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Conflicts about natural resources

Conflicts can often arise about access to and control of natural resources like land, water in a stream or well, or products from a forest or lake

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From: Coping with conflict – Footsteps 36

Ideas for helping to resolve conflict within and between communities

by Scott Jones.

Conflicts can often arise about access to and control of natural resources like land, water in a stream or well or products from a forest or lake. Such conflicts may result in that resource not being managed in a productive or sustainable way. We usually think of conflict as being negative. But conflict can be used positively – it can bring issues to the surface which can then provide an opportunity to heal wounds, to develop goals and ways to achieve those goals that are acceptable to everyone.

The causes of conflict

Conflicts do not just occur between different communities, companies and governments, they also occur within them. People in local communities are not all the same. Groups and individuals differ in gender, class, caste, clan or tribe, education, age and religion. People may use and depend on the resource in a different way. Each group or individual has different levels or types of power over the access to and control of the resources – some may have very little power.

Companies face pressure from competitors and shareholders. They have to balance the ability to make a shortterm profit with the importance of developing sustainable income in the longer term.

Governments also face conflicts of interest. Agriculture, Water and Forestry departments may not always appear to be on the same team as they discuss resource use. Most departments or ministries are short of cash, so staff and resource shortages can increase the tension.

This may be the situation when a development project or a company arrives. Often their arrival has been planned outside the area of impact, raising old conflicts and creating new ones. Some groups may respond with a ‘grab what you can now’ approach and rely on force or persuasion. Relationships may worsen and so may the conflict itself. Some groups may seek to exert power and authority over the situation, selfishly or for the common good – for example physical or economic power, or power that comes from knowledge.


Approaches to conflict management

There are many different ways of managing conflict – and often more than one will be used.

Traditional or customary approaches Every society has its own ways or customs for dealing with conflict. These customs should not be ignored. They can often lead to long-term, sustainable solutions because they are rooted in local values and beliefs. They are generally accessible and people usually have confidence in the result. On the other hand, customary approaches can have important weaknesses. They may neglect some people such as women, minorities and caste groups. They may maintain existing power imbalances. Decisions may be made in favour of a few with local power. They also usually lack written documentation.

Legal approaches Legal approaches may be found in the local, customary systems or in wider national government structures. Evidence is gathered, a case is argued and a judgement made that is backed by the law. In some societies the legal approach is almost always used to resolve conflict. Sometimes this approach is adopted too quickly before other ways have been tried. In other situations, people may not have confidence in the legal system, or do not have access, experience or money to use it.

Force Physical power is an obvious approach to conflict management. But other forms of power may come from someone’s charm, character or role – they may use their power to persuade others. Force seldom brings success in the longer term and can sow seeds of discontent. Memories of the previous use of force may prevent people moving forward now.

Partnership approaches This is a general term for approaches in which people work together, involving everyone in the process. Often it is necessary to involve an outsider to guide the process from the start or at key stages in it. The aim is to reach a fair, long-term outcome that everyone is happy with, in which all sides win. Partnership conflict management generally involves a series of steps. At each step check that all parties agree before moving on to the next step. The steps are described in the diagram in the centre pages.

Dr Scott Jones is a lecturer and research coordinator at CRDT with experience in forestry, healthcare and conflict management in Africa, India, SE Asia and the Pacific region. Address: CRDT, University of Wolverhampton, Gorway Road, Walsall, WS1 3BD, UK.

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