Many elements are necessary to understand possibilities of land use change, including the presence of areas with cultural values, archaeological or historical significance, and/or of critical cultural or religious/sacred importance for the traditional cultures of local communities or indigenous peoples. And you are correct to point out the importance of interviews with the local community to understand land use changes overtime.
Something to maybe be considered, as you indicated, is to “investigate” possible land clearance one should check before going on site, the auditor would have information that would help him make the “right questions” to the auditee in relation to this topic and solve any misunderstanding during the audit itself.
Google Earth was historical photographs than can be checked to help identify possible land clearance. Not sure if for remote locations there is much data, but it can be helpful. I suggest you all take a look it could be a useful tool.
To previous identify a HCV, the auditor can also do a search on available websites to gather information about protected areas and threatened species, such as http://www.ramsar.org , http://www.iucnredlist.org, http://www.birdlife.org and Integrated Biodiversity Assessment Tool (IBAT) for Business form IUCN, UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nevertheless, the auditor must use the precautionary approach, meaning that when there are reasonable indications that an HCV is present, the auditor should assume that it is present.
During the audit, ask for maps of their area, demonstration the land use and the types of areas. A visual inspection is also necessary, during the farm tour. Native vegetation, riparian areas for example are easy to spot. Interviews with residents and with employees of the auditee is also a good source of information to determine Species Diversity in the site (protection of water catchments and control of erosion of vulnerable soils and slopes), Landscape-level ecosystems (Intact forest Landscapes), Ecosystems and habitats (Rare, threatened, or endangered ecosystems, habitats or refugia), websites for Local or indigenous Community needs for health livelihoods, water, food, and areas of Cultural Values.
The amount of carbon and biodiversity stored within an area of land varies according to the type of vegetative cover. The HCS Approach stratifies the vegetation in an area of land into six different classes using analyses of satellite data and ground survey measurements. These six classes are: High Density Forest, Medium Density Forest , Low Density Forest , Young Regenerating Forest , Scrub, and Cleared/ Open Land. The first four classes are considered potential High Carbon Stock forests.
The areas that can be used for development should be the lands with low carbon and biodiversity values. In the HCV classification, these areas are Scrubs and Cleared/Open Land.
To clear an area for agricultural production and for any large or high-risk greenfield expansion or new infrastructure projects, the Certified organization shall perform a comprehensive Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (a structured and technically based process for predicting and assessing the potential environmental and social impacts of a proposed project, and the designating of appropriate compensation, mitigation, management and monitoring measures to deal with negative impacts) to identify potentially harmful or damaging impacts and to define a Management Plan to address these where necessary.
The ESIA must be commensurate to the scale of the operation and infrastructure. It must take into account the sustainability of the environment, wildlife and endangered species, and the social impact on the local population including, where relevant, indigenous people and traditional land users. Guidance from government, academia or other recognized experts should be obtained, as applicable, to complete the ESIA. Where existing, national regulations related to such assessment must be complied with.
Finally, as you have indicated, the auditor must check if Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of local and/or indigenous communities was used and the establishment of Grievance mechanisms was done by the Economic Operator prior to the use of the land in question.