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Next big idea in forest conservation? Playing games to understand what drives deforestation

Innovation in Tropical Forest Conservation: Q&A with Dr. Claude Garcia

Ivindo National Park in Gabon. The loss of rainforest is
an emerging issue in the Congo Basin. The forests of the Congo Basin
are some of the wildest areas on Earth, and until now, the level of
threat was comparatively low, a result of low human densities and the
absence of infrastructure. However, we expect large scale conversion
of forests to agriculture and mining in the coming decades, driven by
population increase, globalization and increased access. Garcia’s project
CoForTips explores these scenarios. Photo courtesy of Claude Garcia.

Dr. Claude Garcia plays games, but you won’t find him betting his shirt at the casino. As leader of the Forest Management and Development Research Group (ForDev) at ETH Zürich, and senior scientist at CIRAD Montpellier, Garcia and his team use participatory modeling and role-playing games, merged with more traditional disciplinary sciences such as ecology, economics, and sociology to understand and manage complex landscape change in the tropics. The approach used by ForDev, called Companion Modelling (ComMod) has a growing community of participants and is proving to be quite effective, perhaps because it is fun!

“We use Role Playing Games to explore individual strategies, gaining valuable insights into what drives decisions and how stakeholders cope with change,” Garcia told, adding, “It is a powerful approach to confront narratives with practices that can be seen during a game session. The games themselves are based on the conceptual models developed with the stakeholders, and are flexible and adaptable to cope with innovation and surprises… It allows merging of multiple sources of knowledge—local knowledge of the farmers, accumulated through experience and scientific knowledge acquired through observation and experimentation.”

Though Garcia is trained as a tropical ecologist and forest manager, his research now focuses on interactions between ecological dynamics, stakeholder strategies and public policies. His goal is to balance conservation and development through better policies that take into account local knowledge, constraints and aspirations.

“There are no simple solutions that can be applied across the tropics,’’ said Garcia. “Policy makers are looking for silver bullets, innovative natural based solutions to clearly identified problems. And there is a clear need for these. But many of us recognize the need to acknowledge the wicked nature of many of the problems we are facing in conservation and natural resources management—and to wicked problems, solutions are less important than the political processes by which they can emerge.”

Garcia has twelve years experience working in the tropics, mostly in South and Southeast Asia and currently works with the French Research Centre for Agriculture and Development (CIRAD) and ETH Zurich. He lives in Zürich with his partner, two children who wish to be explorers and/or veterinarians, and an old Indian motorbike.

An Interview with Dr. Claude Garcia

Garcia and his team use role playing games and
simulations to understand with the stakeholders the drivers of
landscape changes and the strategies people will develop in response
to changes—environmental, economic or political. Game sessions,
backed up by conceptual models that have been designed with the
stakeholders themselves, offer a great opportunity to discuss options,
reveal behaviors and ponder the multiple impacts of individual
decisions across scales. In addition, they are fun to play, and that
goes a long way towards creating trust and ensuring participation and
engagement in the research process. Here, coffee planters in India are
managing the canopy cover of coffee estates. Our objective was to
understand the impacts of changes to the tenure system on livelihood,
biodiversity and tree cover. The results are detailed here. Photo courtesy of Claude Garcia.

Mongabay: What is your background? How long have you worked in tropical forest conservation and in what geographies? What is your area of focus?

Claude Garcia: I’m an ecologist, trained in tropical forest management, but I don’t work in conservation. I’m interested in the management of biodiversity, and that includes conservation, but is not restricted to it. I’m fascinated by the complex interactions between ecosystems and their processes, stakeholders and their strategies, and the norms and institutions the latter create to regulate access to the former.

I started my research in South East Asia, and moved rapidly to India, where I completed my PhD on sacred forests, and their role in the landscape. And because sacred forests are ecological objects as well as social constructions, I was forced to consider other dimensions than simply species richness or girth at breast height. I had to explore local knowledge and perceptions, and was confronted to discrepancies between practices and narratives. I had to start trying to understand why people act the way they do, and I never stopped since.
I have worked for CIRAD the French research Centre for Agriculture and Development since 2003 — in the Research Unit Goods and Services of Tropical Forest Ecosystems, an interdisciplinary research unit that works across the tropics to understand and describe the trends and dynamics of forest landscapes. I have close collaborations with the French Institute of Pondicherry and the Centre for International Forestry Research where I was seconded between 2010 and 2012. In 2012, I took the lead of the (ForDev) at ETH Zürich, where we now develop innovative and transdisciplinary approaches to make sense of and manage complex landscapes in transition in the tropics.

