Oil palm plantation in East Kalimantan. Photo by Ricky Martin/CIFOR-ICRAF

A powerful tool for sustainable oil palm

Gather a group of strangers around a table for a board game, and you have a great ice-breaker. But when that game is based on science and the players include smallholders, villagers, local government and private companies, it can be a tool for transformation.

The six-year Oil Palm Adaptive Landscape (OPAL) project aimed to improve the management of oil palm landscapes in Cameroon, Colombia and Indonesia – which together account for 59.4% of global palm oil production – by opening up lines of communication between industry stakeholders.

In each country, researchers and stakeholders developed a board game tailored to address context-specific issues such as supply chain problems. Role playing drew not only laughs but also insights, as each player took on a role that was polar opposite to real life.

“The head of a plantation or a local government official typically plays a smallholder farmer struggling to get a legal permit or a fair price for fresh fruit bunches,” said Heru Komarudin, a CIFOR-ICRAF researcher and policy analyst whose portfolio includes OPAL. “This shift in perspective and the friendly atmosphere allowed people to speak freely even when discussing sensitive issues.”

As a result, small-scale producers and agro-businesses became more aware of each other’s needs, and government officials gained a better sense of the nuances on the ground.

While the impacts of such exercises are difficult to quantify, there are signs of progress. In Cameroon, discussions around a national strategy for sustainable palm oil resumed after several years on hold.

In Indonesia, CIFOR-ICRAF collaborator Arya Hadi Dharmawan coordinated a group of IPB University scholars who became involved in key national processes to contribute to the development of policies on smallholder–private sector partnerships and the Indonesian Sustainability Palm Oil certification system.

And in Colombia, John Garcia of ETH Zurich said, “multiple stakeholders became aware of the considerable scope for expanding oil palm in a sustainable way, minimizing adverse impacts on carbon, water consumption, local climate and biodiversity.”

Supported by Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), Swiss Programme for Research on Global Issues for Development and the Luc Hoffman Institute

“This shift in perspective and the friendly atmosphere allowed people to speak freely even when discussing sensitive issues.”

Heru Komarudin

CIFOR-ICRAF Researcher and Policy Analyst

Harnessing the power of forests, trees and agroforestry


In 2021, as the Covid-19 pandemic started to turn a corner and new hope sprang from the launch of global initiatives on restoration and land use, CIFOR-ICRAF completed a successful three-year merger process, finishing the year with a project pipeline of USD 430 million and fully harmonized management, research and regional processes.

This report highlights some of our solutions to five global challenges: deforestation and biodiversity loss, climate change, dysfunctional food systems, unsustainable supply and value chains, and inequality. Achievements include informing national policies in Peru and Viet Nam, applying new technologies in the Congo Basin and India, and co-creating solutions with partners and communities in Indonesia and Cameroon – all while integrating considerations of the rights of women, Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

The Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) has reached over one billion people. The CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) wrapped up 10 years of impact. And Resilient Landscapes is fast becoming a nexus between science, business and finance, with projects starting in Papua New Guinea, Serbia and Brazil.

With the momentum of a combined 70 years’ experience, CIFOR-ICRAF is forging ahead with its valued partners, finding new ways to harness the transformative power of forests, trees and agroforestry for a more resilient future.