Written on 2019-02-20
Last year the school I was teaching at organised a field trip to the Kafue National Park for our grade 9 students. It was a fantastic opportunity to have fun camping, enjoy time together as a class, and of course to marvel at the astounding nature and wildlife we have in Zambia. Accompanying the trip as the class' biology teacher, I thought about how to bring across the importance and challenges of conservation work in a park like this. In the end, I hit on the idea of a role-playing game: let the students step into the shoes of a (fictional) park's stake holders, and argue it out for themselves. Fourteen students in charge of developing a national park – what would they do?
A map of the Liloba National Park
Here is a description of the game as we played it:
I came up with the Liloba National Park to act as the backdrop for our game – its name comes from the Liloba river flowing through it. The park contains the Liloba itself (running north), two tributaries, and the adjoining area. There is a large swamp in the south, forested hills east and west, and grasslands to the north. The Liloba basin has a rich ecosystem with many animals living near the river. Antelope occur predominantly in the plains and often move further north in the wet season. A rare species of small forest elephant inhabits the hills, only occasionally venturing out into the open. The swamps are home to cape buffalo and, along with the river, make for good fishing. Lions and other large predators are rare, but do occur.
The region is the traditional home of the Chilaba tribe. Two of their villages are located inside the park, with a further three on the outskirts. Three lodges in or near the park cater to tourists.
The park is governed by a “park parliament”. This represents all stake holders and takes decisions by voting on proposals by its members.
Each role has a different set of aims, values and priorities. Players should familiarise themselves with the park and their role and think about how they would be likely to act under the given circumstances.
Politician – The politician sees not only the park, but the entire country. He wants to get the maximum benefit out of the resources the park offers. He thinks in terms of income for the government, but also needs to remain popular with the voters and credible with outside investors at the same time.
Village chief – The chief is responsible for the local people in the area. He represents their interests and wants to ensure a steady income for them, as well as protecting his peoples’ traditions.
Conservationist – He is employed by an international conservation organisation to protect the wildlife and environment in the park. He cares deeply for the animals and wants to manage the park in a sustainable manner. The park rangers are under his command.
Lodge owner – He is a businessman who owns one of the park’s lodges. He wants to develop the park touristically. At the same time, he has a strong interest in protecting the animals, because that is what his guests pay to see.
Industrialist – Wants to develop the area economically to make the biggest financial profit possible. Offers jobs to the people and is willing to invest into schemes, but is not particularly concerned about wildlife.
The players are assigned characters, and each character group is tasked with preparing a proposal concerning one scenario. This proposal is then presented to the other players. Once all proposals have been heard, the players are given time to negotiate (we gave them 2h); to garner support for their own proposals or to undermine proposals they consider damaging to their interests.
The game concludes with a session of parliament. Each proposal is debated and voted on in turn. One speaker from each group is given 1 ½ minutes to give his opinion on the proposal, with the first speaker coming from the proposing group. After each group has spoken, the players vote; with an absolute majority necessary to carry the motion. (Players do not have to vote in their groups; for example, the chiefs may be split on whether or not to support the building of the dam.)
Build dam. (politicians) The politicians have had the idea that building a dam would be a good investment into the future. It would provide electricity for the whole country and some jobs for the people nearby. However, the proposed site (between the two hilly areas) would mean flooding the Liloba swamps and relocating a village.
Extend park. (conservationists) To meet a UN guideline, the conservationists would like to extend the borders of the park. However, they still have to figure out on which side this would be the most profitable.
Elephant damage. (chiefs) The villagers of the forest village in the park are complaining that a herd of elephants is wreaking havoc on their crops. The people are pretty upset, and some would like to kill the offending elephants.
Hunting villagers. (lodge owners) Villagers to the north of the park have been hunting a lot of antelopes in the last few years, and their numbers have begun to decline noticeably. This means tourists see less game.
Mine hills. (industrialists) A cobalt deposit has been discovered in the hills to the west, just outside the park. The industrialist would like to start an open pit mine to get the valuable metal out. This would create jobs for the region and income for the country. However, it would also destroy a significant portion of the elephant forest and chemicals from the mine are likely to heavily pollute water in the area.
We had the greatest fun playing this (or, as staff members, watching it being played out). The students really got into their roles, with heated discussions especially between the conservationists and the politicians – which actually stretched on for days after the game was done. Tense negotiations were held, deals struck, and at least one bribe offered. (We didn't encourage that part!) Although this was a fictitious park, the scenarios were all modelled on actual situations in many of Africa's national parks. Thus, it helped the students to get a perspective on how complex an issue conservation really is. They saw how many conflicting interests there are, that many of these are indeed valid, and how hard it can be to achieve consensus around such decisions.
In the end, the park parliament voted to build the dam and give the villagers electric elephant fences. All other motions were rejected. Not the results I would have decided on myself, but that's what democracy is all about. And when we met a zoologist-turned-lodge-owner the next day, the students knew what he was talking about.