Managing Conflict

from Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

This reading looks at conflict in the context of natural resource management, but can be applied to a wide variety of situations.

This section considers the different dimensions of conflict in collaborative natural resource management. Its objectives are to:

  • provide new ways of looking at the conflict that may arise among the many groups of natural resource users;
  • introduce important elements of conflict that influence the way in which it is addressed and managed;
  • discuss different conflict management approaches, with their specific advantages and disadvantages;
  • propose collaborative methods of alternative conflict management (ACM) that seek to identify shared interests and mutual gains.


When local users manage their natural resources collaboratively, it is quite normal for some people to have different interests from others regarding how to use a resource. When these different interests seem incompatible, a conflict over interests occurs.


Conflict is a relationship involving two or more parties who have, or perceive themselves to have, incompatible interests or goals. Violence is, in the first place, the threat or use of strong physical force.

Violence can also consist of actions, words, attitudes or structures that cause damage and prevent people from pursuing their livelihoods and well-being.

Source: Fisher et al., 2000.

Conflicts are a fact of life. They happen whether people want them or not. Conflicts occur when people pursue goals that clash or are incompatible. Conflict involves people’s thoughts (ideas), emotions (feelings and perceptions) and actions (behaviour).

Regarding thought, a key aspect is how its various participants “frame” or interpret the conflict (Lewicki, Grey and Elliot, 2003). Framing means the way in which people construct and represent a conflict. A frame provides critical insights into a party’s perspectives, motivations and interests. Conflict management often involves a process of helping parties to “reframe” their conflict, shifting their perception of the conflict or their ways of dealing with it. Conflicts often involve strong emotions – sadness, anger and/or frustration. Part of the task of conflict management is helping people to deal with or overcome these emotions, so that they are better prepared to address the problems at the heart of the conflict. Similarly, there is an important behavioural or action component in conflicts. Conflict management involves helping people to recognize ways of making their behaviour helpful to resolving their perceived differences.

In natural resource management, managing conflict offers a set of principles and tools for transforming conflict into a force that promotes more sustainable livelihoods. In particular, such principles and tools can be used to strengthen the existing customary and legal mechanism for managing conflict. The objective of this guide is to equip natural resource practitioners to manage tensions as and when they arise.

In fact, conflict can have constructive and positive outcomes, depending on the way people handle it. For example, conflict can help to clarify the policies, institutions and processes that regulate access to resources. Conflict can also be an important force for social change, because it alerts people to:

  • grievances in the wider socio-economic or political system;
  • competitive or contradictory laws or policies regulating access to or control over natural resources;
  • weaknesses in the ways in which natural resource management policies or laws are implemented;
  • people’s need or desire to assert their rights, interests and priorities;
  • undesirable environmental conditions, such as overharvesting of renewable resources.

A collaborative approach to natural resource management recognizes and respects the different and often conflicting values and interests of different user groups. When natural resource conflicts are addressed constructively, they can contribute to improving the institutions and processes for natural resource management. This can help to stabilize and improve the sustainability of natural resources and the benefits that different people get from using them.

TRAINER’S NOTE: Conflict can be a creative, constructive force for improving natural resource management if people learn the skills to analyse and manage it in a constructive and participatory manner. Conflict can take many different forms, and not all conflicts can be fully resolved at the local level. In particular, conflicts caused by structural tensions may require that action be taken at the regional, national or international level.

Before becoming involved in conflict, it is useful to consider its basic dimensions. People dealing with conflict need to be aware of the following:

  • The origins of a conflict are often complex and diverse. They are embedded in local cultural systems, but are also connected to wider social, economic and political processes.
  • Conflicts are changing, interactive social processes rather than single, self-contained events. Each conflict has its own unique history and runs its own course of various phases and levels of intensity.
  • There is no single “true” or “objective” account of a conflict. Rather, the participants in and the observers of conflicts may interpret or frame conflicts differently, depending on their perspectives and interests. Conflicts are about perceptions and the (different) meanings that people give to events, policies, institutions, etc.

2.1.1 Conflict is ever-changing: stages of conflict
Conflicts are best thought of as dynamic (ever-changing), interactive social processes. No two conflicts are the same. However, conflict analysis makes it possible to examine the structure and dynamics of conflicts in a systematic way. From this, it becomes clear that conflicts often share similar patterns and stages of development. Conflicts can generally be thought of a cycle from emergence to resolution. However, they do not always progress in a strictly linear fashion, from stage A, to B, to C, and so on. Instead, conflicts sometimes unfold in non-linear ways, moving backwards and forwards between different stages, skipping a stage altogether, or stopping at one stage for a long time before suddenly moving on.

