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When death approaches: reverting or exploiting emergent inequity in a complex land-use table-board game

Luís García-Barrios, El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, Mexico
Raúl García-Barrios, Centro Regional de Investigaciones Multidisciplinarias UNAM
Juana Cruz-Morales, Universidad Autónoma Chapingo, Mexico
James A. Smith, El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, Mexico


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The lives of poor landowners in tropical mountains depend upon their collective capacity to create and coordinate social preferences derived from their interacting communalistic, hierarchical, and reciprocal exchanges. External actors currently contend for these territories under market rules that are modifying such preferences. We present the design, experimental implementation, and analysis of results of a four-player, land-use board game with stark resource and livelihood limits and coordination/cooperation challenges, as played (separately) by 116 farmers and 108 academics, mainly in the tropical mountains of Chiapas, Mexico. In game session one, we trained and framed players in moral economy, a human core feeling and communalistic norm of solidarity and mutual obligation, which translates into “all players must survive.” In session two, we explored to what extent moral economy resisted as a social preference under a hypothetical external monetary incentive scheme unfavorable to it. Using an approach that combines spot game analysis and experimental work, we studied the social preferences that emerged during session two among advantaged and disadvantaged players to deal with inequity in land appropriation and use when imminent “death” approaches. We make comparisons between farmers and academics. Players evolved moral economy, competitive domination, i.e., let competition decide, and coalition, i.e., advantaged players ask the dying to surrender land and die prematurely in exchange for a share of the dismal profits. Farmers basically stuck to the first two preferences in similar proportions whereas academics clearly shifted to coalition, a last-resort choice, which allowed disadvantaged players some final leverage and advantaged players use of liberated resources to improve efficiency. Coalition as strategic cooperation among the unequal is part of the culture in which academics are being educated as sustainability professionals and toward which farmers are being steered. In the stringent social-environmental conditions of this game, the results were a Pareto-superior form of equity, albeit with land surrendering, and many more deaths than other preferences.

Key words

inequity; Mexico; payments for ecosystem services; role-playing games; rural land use, social-ecological experiments; social preferences; tropical mountains

Copyright © 2015 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087