Protecting forests in Western India: much more than a game

Mahua flowers collected in a basket. Gypsypkd CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Protecting forests in Western India: much more than a game

“When we went to the forests as children, it was so much greener and fuller,” says Mangi Lal, now 29. “In the past few years, so much of it has been cleared.” This forest is adjacent to Semad, where Mangi lives, in the west Indian state of Rajasthan. In 2017, Mangi took a step towards changing the situation.  

He went on to lead a series of experimental “Forest Games” – that combine Game Theory, local knowledge and external expertise in a way that hoped to trigger community understanding of local ecosystem impacts.

Mangi and his team ran these simulation exercises in over 20 villages neighbouring his own. In each village, groups of 5 would take ownership of their own small patch of 50 trees, and over 3 different rounds, decide whether or not to cut down all their trees and cash in, or keep some for ecological benefit. Each round, the players were able to communicate more, and in the third round, they could employ a guard, who would monitor the forest and manage harvesting decisions. 

Researchers also experimented with ‘groundwater games’. More recently, discussions are ongoing amongst the researchers to extend these games to other resources, like non-timber forest produce.

Mangi Lal leading the Forest Games in Gogunda villages. Vinita Rodrigues.

Through the player’s decisions, by the end of the three rounds, the fate of their make-believe forest would be decided. It could either increase to a lush forest of maximum 100 trees, or decrease to a minimum four. The impacts of these decisions were then discussed in the community debrief, which marked the end of the game. 

Community debrief post the game in a village in Gogunda. Mangi Lal.

An ecological lesson

In the first round of the game, the players were excited to earn as much as possible from harvesting the trees. But with the results being displayed on the board, the players soon realised that this came at an ecological cost. 

It was almost like history repeating itself. “We saw massive tree felling in this region from the 1960s to 1990s,” explains Pratiti Priyadarshini, Senior Programme Manager at Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), one of the organisations behind these games. In an otherwise dry state, the forests provided timber to sell. Villagers also ventured in the forests for fodder for their cattle, fruits and flowers like mahua (Madhuca longifolia), tembur (a fruit of Diospyrus melanoxylon) and medicinal herbs.

The second round of the game permitted communication. That’s when players realised that a few were harvesting more trees than agreed. “After this, they would be eager to move to the third round that allowed surveillance by appointing one amongst them as a forest guard”. mentions Sanoop,  a senior project manager with FES.

Now with penalties for over-harvesting, the players became more conscious of their actions. They saw value in having regulations for their forest management. 

In some villages, this seeped out from the games to the ground. “Our rules only allow dry wood to be taken from the forest, and we have imposed a fine of 51 rupees (0.67 USD) on cutting green wood,” explains Gita Devi from neighbouring Jhadol Block who participated in the games. 

The rules were made together with ‘Mera Baba Charagah Vikas Samiti’, a village-level committee formed to ensure collective action on conservation issues, facilitated by the FES. Formed in 2016, the Committee was still in a nascent stage during the forest games. Excited by the results of the game, they had become eager to have conversations on managing their forests.

“To transform the game into something even more powerful on the ground, these games can be “owned” by the community,” mentions Dr. Harini Nagendra, an ecologist who uses natural and social science methods to examine the sustainability of forests and cities in the global South. “This can be done by providing the basic skeleton of a game to the people who can innovate, redesign and run it themselves.”

Not a silver bullet 

However, it would be far-fetched to say that the games have solved all forest governance problems. “The games are a part of a larger scheme of things, not ends in themselves,” mentions Pratiti. The researchers also found that the games needed to be constantly evolved: currently, the three rounds of the game could take almost two hours, which resulted in a few drop-outs. The novelty of the game could not compete with the busy schedule of cooking, feeding the cattle and farming. 

Triggering these conversations is valuable for Rajasthan, whose future holds a number of environmental challenges. Gogunda is surrounded by sprawling scrubland and bushes. The arid landscape makes up for almost half of the block’s total area. These are dotted with trees and grazing lands where small herds of domesticated cattle and goats are a common sight. 

The groundwater levels are not encouraging either. Gogunda has been categorised as “over exploited.” Additionally, the state of Rajasthan is battling with desertification. As a 2018 research  shows, with 50% of its land under threat, Rajasthan is one of six Indian states that face acute land degradation.

In the face of such challenges, residents of the area had attempted patchy efforts to conserve their forests, one of them being tree planting. 

Common grazing land and forests of Gogunda block. Vaishnavi Rathore.

But after the forest games, Lal observes that in his village, even tree planting is done more seriously than before. They now make boundaries around the young saplings, protecting them from cattle.  “Maybe we will once more see the forests of our childhood,” he says. 

The Forest Games were a collaboration between the International Food Policy Research Institute, the Arizona State University, and the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES). Between October 2017 and January 2018, the team facilitated the simulations in 60 villages across Rajasthan and the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

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