To be effective, practitioners must analyse each conflict carefully, on a case-by-case basis, and must be sensitive to the different stages and elements at play in that conflict. Sometimes a conflict needs to be addressed even though it has not affected the ways in which people act or make decisions.

When conflict is not open but is a potential threat, it is described as being latent; there may be smoke, but there is no visible fire. Latent conflict refers to social tensions, differences and disagreements that are hidden or undeveloped. This is the stage at which incompatible goals may exist, but parties may either not be acutely conscious of them or not be willing to reveal themselves or their interests in the conflict. They may allow conflict to remain latent because of fear, distrust, peer pressure or financial reasons. In such situations, conflicts may show up through what Scott (1985: xv-xvi) calls “the ordinary weapons of relatively powerless groups: foot dragging, dissimulation, desertion, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, and so on”. In such situations tensions build up.

Conflict can emerge gradually and steadily, or develop rapidly in response to a few significant events. As differences increase and intensify, conflict becomes manifest, expanding into a full-blown public issue that cannot be avoided. In the manifest stage, opponents’ differences become more prominent and more central to group dynamics. As incompatibilities become clearer, they become the defining issues: debate revolves more and more around differences. Opponents begin to define themselves and their groups on the basis of such cleavages, in terms of “us versus them”. These differences might then be used to mobilize sections of the population on behalf of a “cause”. Manifest conflicts can escalate and become violent. When a conflict reaches this stage, violence often produces counter-violence, leading to further escalation.

Ideally, conflicts should be managed at the latent stage, before they emerge or escalate. When a conflict reaches the manifest stage, it may either become blocked in a stalemate or impasse in which the conflict parties refuse to modify their positions, or fall out of control through tensions and violent actions.

BOX 2.2 DETECTING LATENT CONFLICTHow can latent conflict be detected? It is difficult to predict when natural resource conflicts may emerge or escalate. One of the best indicators for likely emergence of conflict is a history of past natural resource conflicts in a community or region. It is not uncommon for conflicts to re-emerge, or for similar ones to develop, if the original sources of conflict have not been resolved. Various aspects of life also provide indicators or symptoms of tension or potential conflict. These include the following.

Changes in land use and resource users

•   Apparent unsustainable use of renewable resources, such as clearing of forests (or of particularly valued species), overgrazing of pastures, or overharvesting of forest products or fisheries.

•   Trends in land use, such as the rapid conversion of forests into farms or pasture, the extension of cultivation on to grazing grounds, a shift from single to multiple cropping of fields, the expansion of urban or peri-urban centres at the expense of agricultural lands, the establishment of irrigation works, or the fencing of formerly communal lands.

•   The sudden appearance of new technology, such as chemical fertilizer, hybrid seeds, exotic crops, irrigation pumps, chainsaws, tractors, new fishing technology or boats, which allow people to intensify their use of agricultural land, forests, water, fisheries or other resources.

•   The arrival or influx of outsiders or new groups, such as members of neighbouring communities, nomadic herders, migrant farmers, unemployed labourers or refugees, seeking to make use of local resources.

Changes in local markets, livelihood strategies or institutions

•   Spikes in the prices of key commodities, such as staple grains, indicating the emergence (or fear of) widespread or prolonged food shortages.

•   Pursuit of “hard times” livelihood strategies, such as increased wood sales, the seeking of less desirable “famine foods” from the wild, increased begging, and migration to other areas in search of relief.

•   Distress sales of assets, such as consumer goods, livestock and land.

•   Differences between rich and poor people in a community become more pronounced, and are manifested by such developments as ownership of productive or consumer assets, changing livelihood strategies, or changing occupational structure.

•   Reports that natural resource management institutions or other key local bodies are suffering from political factions, weak leadership, corruption or other problems.

Community relations

Disturbed communications:

•   cool, very formal ways of behaviour;

•   reduced willingness for contact and communication;

•   spread of gossip, rumours, intrigues and accusations, especially regarding third parties;

•   insults and implicit or explicit threats of physical force towards other parties.

Relationship problems:

•   hardening, stubbornness, sticking to own point of view;

•   failure to protect property;

•   denial of access to resources for other parties;

•   open disagreements, loud arguments.


•   detachment from others;

•   lack of interest, apathy;

•   evasive manoeuvres, avoidance strategies.

Assessing the risk of conflict can be very helpful in overcoming the obstacles to collaborative natural resource management. Nonetheless, it must be emphasized that the trends and symptoms listed in Box 2.2 indicate only the possibility of tensions and conflicts. Determining which events or processes might trigger these situations into full-blown conflicts can be difficult.

