smallholder farmers to enter sustainability markets. Yet they produce a big share of the total traded amounts of cocoa, natural rubber, palm oil, and many other crops and commodities. Poverty, lack of clear tenure and low productivity push smallholders to clear forests, contribute to land degradation and higher greenhouse gas emissions. To help smaller growers, the HCV Network works with Proforest to provide a set of simple set of positive practices that smallholders can use outside certification. The initiative, called Forest Friendly Farming, is designed to help companies implement their HCV and forest protection commitments by incentivising and supporting smallholders to qualify as suppliers. The approach may also serve as a first step towards certification, and/or to keep controversial materials out of products that contain a mix of certified and uncertified materials.