Game Theory Goes Native

conservation economics CSF strategy fund

Game theory emerged in the 1940’s as a math-driven, esoteric science of how people alternately cooperate and compete to get what they want. It’s been used in business, diplomacy and military strategies and won famed Princeton economist John Nash the Nobel Prize in 1994. Now, far from the halls of academia and the corridors of power, it’s also being used to conserve nature.

Paula Andrea Zuluaga is a CSF Economic Research Fellow. That means the young Colombian ecologist is applying economics to conservation in a creative and compelling way that won her one of our coveted research grants and the help of a CSF mentor, Rocío Moreno. She’s applying game theory to figure out how native fishermen can set - and stick to - agreements that will conserve their resource over time. Success will bolster the survival of a lattice of wetlands and lakes in Colombia’s Orinoco Basin. The area, near the town of Inirida, has been nominated as a Ramsar site, a club limited to wetlands of global significance.

Paula actually plays games with the fishermen. She divides them in small groups and has them individually choose how much hypothetical fish to catch, then repeats the process in multiple rounds. If they all catch a lot, the stock collapses, and with it their hypothetical incomes. Moderation by all leads to a sustainable yield and maximum long-term income for the group. If only one player “overfishes” while the rest show restraint, he reaps a huge catch from the healthy stock while the others don’t. The trick, in the game and in life, is how to curtail the impulse of individuals for the benefit of the group.

Paula’s research tests options such as taxes on excessive gains, shaming over-exploiters, or simply allowing the fishermen to discuss catch levels between rounds. The research also provides locals a space to reflect on the enforcement of limits on gear and certain no-fishing zones. She discovered that communication was the most effective intervention, and, through the process itself, helped six communities ratify self-regulation agreements.

Paula, her co-author Marcela Franco and the many other CSF research fellows are the future of economics-driven conservation. They take cutting-edge knowledge to another sort of edge, the one that defines the place where people meet intact ecosystems and find ways to coexist.

Photo Credit: DE UNA Colombia Tours


Since 1998, Conservation Strategy Fund has been committed to making conservation efforts smarter through the use of economics. To celebrate, we're going to be sharing 15 stories of success throughout our history. The above is story #14 on our timeline. To start from the beginning, click here.