Conflict, perception and power

Peace & Security05 Nov 2013Larry A. Fisher

Natural resource conflicts take many forms, and they are particularly complicated by scope and scale.

Natural resource conflicts often involve multifaceted issues, a wide array of stakeholders, multiple political jurisdictions and social contexts, and complex scientific questions. Think of the challenges of large-scale forest and ecosystem management, of protecting degraded watersheds, establishing marine protected areas, resolving land-use conflicts over large-scale infrastructure or development projects, or the ‘resource curse’ (the strange paradox of development in which countries with significant natural resources tend toward economic contraction and weaker development outcomes). Add to this the practical difficulties of working across state, institutional and, in some cases, international boundaries, as well as across ethnic groups and socioeconomic classes, addressing the increasingly intense competition over scarce resources like water and land, or the unexpected impacts of large natural disasters.

An optimist understands that ‘conflict is… indispensable to defining, over time, a socially sustainable order, because it impels institutions toward such a search in the first place.’1 The fundamental challenge for leadership, though, is finding strategies to leverage conflict toward constructive civil discourse, improved decision making processes, and more deliberate efforts to seek ‘the common good’.

That said, many natural resource conflicts are manifestations of deeper and more chronic social and economic problems, and they have resulted in violence, rebellion and displacement of populations. The Collier-Hoeffler model of civil war onset, based on an analysis of 78 civil wars between 1960 and 1999, suggests that income per capita, the rate of economic development and the structure of the economy (in particular dependence on primary commodity exports), are key causal factors. Ethnic and religious composition also matters. Societies in which the largest ethnic group accounts for 45 to 90% of the population have a risk of conflict about one-third higher.2 In these situations, more fundamental political and social reforms are necessary to reduce the risk of conflict – such as, raising and sustaining economic growth, diversifying the economy, resolving inequalities, increasing accountability and transparency, improving tracking and enforcement mechanisms, and a general move toward more democratic and inclusive political systems.3

Understanding the power dynamics that shape natural resource conflicts is a necessary precursor to seeking appropriate strategies for resolution. Power comes from authority (official, traditional, and informal), access to and control of resources, knowledge and access to information, the ability to harness alliances and networks, and basic legitimacy and voice. Power can be seen, and exercised, as both a tangible resource and a function of social relations. And particularly in developing countries, stakeholders’ perception of their sources of and access to power is often fundamentally flawed and certainly subject to change. As we gain deeper insight into these power dynamics, we can help stakeholders re-evaluate their sources and access to power, and help develop explicit strategies for balancing the discourse and relationships.

For those more localized and bounded disputes that provide opportunities for facilitated negotiation and collaborative problem-solving, the challenges generally come down to three important considerations: a) the availability of good science and information for objective analysis and deliberation, b) adequate representation of key stakeholders, especially poor and marginalized communities whose interests are critical to reaching enduring decisions, and c) laws, policies, and the institutional capacity for enforcing the rule of law.

It is encouraging to see the growing role of independent mediators providing assessment, process design, convening and facilitation support in many conflict settings, and we are seeing new coalitions of stakeholders, improved participation of local communities, along with innovative partnerships that create opportunities for neutral convening and more systematic dispute resolution processes. Many of these efforts include explicit initiatives for building local capacity so that marginalized groups can participate more effectively, along with enhanced efforts at documenting and ‘daylighting’ these conflicts to achieve greater transparency and accountability. Both conventional and more participatory research provides important information and benchmarks that can be used for more structured and grounded deliberation.

One generally starts with the premise that strategies for overcoming these deficiencies must play to local strengths, particularly the communitarianism and tradition of collaboration and consensus-building that characterizes many developing contexts. At the same time, many of these initiatives involve engaging new partners – mobilizing internal resources such as civil society organizations, the press, and academic and scientific institutions, while working internationally to harness the influence of bilateral and multilateral aid organizations, international financial institutions, non-profit development and conservation organizations, and responsible corporations.

In these settings, the role of the mediator, however defined, enters uncharted territory, where neutrality is less important than fairness, where negotiation can only occur after serious assessment, analysis and realignment of power dynamics, where efforts are incorporated to prepare stakeholders to participate effectively, and where strong sideboards and ground rules are utilized to frame and guide the discourse. But in the end, the goals for addressing these disputes may be less about conflict resolution, and more about repositioning the debate, recalibrating peoples’ perceptions of power, and creating mechanisms that are ‘fairer, smarter, more efficient, and more transparent than what existed before’.4


  1. Lee, K. (1993) Compass and Gyroscope: Integrating Science and Politics for the Environment, Island Press, Washington, DC.
  2. Collier, P. and N. Sambanis (eds.) (2005) Understanding Civil War, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/World Bank, Washington, DC.
  3. Bannon, I, and P. Collier (2003) Natural Resources and Violent Conflict, The World Bank, Washington DC.
  4. Adler, P., J. Brewer, and C. McGee (2007) The Ok Tedi Negotiations: Rebalancing the Equation in a Chronic Sustainability Dilemma, The Keystone Center.