Intervening in a conflict can have unclear effects. It can move the conflict from one stage to another in the following ways:

  • Intensifying conflict means making a hidden conflict more visible and open. Exposing hidden factors can be important for getting people to deal with the issues in search of a constructive solution.
  • Escalating conflict, on the other hand, means that levels of tension, threats and/or violence are increasing.

Conflict can become violent when:

  • there are inadequate channels for dialogue and disagreement;
  • dissenting voices and deeply held grievances cannot be heard;
  • there is instability, injustice and fear in the wider community or society;
  • people perceive incentives (however unreasonable) or advantages from violence.

TRAINER’S NOTE: Remember that conflicts can be latent. Look for the “invisible” conflict. Anticipating conflict and intervening at an early stage is usually more effective than expensive and time-consuming intervention later. “Later” may also be “too late”. However, remember also that “doing nothing” and “monitoring the situation” can be valid choices – sometimes intervention makes a conflict worse.

Local communities, resource users, project managers and public officials can choose from a number of procedural options for managing conflicts. They must carefully consider the pros and cons of each possible option to decide which approach is to their best advantage. No approach for managing natural resource conflicts works in all situations. Each has its own strengths and limitations. Deciding on the most appropriate and legitimate means of addressing the conflict will depend on the situation.

The following discussion of the various options is to assist people to make informed decisions. The various conflict management options vary in terms of (Moore, 2003):

  • the legal recognition of process and outcome;
  • the privacy of the approach;
  • the specialization required of the third party that might be assisting in conflict management;
  • the role and authority of any third party that might be involved;
  • the type of decision that will result;
  • the amount of coercion that is exercised by or on the disputing parties.

Figure 2.2 shows a continuum of conflict management approaches. These range from conflict avoidance at one extreme to physical violence at the other. In between these two extremes, there are many different approaches and options for managing conflict. Moving from left to right in the diagram, the approaches become progressively more directive and coercive in terms of decision-making. The further towards the right of the diagram, the less the influence that the conflict parties have on the process and outcome of conflict management.


Source: Moore, 2003

When facing disagreement with others, people may initially avoid each other. This might be because they dislike the discomfort that accompanies conflict, do not consider the issue to be very important, or do not believe that the situation can be improved. Avoidance may have a strategic element – people may wait until the right moment to act in a more direct or forceful manner.

When avoidance is no longer possible, or the conflict increases in intensity, the parties may resort to other problem solving approaches. The most common way to reach a mutually acceptable agreement is through informal decision-making, which can involve negotiation and/or mediation:

  • Negotiation is a bargaining relationship among the opposing parties. Negotiations are voluntary and require that all parties are willing to consider the others’ interests and needs. If negotiations are hard to start or have reached an impasse, the conflict parties may need assistance from a third party.
  • Mediation is the process whereby an acceptable third party who has limited or no authoritative decision-making power assists the principle parties in a conflict to resolve their dispute through promoting conciliation and facilitating negotiations. As with negotiation, mediation leaves the decision-making power primarily in the hands of the conflict parties. They enter into a voluntary agreement, which they themselves, and not the mediator, implement.

Some advocate a much stronger position for the third party. In these cases, conflict parties have less direct control over the process and outcome of conflict management.

Arbitration is a process whereby the parties submit the issues at stake to a mutually agreeable third party, who will make the decision for them. Arbitration is an informal, private procedure, unlike adjudication, in which the resolution process is shifted to the public domain. In adjudication, the disputants usually hire lawyers to act as their advocates, and cases are argued in front of judges or other officials from provincial authorities or technical ministries with adjudicative authority in land disputes. These representatives of public law take into consideration the disputants’ concerns, interests and arguments, and make a decision based on the norms and values of a society and in conformity with legal statutes. The disadvantage of this is that the decision is premised on one party being right and one wrong. The outcome therefore tends to produce a winner and a loser. The advantage is that the results of the process are binding and enforceable because the judge is socially sanctioned to make the decision.

Conflict management moves outside the law (becomes extralegal) when it does not rely on socially required or acceptable processes. Extralegal approaches involve processes of coercion to persuade or force “opponents” into compliance or submission.

Non-violent directive action occurs when one conflict party forces the other(s) to make concessions by refusing to cooperate or by committing undesirable acts. This may be possible when the conflict parties rely on each other for their well-being and livelihoods. Violence (or physical coercion) means that one party threatens or uses force to impose its will on the other(s). Coercion means that one party is forced to accept an outcome imposed by another party.


Avoidance: acting in ways that prevent a conflict from becoming publicly acknowledged.

Negotiation: voluntary process in which parties reach agreement through consensus. Consensus means a decision that all can support.

Mediation: using a third party to facilitate the negotiation process. (The mediator does not have the authority to impose a solution.)

