The Palm Scribe

Gaming the Palm Oil Industry

Researchers are using a simple role-playing board game to help stakeholders in the palm oil industry, including smallholders, move towards a more sustainable environment.

Palm Oil Industry
OPAL site project aerial view

Nur Hasanah, a researcher currently studying for her Ph.D. in Switzerland, developed a game with the landscape in East Kalimantan’s Tabang sub-district as its context, as part of a six-year project called OPAL, or the Oil Palm Adaptive Landscapes.  A consortium of international institutions led by the Swiss-based University ETH Zurich is working with Ph.D. students to develop the games in three of the world’s largest palm oil industry producing countries, Indonesia, Cameroun, and Columbia.

“We named this game COmMoDo (COMpanion MOdelling InDOnesia) because this game is based on Companion Modeling, is a role-playing game and also so that it carries an Indonesian flavor,” Hasanah told The Palm Scribe in an email from Switzerland.

In the game, players are encouraged, through role-playing in the game, to understand how decisions are made in a palm oil industry plantation environment and what are the consequences of a decision. The game also encourages players to work together and come out with the best strategies for a sustainable ecosystem.

Hasanah said that anyone anywhere could play in the game. “Although the main players are the people, this role-playing game can be played by anyone, including companies, decision makers and the public in general. Besides of playing with people at the village level, in the early phase we also once involved decision makers from the Directorate General of Plantation so that they can also provide input,” Hasanah said.

COmMoDo Board Game (Photo: CIFOR)

The game was also played to involve multi-stakeholders in the East Kalimantan district of Kutai Kartanegara, including the heads of three villages, representatives of a local palm oil company, Swiss-based environmental NGO TFT, and also the district plantation office.

“The aim for producing this game is to see what are the best strategies to safeguard environmental services while people can also meet their daily need in relation to the development of palm oil,” Hasanah said.

Environmental services refer to functions of land, water and air and their biota and include the provision of raw materials and energy used to produce goods and services, the absorption of waste from human activities, and the basic roles in life support and the provision of other amenities such as landscape.

“I focused on the ecosystem that could be directly used by the people in meeting their daily need, such as fish in the rivers, meat, and wood from the forest, At the same time the can also gain benefit from the development of the oil plants they are cultivating,” Hasanah said.

She said the board game depicts a landscape in Kutai Kertanegara, with forests, palm oil plantations, rice fields, and rivers as well as its inhabitants, companies, and markets. At the start of the game, each of the players who should number at least six — four players, one market operator, and one palm oil company operator — are provided with money, family workers, and land. As in real life, players have to pay for their living costs including for the workers they employed.

The game can be played up to 10 rounds with each round composed of five phases — picking a strategy, placement of workers in various activities, such as fishing, hunting or logging, land clearing and other tasks, harvesting, selling and buying at markets and paying for living costs.

The board features a 3-D representation of a landscape with primary and secondary forests, immature and mature palm oil plantations, and one large river. It uses tokens each representing a sack of rice, fish, palm oil fruits, wood, family labor hand, migrant worker, money, meat, as well as the investment such as home, motorcycles, cars, education and swallow nesting place.

As in real life, where players in the palm oil industry are often faced with unexpected, sudden and unplanned incidents, the game that took some three months to develop, also feature risk cards – representing both man-made and natural risks. They include, for example, risks related to the issuance of government policy such as a moratorium on logging, the fall of CPO prices in the global market, floods and drought.

She said that the most important impact of the game is that players can together, understand and harmonize their perception about the systems existing in a landscape. “Not just looking at it as an individual, but integrally understanding the system of the landscape,” she added.

“The idea of using the game as a tool not only for gathering data but also to make stakeholders sit and play together at one table, creating mutual understanding, holding ‘fun’ dialogues,” Hasanah said, adding that this was hoped to lead to an agreement regarding the actions to take, not only at village level but also at higher levels.

Hasanah said that although the game had reached a stable level now, feedback continued to be sought, from ongoing games, from the players through post-game debriefings.


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