Until recently, most of my work was in India, in the Western Ghats. I’ve now started research collaborations in Assam (North east India), but also Indonesia, Nepal, and more recently in the Congo Basin—Cameroun and Gabon essentially—Madagascar, and hopefully soon in Colombia.

Mongabay: Are you personally involved in any projects or research that represent emerging innovation in tropical forest conservation?

Claude Garcia. Photo courtesy of Claude Garcia.

Claude Garcia: I am involved in three international research projects aiming at developing scenarios of biodiversity for the coming decades. All are based on the same principle: (1) integrating multiple disciplines to understand social ecological systems, identifying the key components of the system and their interactions, (2) use this new knowledge to construct, together with the stakeholders involved, narratives about possible futures, and (3) embedding these results and narratives in the decision-making processes, effectively bridging science and policy.

The first project, CoForTips (Forests of the Congo Basin: Resilience and Tipping Points), aims at fostering better management of the forests of the Congo Basin. We propose to do so by developing scenarios for the coming decades that integrate multiple uses and drivers, and merge ecological, economic and policy processes. We use scenarios not to predict outcomes, but to highlight the forces at play driving a landscape in a particular trajectory, and to frame situations of potential conflict between stakeholders as sources of possible future cooperation. And we use Role Playing Games to explore individual strategies, gaining valuable insights into what drives decisions and how stakeholders cope with change. I have right now three students in Cameroon and Gabon developing these with the villagers and the first feedbacks we are getting are very good.

It is a powerful approach to confront narratives with practices that can be seen during a game session. The games themselves are based on the conceptual models developed with the stakeholders, and are flexible and adaptable to cope with innovation and surprises. This method has a name: Companion Modelling (ComMod), and a growing community of practice.

We did a similar exercise in India, where we explored the potential impact of changing the rights coffee planters have over the trees in their estates. We constructed the model with them, organized workshops where they would play the game — managing their coffee estate, cutting trees, planting them, and negotiating with the timber merchants and forest department officials represented by our research team—under two different scenarios, one where their rights were restricted as is the case in reality, and one where they would have full rights. The results of these sessions gave us a much deeper understanding of why coffee planters manage the tree cover and its biodiversity the way they do. In order to foster discussions and to allow others to try and test the model, we have created an online version of the model—and anybody can now try their hand at managing a coffee estate in the Western Ghats! We are recording the sessions, and hope to build a library of strategies that would allow us to expand the range of potential scenarios and timescales. Actually, if you are reading this, you should give it a try! It’ here:

Practitioners, decision-makers, and communities struggle all through the tropics to effectively collaborate in natural resources managements. We all face the same obstacles: How do you build trust? How do you take into account different points of views? How do you resolve conflicting objectives? How do you cope with surprise? How do you actually engage in adaptive management? We published last year a list of 10 guidelines for what we call landscape approaches, that reflect the current consensus on how to navigate natural resources management. ComMod, that merges participatory modelling and games, with more traditional disciplinary science—ecology, economy, sociology to name a few —tackles many of these issues. It allows merging multiple sources of knowledge—local knowledge of the farmers, accumulated through experience and scientific knowledge acquired through observation and experimentation. It explicitly recognizes the multiplicity of perceptions, points of views and objectives. It is adaptable, flexible, and focuses on building processes rather than finding solutions.

Of course the approach does not solve everything. There are still power imbalances and intelligent opposition to be addressed for a system to change, and collective processes can lead to collective learning and convergence just as easily as they can entrench positions and create divergence. But it is a very powerful tool to better understand the complexities of a social ecological system and highlight in a non-threating environment many of the critical components—including corruption for example—that explain the current status. Plus it’s fun! And that is something the scientists as well as the stakeholders appreciate. I think it’s a critical aspect that makes the approach so powerful—it encourages engagement and fosters trust.

Mongabay: What do you see as the biggest development or developments over the past decade in tropical forest conservation?

