Students learn about conservation goals

This term, students taking the ‘Resilience for Sustainable Development’ Geography module participated in a stakeholder role play activity, to understand how multi-stakeholder decision-making processes are used to establish conservation goals. The purpose of the activity was to demonstrate the complexities and politics inherent in stakeholder deliberation processes.  The activity used the specific example of standard-setting in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) production certification standard.  The RSPO is a multi-stakeholder initiative in which business and civil society actors are integrated into the governance process to address the negative social, environmental and economic impacts of palm oil production on a transnational scale.


Students took on the roles of different stakeholders, including international environmental NGOs, large palm oil companies, smallholder producers, and retailers.  A hypothetical scenario was given, that these stakeholders were taking part in the revision of the RSPO standard.  This scenario was adapted to the lecture room using a “debating class” format.  A conservation requirement, which would need to be followed by plantation companies, was proposed by the convener (who represented the RSPO Secretariat).


Firstly, groups were required to construct key arguments to convey how they wanted to shape the standard.  They needed to consider the interests and strategic positions of the stakeholders they represented.  Speaking to the individual groups, the NGO group considered whether they represented NGOs who lobbied companies, or worked with companies in a more collaborative way.  They recognized the trade-off that exists between how stringent standards are, and implementation of the standards’ requirements by companies. The large companies were content with the vague standard as it allowed them to define their own version of what constitutes sustainability, and the retailers had varying views of how strict the standard should be.  These varying views demonstrate the heterogeneity of interests, values and within stakeholder groups.  The group representing smallholder farmers felt that their voices and power were weakest out of the stakeholder groups.


The second part of the task involved the groups debating their positions in the wider group setting.  The retailers wanted to demonstrate Corporate Social Responsibility commitments to their customers, so pushed for the standard to be tightened, to reduce reputational risk.  The smallholders called for financial support from plantation companies to support their conservation efforts.  They also called for more options, to allow them to diversify their income and limit the impacts of monoculture cropping. NGOs showed a willingness of compromise, they encouraged more detail in the standard but were cognizant of the potential barriers this would impose for companies to adopt or comply with the RSPO’s requirements.  The large companies were willing to absorb some of the costs, support the smallholders in some of their demands, but also make minimal changes to their operating procedures so not to stray too far from “business as usual.”


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Following the larger debate, the group went on to reflect on what they learnt from different actors’ perspectives, and whether they agreed or disagreed with other stakeholders’ perspectives.  They considered what can be learnt about stakeholder processes from undertaking this activity, and also raised questions about the challenges associated with such processes.  These included: (i) Multi-stakeholder processes are complex and political, they take time and effort; (ii) Can the term ‘stakeholder’ be used to categorize such heterogeneous groups? Is it representative?; (iii) The more powerful voices will be heard, and the perhaps the voices that “better fit” with the design of the multi-stakeholder process; (iv) Compromise and consensus are needed, but this is not necessarily the most appropriate option for sustainability; (v) Some important stakeholders are excluded from the processes (the group identified these as being governments, and consumers), and some stakeholder groups are under-represented e.g. NGOs from developing countries, (vi) Implementation of requirements is crucial, highlighting the need for effective enforcement mechanisms or sanctions for non-conformance.


When taking on the roles of various stakeholders involved in the RSPO’s standard-setting processes, students expressed divergent views and interests, demonstrating the intrinsic politics of deliberative multi-stakeholder processes.  Students conveyed the complexities of understanding the effectiveness of multi-stakeholder initiatives as an emerging governance mechanism.

Spilling the beans on climate change

Geography students studying ‘Resilience for Sustainable Development’ had a change from their normal lecture format recently and instead played a game. This wasn’t just for fun though, as ‘serious gaming’ is becoming a popular way of sharing complex information with a range of potential users and giving them opportunity to discuss its use. The students played CAULDRON, a game developed by members of the ACE-Africa project (University of Reading (Parker, Cornforth and Boyd) and Oxford University) together with the Red Cross/ Red Crescent Climate Centre, who have lots of experience designing games to communicate climate information. This game was developed to present the science of extreme weather event attribution in an accessible way, and provide space for discussion about whether it could be used in climate policy.

