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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.


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

Heru Komarudin, CIFOR researcher
   Pesticides from oil palm plantations can pollute nearby rivers, affecting fish as a major food source. CIFOR Photo/Nur Hasanah


ComMod is flexible, and the gameplay is refined as more games are played and more data and feedback from the field is gathered. The process promotes dialogue, shared learning and collective decision-making, and helps strengthen the management capacity of communities.

“As part of the role-playing exercise, players are invited to switch roles, put themselves in the shoes of someone who would hold very antagonistic views on the same system. But through the process they can understand why people behave the way they do,” notes Dray.

Dray says most participants look forward to the role-playing part of the game, but actually it’s the whole process — from identifying the issues, the core elements to be played out and the end results — that have an impact too.

She says the game is a great way to build trust, which is key to solving problems. People feel safe when they play the game, she says, and even sensitive issues can be addressed through play, provided it is done in a trustful and well-facilitated environment.

“The players come up with different scenarios they can try out, which is something you can’t do in the field. As they play the game they begin to connect the dots,” says Dray.

She points to Cameroon, where during the game the farmers decided to set up a palm oil cooperative.

“Halfway through, they realized that some people might not want to join. So setting up the co-op wouldn’t be as easy as they first thought and they would have to come up with regulations to deal with that,” says Dray.

As researchers, we can’t tell people what to do. But this approach is a way for people to explore the decision-making process.

Anne Dray, ETH research fellow
   A man transports palm fruit by motorcycle. The ComMod approach is helping players understand the perspectives of others in the palm oil supply chain. CIFOR Photo/Nur Hasanah


The researchers say the ComMod game is a tool, and for significant change to happen they need the right people to be involved — the people who have power and want to make the right choices for the environment and community livelihoods.

“As researchers, we can’t tell people what to do. But this approach is a way for people to explore the decision-making process. It pushes boundaries and gives people a chance to realize the consequences of their actions before they happen,” says Dray.

Indonesia and Cameroon have completed the first round of games, and Colombia is ready to go to the field to play for the first time. Over the next two years, the researchers will be analyzing and evaluating data and returning to the field to look at new issues, and to see if there can be more ‘winners’ of the game in real life.

Part 2: Indonesia’s game of palms: Finding ways to conserve forests in the face of expanding plantations

Part 3: Playing the long game with palm oil: Using role-play to improve landscape management in Cameroon 

Part 4: Sketching out sustainable futures: New methods for mapping and planning in Colombia 

For more information on this topic, please contact Heru Komarudin at or Pablo Pacheco at
This research was supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), the Swiss Programme for Research on Global Issues for Development and the Luc Hoffman Institute.
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