Arbitration: submitting a conflict to a mutually agreeable third party, who renders an often non-binding decision.

Adjudication: relying on a judge or administrator to make a binding decision.

Coercion: threatening or using force to impose a position.

Crucial issues in conflict management are the enforcement of outcomes and the binding character of conflict settlements. In practice, these are problems in all legal orders. When parties reach an agreement informally, enforcement depends on their willingness to comply with that agreement. They may comply with it if it offers advantages, but they may ignore it if it does not. They might pursue the same issue in another venue.

In the case of arbitration and adjudication, the third party or the judicial system must have adequate social status and the power of sanction. Nevertheless, a courtroom victory may not always translate into enforced action. It is not uncommon for successful adjudication decisions to be followed by contempt of court proceedings stemming from officials’ failure to enforce court orders.

In addition to the conflict management approach, the social system within which a conflict management process takes place must also be clearly understood. There are three main social systems of conflict management that involve a third party:

  • customary systems for managing conflict;
  • national legal systems;
  • collaborative methods of ACM.

These social systems differ in the approaches that they take and in the enforcement capacities that third parties possess to make the conflict parties comply with a settlement. Each of the three systems has its own strengths and limitations. It is therefore essential to study carefully what each system has to offer.

2.2.1 Customary systems for managing conflict
A large number of customary strategies and techniques for managing and resolving conflicts regarding natural resources have evolved within and across communities. There are many cross-cultural similarities – negotiation, mediation and arbitration are common practices, as are more coercive measures such as peer pressure, gossip, ostracism, supernatural sanctions and violence.

The success of customary natural resource management strategies in managing conflict often depends on the enforcement capacities of traditional authorities. When the authority of traditional elite groups is declining, the capacities of those groups to render or enforce a decision may also be reduced. Customary practices institutionalized within broader national legal frameworks may provide a good starting point to enhance traditional authorities’ ability to deal with the challenges of contemporary natural resource management.


Strengths Limitations
Encourage participation by community members, and respect local values and customs.Are more accessible because of their low cost, their flexibility in scheduling and procedures, and their use of the local language.

Encourage decision-making based on collaboration, with consensus emerging from wide-ranging discussions, often fostering local reconciliation.

Contribute to processes of community empowerment.

Informal and even formal leaders may serve as conciliators, mediators, negotiators or arbitrators.

Long-held public legitimacy provides a sense of local ownership of both the process and its outcomes.

Have been supplanted by courts and administrative laws.Can be inaccessible to people on the basis of gender, class, caste and other factors.

Are challenged by the increasing heterogeneity of communities resulting from cultural change, population movements and other factors that erode the social relationships supporting customary conflict management.

There may also be long-standing problems of access on the basis of gender, class, caste or other considerations.

Often cannot accommodate conflict among communities or between a community and the State.

Local leaders may use their authority to pursue their own self-interest, or that of their affiliated social groups or clients.

Decisions and processes may not be written down for future reference.

 2.2.2 National legal systems
National legal systems governing natural resource management are based on legislation and policy statements that are administered through regulatory and judicial institutions. Adjudication and arbitration are the main strategies for addressing conflicts, with decision-making vested in judges and officials who possess the authority to impose a settlement on disputants.

Decisions are more likely to be based on national legal norms applied in a standardized or rigid manner, with all-or-nothing outcomes. Thus, contesting parties often have very limited control over the process and outcomes of conflict management. In addition, any control that they do have may be the result of corruption, which undermines the integrity of the system. However, some national systems take account of legal systems that are based on local custom, religion, ethnic group or other entities. Although adjudication renders legally enforceable decisions, the enforcement itself still depends on the legal authorities’ capacity to carry it out.

Such capacity is sometimes limited. In addition, the national legal systems of many countries have problems with public accessibility and accountability, particularly for poor and socially marginalized groups. All the same, legal recourse offers one of the most significant means of ensuring State accountability.


Strengths Limitations
Use of official legal systems strengthens the rule of State law, empowers civil society and fosters environmental accountability.Are officially established with supposedly well-defined procedures.

Take national and international concerns and issues into consideration.

Involve judicial and technical specialists in decision-making.

Where there are extreme power imbalances among the disputants, national legal systems may better protect the rights of less powerful parties because decisions are legally binding.

Decisions are impartial, based on the merits of the case, and with all parties having equity before the law.

Are often inaccessible to the poor, women, marginalized groups and remote communities because of cost, distance, language barriers, political obstacles, illiteracy and discrimination.May not consider indigenous knowledge, local institutions and long-term community needs in decision-making.

May involve judicial and technical specialists who lack the expertise, skills and orientation required for participatory natural resource management.

