Rulal Commerce: A boardgame to explore agricultural commercialization and its implications for land governance


by Diana Suhardiman and Nikolai Sindorf | October 25, 2021

“Games are the most elevated form of investigation, where you can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” (Einstein/Lingard)

A recent increase in demand from China for commercial tea is transforming Laos’ upland agriculture system, manifesting in different forms of land contestations among local communities and government agencies. Land conflicts in the upland is not a new phenomenon. Since 1975, the Government of Laos has pursued a resettlement policy of moving upland communities from remote mountainous areas to lowland areas. The policy officially intended to bring villagers closer to public infrastructure and services, such as roads, markets, schools, and hospitals while also transitioning their livelihoods away from upland, swidden cultivation toward lowland, paddy cultivation. In practice, however, while some of these goals have been achieved, the resettlement plan did not go smoothly because most suitable land have already been claimed by original settlers from the lowland villages.

As a result, recent settlers will have to continue to rely on the upland fields that they left behind, where activities are focused on upland crops and livestock grazing, but also more recently on forest tea production. The increased demand for tea has led to an expansion of tea gardens further into the hilltop forests and the uplands. This in turn has led to new conflicts in the uplands, between tea growers, but also between different villages that now want to formalize their upland boundaries.

To help guide different producers and village stakeholders on possible strategies in this context, our team introduced a new board game that explores the issue of commercialization and its implications for land governance. The game is called Rulal Commerce. The International Water Management Institute (IWMI), in collaboration with the Committee of Cooperation with Laos (CCL), based this game on real-life natural resource strategies and scenarios witnessed during a recent field study of collective action and conflict resolution in Nyot Ou district, Phongsaly province, Laos. The issues at stake, the different roles, and the learning experience would apply to any agricultural commercialization context where new cash crops are introduced (e.g., rubber, coffee, bananas, cassava, etc.).

In this boardgame, each player assumes a role as one of the four villages, which each is undergoing processes of resettlement and agricultural commercialization, while relying on overlapping access to farmland and the surrounding forest. The way the settlers and the villages reshape their land use is changing, following the introduction of tea gardens as a commercial crop in high demand, but next to their subsistence farming activities (e.g., lowland paddy, livestock farming, and upland rice cultivation).  The game puts villagers’ farming strategies and livelihood options central in negotiating various land governance decisions, and how these decisions are later manifested in the way that farm households and villagers navigate their respective trade-offs between accelerating agricultural commercialization and ensuring food sovereignty. Will the current trend in agricultural commercialization result in inter-village land conflict or more coordinated inter-village collaboration? Will villagers see the need for balancing these trade-offs or pursue their individual interests?

The roles in the game can be performed by single players each representing a village or by a group of persons where each person is representing a resource producer (e.g., paddy, upland cultivation, livestock, or tea).

One game session typically takes 60 minutes; 20 minutes of introduction, 30 minutes of play, and 10 minutes of discussion and evaluation of lessons learnt. The game is facilitated by a board master, who distributes the resources, explains the progress of the games, and makes sure that every player gets their turn and sticks to the assigned role. Each player’s goal is to reach (or even exceed) his/her targets, which leads to a final score. At the end of the game, the scores are tallied, and the progress is evaluated by the players. Which strategies went well, what did not work, and how can the overall outcome be evaluated?

Other stakeholders, e.g., development practitioners, government officials, representatives of local communities, civil society organizations, academics, etc. can join the game to learn more about villagers’ perspectives.

The game can be also used as an ex-ante experiment to identify potential winners and losers in a certain process. For example, a private company or an NGO introduces a high value cash crop that could help villagers increase their household income. Villagers adopt the crop and work together with the company/NGO to ensure sufficient supply of the crop to meet the market demands. Looks like a win-win scenario! But what about those villagers with less or no access to land and other productive resources? And what if one player/producer decides to grab more communal land to produce more?

Rulal Commerce can help explore and navigate these and many more possible scenarios before an intervention begins. It aims to create equal playing field among villagers and facilitate inclusive decision-making processes that would allow villagers to come up with fair conflict resolution mechanisms.

The Rulal boardgame is developed by Nikolai Sindorf and Diana Suhardiman.

The Rulal Commerce scenario is the latest addition and was developed in mid 2021.

 This game is based on research undertaken by researchers from International Water Management Institute (IWMI) under the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM).

 Nikolai Sindorf is an Environmental Specialist in Water, Development and Nature, based in Vientiane Lao PDR.

 Diana Suhardiman is a Senior Researcher and Governance and Inclusion Research Group Lead at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), based in Vientiane, Lao PDR.

To learn more about the Rulal board game, check this previous publications:

Game of unknowns: Beyond the win-win, toward inclusive development (blog)

Unraveling power-play in land use planning (blog)

Rulal land use planning game (video)

Photo credit: Diana Suhardiman

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