Cutting through the REDD tape of our first forest audit

An ‘audit’. The word alone is enough to turn the auditee into a blubbering mess. Being audited is a modern day malaise, a process in which you pay the auditor to professionally criticise everything you do.

Yes that’s right, you pay THEM. Kind of like paying someone to slowly remove each of your toenails. Risk assessment conducted? Check. Field plots measured according to specified precision? Check. Standard Operating Procedures developed and followed? Check. All trees in every plot measured? Errrr…

Understandably, I was feeling a little anxious upon commencement of field verification of the Danau Siawan peat swamp forest REDD project. This is Fauna & Flora International’s (FFI) first project to undergo verification to the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS), and also the first verification under FFI’s partnership with Macquarie/BioCarbon.

The stakes are higher than Rupert Murdoch’s legal bills: If we pass the audit, we will be able to sell our carbon in the voluntary carbon market, which will finance our conservation activities on the site. If we fail the audit, well…. the project will likely fail, and this high biodiversity site will almost certainly be converted to an oil palm plantation. A critical orang-utan habitat will be lost, and millions of tons of greenhouse gases will be emitted to the atmosphere.

In short, it’s a very important step in our project, and myself and the field team feel on-edge and eager to impress.

FFI's Zoe Ryan

Fauna & Flora International's Zoe Ryan

The local bees were apparently aware of our anxiety, and decided to assist with stunning display of aparian diversity. Vast swarms descended on the auditor as she stumbled out of the boat to arrive at the field site, and continued to hover around us throughout the audit process. It was about 100% humidity and 35 Co.

In between fluctuating bouts of bee-swatting and cursing, our auditor observed our field team setting up a new field sample plot. She observed their technical prowess in operation of technical gadgetry as a GPS, Densitometer, Distometer and… well, a measuring tape. She then re-measured the plots herself to compare our field data to hers. The initial response was very positive, with the auditor declaring our procedures among the best she has seen so far.

We retired to our rice bag hammocks that evening very proud, quietly confident, and seeking respite from the heat and bees, which, like a changing of the guards, were replaced by mosquitoes at exactly 5.30pm.

Day Two, however, was our fall from grace. An error in our peat bulk density sampling was identified, and re-measurement of one of our aboveground biomass plots revealed two large trees missing from the initial inventory. Fortunately, our errors err on the side of conservatism. Our auditor assured us that while there is room for improvement, such errors are commonplace in these conditions. We were genuinely blind-sided by these findings, and returned back to camp feeling like the goal keeper who let one through to the net to lose the final.

On Day Three, the auditor checked the boundaries of the field team’s previous plots, including both plot length and angles. Our plot measurements proved a little wonky, but within the acceptable error boundaries for this forest type. We then returned back to the field office via speedboat, to enjoy some well-earned luxuries such as a bed, cold shower and a bit of food that resembled a bee graveyard.

The success of the field audit is entirely due to the diligence and passion of our field team leaders (Hanjoyo and Dr Gusti Anshari), and their field teams. I have never encountered field team leaders with such a pure love of measuring things. It is a rare thing to find people able to stick to such high standards, amidst such difficult conditions.

FFI’s Zoe Ryan talks to ‘Wood. Naturally Better’ about her role as a forest carbon specialist

The next step will be to conduct the desktop based audit, in which our Project Document, calculations, stratification, monitoring report, risk management procedures etc will be assessed. This will likely take place in about September this year, in Melbourne.

I now feel quietly confident about our ability to successfully pass this requirement, although final sign-off of the verification will not be provided until the site is awarded an Ecosystem Restoration Concession license.

The site will also be undergoing verification to the Climate Community and Biodiversity Standard in around August – October. This involves an assessment of our biodiversity monitoring plan; as well as a critique of the ‘Free, Prior and Informed Consent’ process and livelihoods development work lead by FFI staff member, Jane Dunlop.

The objective is to improve the wellbeing of the communities surrounding the project site, by investing in sustainable livelihoods activities. I wonder if honey production will be one of these?