Use procedures that are generally adversarial and produce win – lose outcomes.

Provide only limited participation in decision-making for conflict parties.

It may become more difficult to reach impartial decisions if there is a lack of judicial independence, corruption among State agents, or an elite group that dominates legal processes.

Use the highly specialized language of educated elite groups, favouring business and government disputants over ordinary people and communities.

2.2.3 Alternative conflict management
In addition to customary and legal systems, there are also ACM methods. Collaborative conflict management promotes joint decision-making and seeks voluntary agreement among disputants in win-win solutions. It arose in part as a response to the purely power-based or purely judicial regulation of conflicts, both of which produce winners and losers. Because collaborative conflict management is based on voluntary agreements, enforcement depends solely on all parties’ willingness to comply with an agreement. Third parties may facilitate this process, but cannot force anything on the disputants. Collaborative conflict management works best with conflict stakeholders who are fairly equal in strength.


Strengths Limitations
Can help overcome obstacles to participatory conflict management that are inherent in legislative, administrative, judicial and even customary approaches.Promote conflict management by building on shared interests and finding points of agreement.

Involve processes that resemble those already existing in most local conflict management systems, including flexible, low-cost access.

Foster a sense of ownership in implementation of the solution process.

Emphasize capacity building within communities so that local people become more effective facilitators, communicators, planners and managers of conflict.

Often fail to address structural inequalities, and may serve to perpetuate or exacerbate power imbalances.May encounter difficulties in getting all stakeholders to the bargaining table.

May not be able to overcome power differentials among stakeholders, so vulnerable groups such as the poor, women and indigenous people remain marginalized.

May result in decisions that are not legally binding.

May lead some practitioners to use methods developed in other contexts and cultures without adapting them to local contexts.

ACM seeks to build people’s capacity to talk with each other, to find a way forward in negotiations and to reach agreement. It is important to recognize that differences exist in negotiation styles. They are hard and soft negotiation styles, positional bargaining and consensual negotiations. This guide focuses on collaboration, and advocates consensual or principled negotiations.[4]

 2.3.1 Consensual negotiations
Consensual negotiations are based on stakeholders identifying their own needs and interests, and thereby finding ways to promote mutual gains. This approach seeks high levels of collaboration, and presumes that the parties have the necessary good will to communicate throughout the process. Such good will is often developed through conciliation. Consensual negotiations are particularly important when an aim is to strengthen long-term working relationships. They also produce potentially more satisfying and enforceable settlements, because the disputants work out their own resolutions.

Other types of negotiation include hard and soft negotiation styles. Hard-style negotiations often rely on the use of more coercive strategies to encourage each side to make concessions and reach agreement. They are particularly applicable when a conflicting party has taken up an extreme and inflexible position. Hard-style negotiations tend to be antagonistic and adversarial. Outcomes tend to be based on compromise (give-and take: “I give up something and you give up something”), rather than on mutually satisfying agreements.

Soft-style negotiations can go to the other extreme, with parties concentrating more or preserving relationships than on furthering their own interests. Under these conditions, concessions might be given too easily, leading to resentment or frustration later on. Difficult issues that may provoke disagreements are often avoided. More powerful stakeholders may use soft-style negotiation to increase rather than moderate their demands. Outcomes tend to be based on accommodation (“I will let you have your way – this is more important [or less hurtful] to me, than continuing the dispute”).

Consensual negotiation offers an alternative to the “winner-takes-all” contests that usually occur in adjudication and arbitration, which tend to be highly adversarial and non-consensual in manner. In addition, the flexible and generally low-cost nature of ACM makes it possible to overcome the barriers that often prevent the poor, women, marginalized groups and remote communities from obtaining access to national legal systems.

The goal of consensus building is to generate agreements and outcomes that are acceptable to all conflict parties with a minimum of compromise and trade-off. The aim is to achieve the best possible agreement to resolve the factors that cause conflict. The best outcome is to achieve win – win solutions from which all sides gain. This might not always be possible (Section 2.3.3). However, there is still a whole range of possible positive outcomes of negotiations. As conflicts carry with them strong emotions and a high degree of perception, rather than fact, consensus building seeks to transform these perceptions by steering the conflict parties (Warner, 2001):

  • away from negotiating their immediate demands, towards addressing the underlying interests and needs that are the true motivators of behaviour;
  • away from thinking about only one solution, towards considering the widest possible and most creative range of options for meeting the underlying needs;
  • away from personalized and often exaggerated demands, towards clarity and precision in describing both the underlying needs and the range of proposed options;
  • away from antagonism, towards the reconciliation of interests.

