Oil palm landscapes: Sketching out sustainable futures
In Colombia, a diverse group of people are coming together to explore and plan land use in oil-palm-rich landscapes in innovative ways.
They hope to ensure that the cultivation of the valuable export crop – used in commercial food and personal care products, as well as biofuel – occurs in ways that have sound economic and social benefits, and that do not impinge unduly on local ecosystems and biodiversity.
The work forms part of a larger project, titled Oil Palm Adaptive Landscapes (OPAL), which aims to improve the management of oil palm landscapes across Asia, Africa and Latin America. It represents a partnership between Swiss university ETH Zurich (ETHZ) the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and a number of NGOs and country partners.
A COLORFUL METHODOLOGY
Using a process called Companion Modeling, the OPAL team employs role-play games to get stakeholders sharing information, understanding each other’s perspectives, and working together to sketch – and transform – the larger structures of which their own experiences form a part.
“Through the game, we can start to understand the socioecological system better, in both the local and the global context,” explains CIFOR scientist Pablo Pacheco. “We can also facilitate dialogue, and ‘walk through’ possible future scenarios to test out their impacts.”
In the Colombian chapter, this ‘walking through’ of alternative futures is quite literal: the game is played on a full-color five-by-five-meter printout of a generic Colombian landscape. “You stand on the game and you can see where the river is, where the highways are, and where the plantations are,” describes Alejandra Rueda from NES Naturaleza, one of the country partners for the project, alongside the Universidad Pontificia Javeriana and WWF Colombia. “It helps the players to visualize where they are, and to extrapolate out from there.”
Adds ETH Zurich scientist Claude Garcia, “you walk on the landscape to your oil palm plantation, and then you take the bunch of fresh fruit and walk to the industrial mill … it’s like you’re really there.”
Through the game, we can start to understand the socioecological system better, in both the local and the global context
DEFINING THE ISSUES, TOGETHER
This spatial twist on the game makes sense given the particular focus of the project in Colombia: better planning for land-use development in places where oil palm is becoming more important.
The country is the main palm oil producer in Latin America and the fourth largest in the world, and has considerable potential for expansion, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). OPAL focusses on the Llanos Orientales in the east of the country, where much of the cultivation takes place.
Unlike in other palm-oil-producing regions internationally, cultivation of the crop in Colombia does not pose a major threat to forests, as it is being grown on existing pastures which were cleared a long time ago, says Garcia. These pasturelands are inhabited largely by introduced species, are relatively unproductive, and offer very few labor opportunities. In this context, explains Andres Etter from Universidad Pontificia Javeriana, oil palm and other perennial crops may well offer economically and environmentally interesting alternatives, although their impact on biodiversity and carbon storage is still being assessed.
So what are the major issues for future development? Instead of working from assumptions, the research partners – in keeping with the participatory ethos of the Companion Modeling approach – went directly to the stakeholders (palmeros as well as government and industry representatives) and asked them.
“We started from scratch,” says Rueda. “We built it with [the stakeholders] from the very start. And that has been one of the biggest achievements so far – getting all the different actors to the table, and hearing their definitions of the issues.”
The main concern that emerged was a lack of planning in the regions where oil palm is produced, especially in terms of dialogue between stakeholders at the national and local scales.
Participants also listed as significant the competition for resources – particularly land and water – that was occurring in these regions between oil palm and other productive activities (such as growing rice and extracting fossil fuel). They also highlighted the need to manage these resources in ways that sustain ecosystems and biodiversity and contribute positively to carbon storage, as well as to the human populations and industries that use them, says Etter.
That has been one of the biggest achievements so far – getting all the different actors to the table, and hearing their definitions of the issues
AN EVOLVING MODEL
The above issues that participants identified are very broad, and this posed challenges, says Rueda, as the kinds of questions that are important to different actors can be diverse. “If I get invited to play a game and I’m not interested in the question being posed, I’m not going to play,” she explains. “But if it’s a question where the answer is useful to me, I’m going to be the first one there playing.”
The team is currently in the process of revising the game, “so we can pose different questions and operate it at different levels,” she says. For example, some local palmeros may not be interested in national-scale sustainable planning “when they’re barely even planning their own farm,” she explains. But if they can use the game to find ways to manage their own farms more efficiently, this will have impacts both locally and at wider scales.
Whilst the game revisions have been time-consuming, the process of changing the model – to a game that responds appropriately to a range of different questions – has been interesting and valuable, says Rueda. The team hopes to begin rolling out the game with stakeholders around mid-March this year, after finishing their revisions and running a pilot. “We think this project could really influence the decisions that will be made around oil palm at the institutional level,” she says.
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