Navigating conflicts in La Cuenca

Watershed stakeholders use game theory to sustainably share water
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An oil palm worker is shown from behind working with a long hook to take out oil palm kernels
A worker from Palmas del Cesar palm oil company cuts palm trees fruit that later will be processed as palm oil for export in Minas, Colombia. Photo used under Creative Commons license. Solidarity Center/Carlos Villalon

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“El Rio Cravo Sur is born in the Andes at 3,800 meters above sea level,” says Camila Cammaert who leads World Wildlife Fund-Colombia’s sustainable food systems projects. “And when it flows down into Colombia’s eastern plains it feeds la cuenca, the basin, and that’s where a lot of industries are waiting to use it.”

That basin is the Orinoco Basin which covers eastern Colombia and most of neighboring Venezuela. Cravo Sur is one of many tributaries that drains into it. But the river supports not just the savanna and the wildlife that live there.

Cities in the Casanare Department depend on it. So do farmers and their rice fields and ranchers and their cattle. “And then there are the palm oil plantations,” Cammaert says. She pauses to weigh her words. “In many parts of the world, palm oil plantations are associated with deforestation. That’s not the case in Colombia,” she says. “Our challenge here is how to face the use of water.”

Counting the dry days

Because Colombia is so close to the equator, its seasons don’t change much. Nevertheless, Cammaert says the basin’s dry seasons are very dry, and its wet seasons are very wet. And when the regions’ water resource planners give out water use permits to these industries in the basin, they don’t take the dry seasons into account.

“So, they allocate water permits with this miscalculation,” she says. “There’s a time of the year when, if you don’t plan well, you’re going to start to have water stress in the region.”

WWF-Colombia was already working with the community on this problem and had a water stewardship program in place when the palm oil sector came calling. “They said ‘We know you are working in this specific landscape, and we have this challenge of water governance and we’re struggling,’” Cammaert says.

Cammaert thought up a board game specifically designed to bring together all the important stakeholders in a landscape’s palm oil industry. “We played the version designed for Cameroon’s palm oil industry which focused on supply chain problems,” she says.

So, she worked with the Oil Palm Adaptive Landscapes Program (OPAL), a consortium of international institutions, led by Swiss university ETH Zurich, that is charting a path toward more sustainable palm oil. OPAL graduate students in Zurich designed a game specifically for Colombia and the Orinoco River Basin. They called the game La Cuenca.

A period of recovery

Orinoco Basin has the most extensive area planted to oil palms in Colombia, although the older plantations are in the north and central part of the country. Palm oil plantations were expanding and were expected to keep growing in region until a bud rot epidemic broke out in the 1990s. The disease affects the oil palms’ spear leaf and heart and can destroy whole plantations.

“The public sector was very positive about palm oil and they were expecting a huge development of the sector,” Cammaert says. “But the palm oil sector itself was more conservative. They were saying they didn’t need to expand. They needed to increase productivity because of bud rot disease. It was more of a period of recovery.”

When the board game came to Colombia it was so big it needed to be spread out on a long table. It was a game for a large group of people. The image on it was blockish and simple: Jagged peaks on the top portion portrayed the Andes mountains, the triangles and blocks tapered into a narrow swath of land with a blue river in the middle. Cravo Sur. Orinoco Basin.

Different-colored triangles represented different landscapes: green cards with drawings of a thick forest canopy, green cards with the unmistakable rows of oil palms, savannas with water features, flooded green paddies for rice fields, and grassy fields with brown blobs that are presumably cattle. Little blue pieces symbolized water, and as they moved down Cravo Sur into the basin, players grabbed them.

Around the table were stakeholders who represented companies, communities, resource managers and nonprofits who worked in and surrounded the real basin in real life. In the board game, as in real life, they said, “Who is using all the water? We need some of that water. How can we share the water without using it all up?”

Openness

“When we play the game, we’re actually seeing how the choices made by the different stakeholders directly affected water availability in the basin,” Cammaert says. “I think the game makes them more open to each other. It breaks some of the preconceptions, attitudes, and expectations they might have had about other stakeholders.”

Cammaert believes this experience will help the group have more open discussions in their real-life interactions about shared water governance.

This is not the only project that OPAL has in Colombia. Cammaert’s OPAL colleague Andreas Etter is looking into the effects of oil palm plantations on Colombia’s biodiversity. Another colleague, Alejandra Rueda Zárate, handles programs supporting smallholders and small-scale farmers in the oil palm industry. Zárate also works to advance sustainability certifications among oil palm farmers in the country.

Cammaert is optimistic that the game will help consolidate the basin’s water governance platform. “They are now open to work jointly, to have discussions, and to move forward with the implementation of different changes,” she says. “I think with the support of the game, things turned out better than if we just held another workshop. It was very innovative, and they were very enthusiastic.”

As for the game, Cammaert says it will be adapted to be played in another region in Colombia that also has a water governance problem.

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For more information on this topic, please contact Heru Komarudin at h.komarudin@cgiar.org.
This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
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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