As such, consensual negotiations are not based on positions, but on interests and needs. Positions imply concrete and explicit demands (what people say that they want), whereas interests are often less clearly articulated (what people really need). Interests are more long-term and reflect the broader hopes of a person or group, such as the desire to live peacefully, to have stable access to livelihood resources or to have his/her identity recognized. Interests can focus on factual issues (e.g. distribution of resources) and on relationship issues (trust and confidence).

Positional bargaining can be an impediment to consensus building. In a conflict situation, parties tend to lock themselves in positions, which they have to defend and argue for. Conflict stakeholders often exaggerate their differences by adopting positions that do not necessarily correspond to their interests. They may think that taking a strong position will help them to give as little as possible to the other party. Once the parties have identified themselves with their positions, the arguments and offers of the other side will no longer be evaluated rationally. To “give in” may appear equal to loosing face. Negotiations become a contest of wills in which each side tries to win. During such positional bargaining processes, the parties view themselves as adversaries; the goal is victory.

As a negotiation style, positional bargaining is usually applied when parties perceive that the contested resources are limited and that a “distributive solution”, which allocates gains and losses to each party, is the only possible outcome. It may also be adopted when a party places more importance on achieving its own goals than on the continuance of good relationships with other parties.

Reconciling interests rather than positions works for two reasons. First, every interest can usually be satisfied by one of several possible positions. All too often people simply adopt the most obvious position. Second, behind opposed positions lie many more shared and compatible interests than the conflicting ones (Fisher, Ury and Patton, 1991: 43). This makes it easier to find common ground at the level of interests, particularly regarding the longer-term interest that all the parties involved have in achieving a cooperative relationship, which will ultimately be of benefit to all.

Box 2.4 summarizes four basic principles for consensual negotiations.


Separate the people from the problem: In every social conflict there is a factual level and a relational level. Constructive conflict management is only possible if the relational level is taken seriously and it is possible to express feelings, fears, desires, etc. However, this must not be confused with the handling of factual issues. It is easier to work successfully on factual issues when the people issues are treated separately from them. Ideally, people work side by side to attack the problems rather than each other.

Concentrate on interests and not on positions: Participants in negotiations have different perceptions, viewpoints, emotions, likes and dislikes. Taking positions makes things worse because people tend to identify themselves with their positions. The object of negotiations is to satisfy needs and interests.

Develop options that benefit both sides: Negotiation partners should take time to search for a wide range of options before trying to come to an agreement.

Insist on using some objective criteria for evaluating the options: The agreement should reflect fair standards that are shared by the parties.

In some conflict situations, for consensual negotiations to succeed, a third party (mediator) has to intervene. Intervention means “to enter into an ongoing system of relationships, to come between or among persons, groups, or objects for the purpose of helping them” (Moore, 2003). The assumption behind a third party’s involvement is that a mediator will, to some extent, be able to:

  • help the parties to examine their interests and needs;
  • help them to negotiate an exchange of viewpoints;
  • assist them in redefining their relationship in a way that is mutually satisfactory.

As consensus building is based on voluntary agreements, enforcement depends solely on the willingness of all parties to comply with an agreement. A mediator has no power to force the parties to resolve their differences or to make decisions for the parties. The mediator’s success therefore depends on how far it is possible to overcome the tendency to view conflicts as interactions in which one side wins and the other loses.

The challenge for the mediator is to make all the stakeholders recognize conflict as a shared exercise in problem solving, with potential gains for all those involved.

Depending on the type of conflict and on social and cultural values, consensual negotiations can be assisted by either of the following agents:

  • An internal person, or insider: Most communities have people who act as mediators to help resolve local conflicts. Such mediators are trusted and respected by the individuals and groups owing to their social status, experience or special knowledge. They can be part of the immediate social network (e.g. a village leader or elder) or independent, such as a religious or political leader who is traditionally asked to help mediate between two communities.
  • An external person, or outsider: This is usually a person trained to provide impartial assistance to conflicting parties in designing negotiation strategies. Acting as a mediator requires experience and training in conflict management methods, and good communication skills.

Whether an internal or external mediator is the better choice depends on a number of factors, including who the mediator is and his/her credibility, the level of the conflict, and the range and number of stakeholders involved. On the one hand, external facilitation may be unavoidable when a conflict involves stakeholders from widely differing circles, such as villagers, migrants, government agencies, domestic and multinational businesses, politicians, international development agencies and NGOs. On the other hand, in rural communities the availability and desirability of a truly neutral outsider may be limited. Community forestry or fisheries activities are often carried out at remote sites where it is difficult or impossible to find a trained outsider. More important, local people often view outsiders with suspicion. They do not always understand that outside people take on this role as part of their work and do not have hidden agendas.