Claude Garcia: I think we increasingly recognize that the trends and drivers that are pushing deforestation (and reforestation for that matter) often lie outside forests. Unless we understand the constraints, but also the aspirations and desires of the stakeholders who are directly involved in deforestation, we will consistently fail to propose viable alternatives to the current landscape dynamics. A paper by Harvey et al in 2008
proposed an agenda of strategies to maintain biodiversity in coffee agroforestry systems, but nowhere in the list were the prime interests of the coffee planters represented . In the coffee agroforestry landscape of the district of Kodagu in India, the only farmers that maintain forests in their private lands are either the very poor without means to convert that into profitable coffee estates, or the very rich that do not need that income and have a concern for biodiversity and climate change. There are still forests left in the landscape, but only the sacred ones, the forbidden ones (protected by the state forest department) and the hidden ones (as private owners are not supposed to own forest). All others have been replaced by coffee agroforestry systems, which is a good thing as far as the livelihood of the local communities is involved. And considering the high levels of biodiversity in the private plantations, it was not a disaster in terms of conservation. But again, unless we understand what drives farmers and the constraints under which they make decisions, no conservation initiative will succeed. We said that in a response published in 2010, but I guess we should say it more and louder.

Mongabay: What’s the next big thing in forest conservation? What approaches or ideas are emerging or have recently emerged? What will be the catalyst for the next big breakthrough?

Elephant proof trenches to keep the elephants
out of the coffee plantations in the Western Ghats. But Garcia’s
suggests the elephants simply keep using the old paths
that existed before the expansion of coffee. If that is correct,
should we really dig more trenches? Or should we look for approaches
that increase the tolerance of local communities? Easier said than
done, for sure, but maybe certification schemes building on the
presence of wildlife could be a good way to start. Aane Kaapi
(Elephant’s coffee) anybody?. Photo courtesy of Claude Garcia.

Claude Garcia: Research has demonstrated that the willingness to conserve forests depends on the proximity and on the dependence of the forest resources, but not in the way most of us guess. In Madagascar, villagers living far from the forests have higher willingness to protect them than do villagers living alongside them. It seems that the perception of scarcity directly translates into appreciation of the forest. Somewhat surprisingly, as long as you have forests in your neighborhood, you are unlikely to invest heavily in its conservation, even if your livelihood depends on it. And local communities that have managed to secure rights over forest lands and excluded other from accessing their forests are
likely to be the next ones logging it .

I think the major breakthrough will be the acknowledgment of the complexities and interconnections of the multiple drivers of landscape dynamics, and recognizing that there are no simple solutions that can be applied across the tropics. Policy makers are looking for silver bullets—innovative natural based solutions to clearly identified problems. And there is a clear need for these. But many of us recognize the need to acknowledge the wicked nature of many of the problems we are facing in conservation and natural resources management—and to wicked problems, solutions are less important than the political processes by which they can emerge.

Mongabay: What isn’t working in conservation but is still receiving unwarranted levels of support?

Claude Garcia: The forest transition curve suggests that countries are able to curb deforestation upon reaching an all-time low in their national forest cover. It has been well described and documented in France and Switzerland for example, and it looks it may be happening right now in China and Brazil. It seems like a strong political will—in the form of massive plantations projects—backed up by the public perception of scarcity that I was referring to earlier is the catalyzing factor of this transition, and that larger economic drivers reinforce the trend later on, farmers improving productivity and/or moving out of their lands, resulting in forests coming back in the landscape. So deforestation (understood as the lack of forests, not as the loss of forest) is not inescapable and it is possible to bring back forests —even if different for the original one.

But I hear reports that in Greece, as a response to the financial crisis and the drastic measures taken to redress the economy, people have turned back to cutting trees for heating and cooking and have turned back to the land to gain livelihood that the current status of the economy denies them. This would suggest that if policies can curb deforestation, markets can restart the process, leading again to loss of forest, loss of biodiversity and release of carbon. This would define a sort of inverted forest transition. I want to explore this further, but I admit I have little faith in markets, particularly unregulated ones, to help achieve better trade-offs between conservation and development. When it comes to conserving biodiversity and forests, I believe in policy and political will backed up by public support, not on clever accountancy and hedging.


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