This article is the first in a four-part series on a global study on Oil Palm Adaptive Landscapes.
A group of farmers from rural Kutai Kartanegara district in the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan gather round what looks like an ordinary board game – there are tokens, cards, play money; the usual game pieces. But the farmers are not just here to have fun. Their aim is to tackle a major issue that affects the environment and their livelihoods: palm oil.
The small-scale oil palm growers are taken through a series of participatory role-playing exercises – following the Companion Modeling, or ComMod, approach – to help them better understand how the decisions they make today can affect their future and impact the environment.
Once reserved for military war games, this approach has been developed and expanded over the past two decades to include the complex issues of renewable resources and environmental management.
The Center for International Forestry Research, CIFOR, is part of a consortium of international institutions led by the Swiss-based University, ETH Zurich, that is using ComMod to help chart a path toward more sustainable palm oil.
It’s part of a six-year project called OPAL, Oil Palm Adaptive Landscapes, being carried out in Cameroon, Colombia and Indonesia – some of the world’s biggest palm oil producers.
“We work with Ph.D. students in each country to develop the game from scratch. We begin by engaging with communities and identifying a palm oil issue they are deeply concerned about,” says Anne Dray, an ETH research fellow.
“Cameroon focused on palm-oil supply chain issues, Indonesia looked at oil-palm driven land-use changes, while Colombia is taking on biodiversity.”
The team identified the core elements of the game with local communities. With this information in hand, they went to work developing the game and ‘crash testing’ it to make sure it worked.
“The games show what is happening right now in the oil palm landscape. Players can explore different ways they can manage their land, and see for themselves what the future can hold and any pitfalls to avoid,” says CIFOR researcher, Heru Komarudin.
“We are also using this approach, not only with small-scale farmers but with major stakeholders and decision-makers in the three countries,” he adds.
THE ‘AHA’ MOMENT
Each game is slightly different depending on the issue, but basically it is played over several rounds with each player taking on a specific role: farmer, fisherman, miller, logger, official, plantation owner and so on. In each round, the players are faced with different scenarios and challenges and must make decisions before moving forward.
“In one scenario, farmers cut down trees and plant oil palm to make some quick cash. But later in the game, the pesticides they use pollutes the river and kills the fish their families rely on for food. Then they have to borrow money to feed their families,” says Nur Hasanah, a Ph.D. student from ETH Zurich.
“Some players actually shout out loud when they realize what their decision has led to,” she adds.
The games show what is happening right now in the oil palm landscape