2.3.2 Capacity building of local stakeholders
In most places throughout the world, some capacity for formal or informal conflict management already exists. Most communities have institutions and structures that help resolve local conflicts. These can involve people who traditionally act as mediators (religious or political leaders), or arrangements that are used locally to regulate access to and control over resources. However, many disputes remain unresolved because the mechanisms in place to manage them are inadequate, or because the parties in conflict do not have the skills needed to negotiate effectively. This is especially true of multistakeholder conflicts and those where accessibility is an issue for politically or socially marginalized groups and remote communities because of cost, distance or language barriers. Some form of capacity building for local stakeholders will therefore be needed in most conflict management processes.

The principle of subsidiarity states that conflicts should always be managed at the lowest possible level or closest to where they will have the most effect (locally, rather than regionally or nationally). This makes it possible to avoid unnecessary external interference, which might undermine or rob the existing structures and institutions of their functions.

Outsiders should not interfere unnecessarily in the affairs of local people if there are adequate structures and institutions in place to deal with conflict. Over time, interference can cause the breakdown of important institutions and structures in a society. Any intervention should therefore be specifically focused, limited and temporary, and should aim to build on and strengthen local capacity for conflict management.

Existing conflict management mechanisms and their capacity need to be assessed before any intervention can take place (Section 4.4). Such an assessment should set out to ask whether the particular conflict concerned could better be managed through strengthening the capacity of existing mechanisms or through finding alternative arrangements. In either case, external facilitation must be oriented towards building on existing expertise and experience of conflict. The often informal and not highly visible institutional mechanisms should not be overlooked.

Note: All formal capacity building should have been completed before consensual negotiations can begin.

TRAINER’S NOTE: Capacity building is a key element of conflict management in general, and consensual negotiations in particular. Consensual negotiations involve shared learning. The focus should be on the affected parties themselves: in principle, they are capable of producing better settlements than people outside the conflict are. This is because the conflict affects their lives and their futures. Furthermore, an agreement reached by the disputants themselves is more likely to be adhered to than are solutions that are outside their control.

Empowerment within a conflict management process can be viewed as a continuum, as outlined in the following stages:

Stage 1: A party is empowered by gaining new awareness and understanding of its possibilities to arrive at a negotiated agreement.

Stage 2: A party is fully recognized by other parties in negotiation or mediation.

Stage 3: A party is enabled to use these new insights and skills in mediation and negotiation.

Stage 4: A party’s rights are fully recognized and reflected in the social and political structures and processes.

Capacity building is the transfer of knowledge to individuals or groups to help enable them to carry out certain activities. It includes awareness raising, training and other forms of human resource development. Capacity building is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for empowerment.

Empowerment occurs in the context of a specific social and political system. Empowerment increases the relative power and ability of disadvantaged groups vis-à-vis more powerful ones. Empowerment strategies must address the needs of the individuals and groups that are to be empowered, as well as addressing the more powerful groups that dominate and determine the “rules of the game”. Effective empowerment of vulnerable, disadvantaged groups can occur only if two processes take place: capacity building of the disadvantaged, and the reform of oppressive rules and practices.

Source: Bigdon and Korf, 2004.

This guide provides the conceptual knowledge and related tools for ACM techniques that can empower marginalized stakeholders up to stage 2. Empowerment up to stage 3 requires the training of local stakeholders and communities. Stage 4 requires fundamental reforms that change the social, legal and political structures (e.g. land reform, devolution of authority, improved governance, and accountability of institutions and decision-makers).

The concepts and tools of ACM alone are not sufficient to bring about stages 3 and 4 of the empowerment process. These stages may be part of a broader process of collaborative natural resource management that involves a transformative approach to conflict management, as well as long-term community development and empowerment strategies, with additional complementary tools, instruments and broader concepts.

2.3.3 Limitations of consensual negotiations
It is important to select a relevant strategy through which to address a particular conflict. No single approach is effective in all cases. The circumstances of conflict, and therefore the obstacles to agreement, vary from case to case. A conflict may involve many or few parties with differences in power. The problem(s) may be more or less urgent, and the emotional involvement of stakeholders will vary. The public interest may or may not be at stake, and the issues involved may be well or only partially understood.

The successful application of consensual negotiation is limited by such factors as:

  • the intractable nature of some environmental conflicts, when some stakeholders refuse to enter into negotiations (e.g. Lewicki, Gray and Elliott, 2003);
  • major differences in power among the stakeholders, which undermine the ability of less powerful groups to reach a settlement that fully addresses their interests and needs;
  • protracted, deep-rooted structural issues, which require legal, economic, political or social reforms in order to address the conflict adequately.