CAULDRON stands for Climate Attribution Under Loss and Damage: Risking, Observing, Negotiating. This reflects the fact that loss and damage due to extreme weather events is occurring all over the world and people are taking an interest in whether this is due to climate change. Negotiations are also currently taking place to work out how to address this loss and damage under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The game gives players the chance to experience having to make decisions under uncertain climate risk, something many people have to do in reality every day. They also have to analyse changes in risk with only limited data and deal with the difficulties of negotiating with other players with different interests.


The game began with players given the role of farmers who had to plant crops each season. They were each given beans to symbolise their crops and a ‘rainmaker’, which was a small pot containing a dice, to shake to determine their rainfall each season. Players who had good rains gained more beans, while those with drought years lost beans. Some players ended up in crisis with too few beans to be able to plant, so had to try and strike up deals with fellow players to be lent beans so they could keep playing!

Climate change can affect the probabilities of extreme weather events occurring, so for the next part of the game players were given new rainmakers. Some of these contained dice with increased probability of drought which would ruin crops, but players didn’t know which! Suddenly, there seemed to be more droughts happening and more players getting into crisis.

Players try to figure out their best farming strategy

Players try to figure out their best farming strategy

For the next part of the game, players became scientists. Using new rainmakers as ‘climate models’, they produced more statistics to help them work out whether their risk of drought had been altered by climate change. How trustworthy were the results provided by their models though?

Players became negotiators at the UN climate negotiations for the final part of the game. They had to work out how they were going to deal with the fact that some players had collected more beans than others. Some players had been acting as developed countries and so, along with fewer losses, they had greater historical emissions. Were they to blame for losses in the developing countries? After much debate, each group managed to come up with an agreement that all players were happy to sign. However, some players did say they felt they had been bullied into making agreements and noted that the develop countries were denying that climate change had happened at all! Solutions presented to address the loss and damage at the end of the game included clearance of debts that had accumulated between players, rules on farming strategies that would be used in the future, and agreements on transfer of beans for when players got into crisis. With such a range of ideas diplomatically expressed, maybe we have uncovered some of the negotiators of the future!

A spokesperson reads out his region's signed agreement to address loss and damage

A spokesperson reads out his region’s signed agreement to address loss and damage


By the end of the game, all the players said their knowledge of extreme event attribution had been improved. One player said their understanding had been improved ‘by creating a situation where extreme events had ‘real’ consequences and a political ‘reality’’. This is the key feature of participatory gaming, that players can experience the emotions involved and have to act under uncertainty rather than just learning about it theoretically. Furthermore, it provides insights into the challenges of climate negotiations and the inequality between developing and developed countries, along with the difficulties in separating the impacts of climate change from other factors.

This has been just one of the many times the CAULDRON game has been played, which have included players from sectors ranging from climate science to civil society. Each time the game has prompted lively discussion about event attribution science and dealing with the impacts of climate change and demonstrated that ‘serious gaming’ can be an effective, but also fun, way of sharing climate research.

Winner of the 2014 MSc BSSS Dissertation Prize

Congratulations to Chris Moorin, winner of the 2014 British Society of Soil Science MSc Dissertation Prize!

Chris’ dissertation was on ‘the impact of different organic amendments on potentially toxic element (PTE) bioavailability in soils and the possible evolutionary adaptation of Common Bentgrass (Agrostis capillaris L.) to high PTE concentrations’, supervised by Dr Denise Lambkin. The Award was presented at the 2014 Winter Graduation ceremony by Dr Joanna Clark.

Excellent work, Chris!  Very well done to all our students for their excellent dissertation projects.

Graduation Dec 2014 (8) Chris Moorin-001