‘Land Rush’ – just a game?

by An Ansoms, Lecturer in Development Studies, Université Catholique de Louvain

Playing Land RushOn Day 2 of the conference, we are playing Land Rush, a simulation game with a message. The game has been designed for university students involved in courses on agrarian change and land dynamics in the global South. It allows participants to catch a flavour of what it would feel like to be a farmer in the global south; to be dependent on access to land for the livelihoods of themselves and of their family.

Land rush is a board game that simulates real-life dynamics in the land arena. Players take up the role of farmers from different social classes. They experience how they face different opportunities and constraints as they try to acquire land and manage it sustainably.

During the course of the game, players acquire land, plant crops, and make decisions in an extremely competitive environment. They are confronted with seasonal variations, with changing market dynamics, and with local-level forms of land grabbing. But most importantly, they are confronted with each other. They have to continuously negotiate, and experience how power relations affect those negotiations.

landrush1-eAt the same time, players have to anticipate on unexpected ‘events’ that could profoundly alter the stakes in the land arena. How to deal with the possibility that your harvest could be affected by a crop disease? Or what to do when your land gets flooded? Which opportunities arise when your land is located close to a market? Or when a precious mineral is found underground? What if a cooperative groups poor players to act collectively? Or how to react when a private investor claims your land for a large-scale palm oil plantation in return for the promise of local jobs? Land Rush reflects diverse characteristics of contemporary land dynamics in a changing world.

The game aims to get across three core messages.

(1)    First, Land Rush aims to make players aware of the fact that profit maximizing agrarian policies may be problematic for risk-averse smallholder farmers. Players experience at first hand the extreme constraints that poor farmers face. In this way, they become aware that smallholder farmers’ strategies are not based on ‘ignorance’ or a lack of knowledge. They are oriented towards risk-management rather than profit maximisation.

(2)    Second, players will discover that the rules of the game are not uniquely defined. Every game is different. This illustrates that the land arena is shaped by legal pluralism. A plurality of norms, formal and informal, may be complementary or contradictory. Players navigate strategically and the legitimacy of rules depends on the negotiation process between players.

(3)    Finally, Land Rush also illustrates that access to or exclusion from land is the result of a negotiation process in which power relations play a huge role. In Land Rush it becomes clear that richer and more powerful actors have a comparative advantage in negotiating access to natural resources. However, the game also illustrates how the poorest actors may still find ways of making their voices heard and may take collective action to defend their interests.

For those who would like to try it out with their own students, and engage them in this innovative and active form of learning, land rush is freely accessible. All the necessary equipment is available on the game’s website at www.land-rush.org. All it takes is to print out these materials and cut cards into pieces.

Each game can be played by 4 to 5 people. Playing the game can take between 2 and 3 hours, but time is needed after that for debriefing and discussion to exchange on how students experienced the game. You might even think of asking the students an exam paper, linking the game dynamics to theoretical concepts and to real-life examples from your course. You might also ask them to design a more complex Land Rush 2.0 that represents reality even more closely. In any case, they will never forget the experience.

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