Intractable nature of some conflicts: In some instances, conflicts cannot be resolved in win – win ways. Resource availability may be limited, and increasing resource use by one party may mean less resource availability for another. For instance, the same water cannot simultaneously be kept in a stream to preserve instream flows, withdrawn for domestic use and impounded in a reservoir (Burgess and Burgess, 1994).

It may be more difficult to resolve a conflict when the conflicting parties’ livelihoods depend on gaining increasing access to resources, for example, because of population increase. However, even though a resolution to the conflict may mean fewer resources being available to some parties, those same parties may still benefit from the restoration of peaceful relations as a basis for economic development.

Major power differences: Consensus building is based on the premise that power imbalances among the different parties are not substantial enough to prevent a third party from bridging them through the negotiation process. However, in some natural resource conflicts, especially when they involve outside stakeholders, there may be substantial power imbalances, for example, when a local community negotiates with a multinational company.

Negotiation and mediation are not techniques for altering fundamental power relationships within a society, no matter how desirable that might be (Burgess and Burgess, 1994). This is because stakeholders are voluntarily involved in the process and agreement. Compliance with the agreement is also voluntary. Parties are unlikely to agree voluntarily to negotiate or mediate if the settlement offers them less than what they might have obtained by pursuing their interests in legal, political or other arenas (for further discussion of the different sources of power see Section 5.5.2.).

Another difficulty with ACM when dealing with conflicts in which there are large power differences is that the more powerful actors can take unilateral actions or force weaker parties to accept a decision.

If any of the parties believe that they can obtain a better deal through any alternative to the settlement that has been negotiated, they are likely to try to do so. In some cases, ACM can help to “convert” conflict parties, when participation in the process causes them to redefine their interests in ways that are more favourable to a collaborative outcome (Burgess and Burgess, 1994).

Protracted or deep-rooted issues: When an individual or a group is denied the fundamental need for identity, security, recognition or equal participation within the society, solutions often require significant changes in the social, economic and/or political structures. The question then arises as to how far ACM can lead to transforming unequal and unjust power relations and social structures.

TRAINER’S NOTE: ACM works best when addressing issues such as conflict demands or unsustainable resource use. Interests are generally more negotiable than are basic needs such as identity, security, recognition or equal participation within society. In reality, many conflict situations in which there are major power differences or structural inequalities may require additional, complementary instruments to bring about personal, political, legal and/or societal changes, for which ACM alone is not sufficient.

Section 2 has introduced different conflict management strategies and approaches. There is no perfect strategy and approach for managing conflict in collaborative natural resource management. However, ACM was suggested as an appropriate approach in the context of collaborative natural resource management, because it encourages consensus building among multiple stakeholders. This can lead to mutually acceptable and therefore more sustainable outcomes. Section 3 details the concept and outlines a ten-step process map for conflict management.

Conflict can have constructive and positive outcomes, depending on the way people handle it. When local users collaboratively manage their natural resources, it is quite normal for some to have different interests from others regarding how to use a resource. When these different interests seem incompatible, a conflict occurs. Differences in interests and perspectives are a normal part of social and political life.

As conflict emerges, it can change significantly in form and intensity. It is important to understand the stage of a conflict, whether it is latent or already manifest. Sometimes conflict needs to be addressed before it has started to affect how people act or make decisions.

There are a number of procedural options for managing conflict. These range from avoidance to violence. Whereas negotiation and mediation place responsibility for the outcome with the conflict parties, arbitration and adjudication transfer responsibility to a third party, who makes the decision for the conflict parties.

Conflict management is often attributed to specific social systems: customary systems for managing conflict, national legal systems, and ACM. These systems may use different strategies for managing and resolving conflict. Each has its own inherent strengths and limitations, and it is essential to study carefully what each of the different options has to offer.

ACM is a consensus-based approach that encourages mutually acceptable solutions. The conflict parties alone are responsible for the outcome, but a third party may assist them to reach a positive outcome in a negotiation process. In order to arrive at a settlement that the stakeholders feel is fair, and that is therefore likely to last, consensual negotiations depend on four basic principles: treat people and problems separately; concentrate on interests and not positions; develop options that benefit both sides; and use objective criteria for evaluating the options.

Conflict management processes can enhance the capacities of local stakeholders by giving them new awareness and understanding of their goals, options and resources. Bringing about structural empowerment in which disadvantaged and weaker social groups gain recognition of their rights requires fundamental policy reforms. These can be identified and understood through ACM, but solutions lie beyond what ACM alone can achieve.

[4] Also known as “interest-based or principled negotiations”.



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© FAO, Managing Conflict,, July 13, 2017