The choices farmers make: Board game helps scientists understand land use decisions

By Thomas Hubert

What if you inherited a piece of Central American forest from your elders and were faced with a choice of farming it or leaving the trees standing to store carbon and combat climate change? What if you didn’t have to choose between these options but could choose both at the same time?

Luis García Barrios, a senior researcher at Mexico’s Colegio de la Frontera Sur, invented the Sierra Springs board game to simulate the behavior of farmers gaining access to a new plot of tropical forest.

He uses it to help players understand the dynamics at work in rural communities, but also to study decision-making on land use.

In one version of the game, García Barrios plays the role of the government and offers players a cash incentive to manage the existing forest – much like climate change mitigation projects pay landowners to conserve forest in carbon-sinking schemes. He then observes their choices between this and other, more lucrative activities, such as cattle ranching.

This research led to a publication in the International Journal of the Commons, and more are in review.

García Barrios demonstrated the game at the recent Resilience 2014 conference in Montpellier, France, where he talked to about how the game is played and what scientists are learning from it.

Here is an edited transcript (compiled by Lieneke Bakker).

My name is Luis García Barrios and I am from Mexico and I work at the Colegio de la Frontera Sur, which is a multi-disciplinary research centre. And this game was developed as part of a bigger project that we have in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico working with farmers is a zone of our biological research.

The game was developed looking at problems related with common resources, land stewardship, conservation related with social dilemmas in managing the land. So here we have a board which represents 48 hectares of pristine forest land. People will colonize that land with 3 land uses. One is forest management, it gives you 1 point, moderate grazing gives you 2 points and intensive grazing gives you 3 points.

The game is about making a livelihood. You are 4 young farmers who live in a community and you will receive land from your elders. You will confront 2 kinds of limitations, the first one will be environmental and the other is social. In a first session of game people live in a moral economy, everybody must make 24 points or everybody loses. So a lot of cooperation and solidarity is in place. After that there is a second level where the rule is now no moral economy, every woman, every man for himself and the government will give incentives to direct certain kinds of land uses. For example, I’ll give you some money if you conserve, I’ll give you some money if you produce a lot of cattle. And that totally changes the interaction dynamics between players. And then people reflect about what changed and why.

Woman: I was super aggressive initially in colonizing, but it was a much easier position for me, because I was able to give it which is much better than taking from others.

Man: What she had to do was to allow other people to help manage your business. Because if you don’t allow other people to give you advice then you can’t make the right decision.

Q: Do you get the general purpose of the game? What is the game about?

A:  It’s all about cooperating and helping each other.

The most important part of this game is for people to reflect upon their own experience after playing. So it’s reflecting about the environment, how to make a livelihood and the cooperation and coordination and the limits that we all confront. 

When it’s played by farmers, it is based on their real situations. Often it’s played by academics who are working with farmers. That is one part, like social learning, multi-actor experiencing learning. The other purpose is part of the same thing but more about research. It’s what we call social experiments. We put the setting, people play and we take the data and we analyse the behaviour of people and then we give back this information to people who play.

The most interesting thing that we found is that farmers tend to be competitive, but they will be more interested in keeping moral economy. They will not so easily break that rules.

Some academics, say “Hey, let’s create a new situation. Why don’t you die, I take over your land, I make all those profits from incentives and then we share”. It looks like a win-win situation, but only in the short term, because the person who dies, who loses, has less land and their family has less land. So it’s a kind of land grabbing situation where  the more powerful, the more skilful, the one who has some advantage, the advantaged will make a proposition, to the less powerful, the more poor and he will collude. And that’s something that happens in society. 

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