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Supporting conservation by playing a game? Seriously? (commentary)

  • Can you answer important questions about conservation by playing a game? Yes, and it works.
  • In August, ForDev, the research team I lead, was invited by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Congo Basin Office to facilitate a workshop of their Regional Working Group on High Conservation Values. FSC’s goal was to define regional indicators for the management of Intact Forest Landscapes (IFLs) within certified forest concessions.
  • We combined the MineSet role-playing game with facilitation techniques to help members of the Working Group understand each other, integrate research outputs in their discussions, and support the decision-making process.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Can you answer important questions about conservation by playing a game?

Yes, and it works.

In August, ForDev, the research team I lead, was invited by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Congo Basin Office to facilitate a workshop of their Regional Working Group on High Conservation Values. FSC’s goal was to define regional indicators for the management of Intact Forest Landscapes (IFLs) within certified forest concessions. How would the core zone be defined? What kind of management would be applied? How would this take into account the local communities? These are just some of the questions the Regional Working Group had to answer.

We combined the MineSet role-playing game with facilitation techniques to help members of the Working Group understand each other, integrate research outputs in their discussions, and support the decision-making process.

Members of the Regional working group discussing strategies in the MineSet game. Local populations (in yellow) are now living inside the concessions, and the managers need to consider this in their future strategies. Photo: © T. Cornioley, 2017.

Why IFL matters

An Intact Forest Landscape (IFL) is defined as a territory within today’s global extent of forest cover which contains forest and non-forest ecosystems minimally influenced by human economic activity, with an area of at least 500 km2 (50,000 ha) and a minimal width of 10 km (measured as the diameter of a circle that is entirely inscribed within the boundaries of the territory). – www.intactforests.org/concept.html

The above definition stems from the work of Peter Potapov, a researcher at the University of Maryland, and his team. Their work shows that the extent of these landscapes was reduced globally by 7.2 percent between 2000 and 2013. The causes of this fragmentation include industrial logging, agricultural expansion, fire, and mining. In the Congo Basin specifically, where the main driver is industrial logging (see below), the certification of logging concessions with the current standards failed to prevent further fragmentation.

Regional reduction of IFL area (km2 × 103) and drivers of change. Source: Potapov et al., 2016.

In view of this ongoing fragmentation of critical tropical forests, the 7th General Assembly of FSC in 2014 adopted Motion 65, calling for the integration of the concept of Intact Forest Landscapes (IFL) into the FSC management standards. This motion requires the identification of indicators and management norms at the national or regional level, failing which “a default indicator will apply that mandates the full protection of a core area of each IFL within the management unit. For this purpose, the core area of the IFL will be defined as an area of forest comprising at least 80% of the intact forest landscape falling within the FMU [Forest Management Unit]”
(Motion 65 for the 2014 FSC General Assembly).

To comply with Motion 65, the FSC Congo Basin Program established, in 2016, the Regional Working Group for the Congo Basin on High Conservation Values (RWG), screening more than 300 expert applications in the process.

The RWG, coordinated by the FSC Congo Basin Program, is composed of three chambers, the environmental, the economic, and the social chambers, with four members each. The members are planners from FSC-certified logging companies, members of international conservation NGOs, representatives of local communities, and representatives of governments and the ComiFac (Central African Forest Commission). The RWG’s objectives included the development of indicators related to the identification and management of Intact Forest Landscapes (IFL) in the Congo Basin. But after more than one year of difficult and complex discussions, the negotiations were stalled. It seemed the process had reached an impasse.

To attempt to break the deadlock, FSC invited us, a team of researchers from ETH Zurich (the university where ForDev is located) and the French research centre CIRAD, to facilitate the 4th workshop of the RWG. The meeting was organized in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, from August 21 to 25, 2017.

Games, Strategies and Agreements

On the first day of the workshop, we invited the participants to play the role of a CEO of a logging company: interacting with markets, ministries, and NGOs; planning their activities; and developing strategies to cope with the environmental, economic, and social impacts of their decisions. We used MineSet, a game about regional landscape change developed to explore the future of tropical forest landscapes in Central Africa. ForDev and its partners created MineSet as part of the CoForTips/CoforSet projects, twin research projects we just completed on the creation of scenarios of biodiversity for the forests of Central Africa.

Participants choosing between different policy options. The accumulation of green stickers on the board demonstrates the progressive building of agreement between the participants. Photo: © C. Garcia, 2017.

The players could witness how their decisions shaped the forest landscape. In five rounds, representing about 50 years, they turned a high-density forest landscape into low-density and open forest landscape mosaic. In the process, they created jobs, made benefits, fed the market tropical timber, and learned to cope with local communities and the demands from conservation agencies. This shared experience allowed the participants to develop a common understanding of the drivers of change in the system. It empowered the participants of the Working Group, giving them a common experience to draw upon, and putting them on a level playing field.

The following two days, the participants used the game to define and explore policy and management options for the inclusion of Intact Forest Landscapes (IFL) in the Congo Basin. The game acted as a model to clarify key concepts, to illustrate the different situations they were discussing, and to explore the potential impacts of the options they were considering.

What do participants say about it?

“With the game it was possible to explain things that are difficult to understand and imagine in reality,” explains William Lawyer of the FSC Congo Basin Program.

Even experts that have in-depth knowledge of the topic find this useful. “It was interesting to play and visualize something you think you know, but with a model it becomes obvious,” said Belmond Tchoumba, the Forest Program Director of WWF CARPO, Cameroon.

Reaching agreement: Four of the five points of the joint declaration drafted by the Regional Working Group were accepted through unanimous votes. Photo: © T. Cornioley, 2017.

“Going back and forth between game and reality helped to illustrate and clarify the concepts. The consensus was easier to find and the game allowed for a more constructive debate,” adds Edwige Eyang Effa from IRET-CENAREST, the Gabonese Research Institute on Tropical Ecology.

The game brought clarity for others. “[It] helped us think, reduced the level of conflict and changed the mood of the debate,” according to Vincent Istace of the CIB-OLAM company.

In three days, we helped the participants move from gridlock to a joint declaration on five points, four of them accepted through unanimous votes and the last one pending the discussions of the FSC General Assembly that took place in Vancouver last week.

By preceding the negotiation process with a game session, the game became a tool to not only create a better understanding of the system, but also to establish a dialogue and facilitate the decision-making process.

“In my opinion, we should continue [and play] one or two more rounds to see the strategies, […], and perhaps we could gain a little more time in the negotiations,” concludes Antoine Couturier of the company IFO.

Play to negotiate. And play longer to reach faster and more robust agreements. It is not the game that mattered, but the discussion it enabled afterwards. This is the core of our approach and research. Bridging the gap between science, policy, and practice. Helping people make better decisions. Supporting better policy.

CITATIONS

Claude Garcia leads the Forest Management and Development Research Group (ForDev) at ETH Zürich and is a senior scientist at CIRAD Montpellier. This commentary has been written with Céline Dillmann, Tina Cornioley, Juliette Chamagne, Helene Dessart and Fabien Quétier.