Main page content

Mediation in Natural Resources and Land Conflicts

Natural resources rarely feature during peacebuilding efforts, but there is growing evidence that this is a mistake. The UN Environment Program and Department of Political Affairs recently created a Guide to natural resources for conflict mediators. Michael Brown is one of the authors of the Guide and senior mediation expert in natural resources and land conflicts for the UN.

Why has the UN decided to launch a mediation guide about natural resources and conflict at this particular point in time?

It is clear that natural resources and land play very important roles in conflicts around the world – whether as root cause, driver or exacerbating factor – yet the issues are in need of dramatically more attention from the international system. On top of this, it is very clear to many informed observers that mediation is a tool ideally suited to address resource conflicts, yet it is woefully underutilized. The Department of Political Affairs and the Environment Program decided to combine forces in order to consolidate decades of hands-on experience and lessons learned in the field.

You say the international community has not given enough attention to trying to resolve natural resource conflicts. Why is that?

The dual nature of these disputes is one part of the answer. On one hand, resource disputes tend to be technically complex. The issues at play typically involve some mix of complex technical, scientific, economic and legal information. On the other hand, resource disputes tend to be very politically sensitive. Resources tend to be high value and resource disputes frequently involve historically and culturally important territories. Powerful actors often have stakes to claim.

The technical actors frequently cannot engage because the conflicts are too politically sensitive for a technical organization, while political actors tend to veer away because the technical issues are too complex for their in-house capacity and way of approaching problems.As a result of this dynamic – along with many other factors – resource disputes often fall through the cracks in the international system or are ignored altogether.

Can you elaborate on why mediation is particularly well suited to natural resource disputes?

A mediation process in the international domain is non-adversarial, voluntary and consensus-based in nature. The parties not only agree with the outcome but they typically have a heavy hand in creating the solution to their problem. These characteristics are perfectly suited to politically sensitive disputes where long-term relationships are important.

Mediation is also an extremely flexible approach to dispute resolution that puts a wide range of tools, techniques, and processes in the hands of the mediator. This flexibility provides plenty of room to bring in technical information and experts that can be seen as impartial and fair to all sides, or to use collaborative approaches to data collection, analysis, or monitoring.

Another important issue is the historical frustration associated with most complicated natural resource conflicts. A third party impartial mediator who can bring legitimacy and perceived fairness to a problem with a history of failed resolution can be a game-changer.

What is a compelling example of natural resource management that can be a tool for peacebuilding or conflict management?

The concept of “peace parks” is becoming more common as an approach to strengthen relations through joint management of a conservation or multi-use area in a shared border zone with a history of conflict. The Guide details the case study of atransboundary condor conservation corridor between Ecuador and Peru that was part of an integrated resolution to a 150-year-long violent border dispute.

Another example relates to the tools and approaches of watershed management. Integrated Water Resources Management, a coordinated and integrated approach to manage water, land and related resources in an equitable and sustainable manner within the framework of a water basin, is very much in sync with peacebuilding and conflict prevention. In Sudan, UN and government partners recognize the importance and relevance of these principles to the water crisis and are trying to link them in parallel with the political process in the hope of delivering a more lasting peace. Integrated Water Resources Management has also been used by the Nile Basin Initiative with its 10 basin states.

What role do you foresee for natural resource management and peacebuilding going forward, especially in the context of climate change and growing demand?

We know that natural resource and land-related conflicts will become increasingly prevalent and challenging as a result of the combined effects of climate change and growing demand for resources.
From a resource mediation perspective, this Guide highlights the fundamental importance of more widespread use of collaborative approaches to manage resources through processes that are well informed by accurate and fair scientific data and managed in ways that are inclusive, effective, and transparent.

Times are not easy in the peacebuilding and resources world, and they will not get easier in the coming years. But we know there are certain approaches and tools that have proven to be effective in preventing and resolving resource conflicts, and my deep hope is that the international community will use these more actively when and where appropriate.

The full version of this interview appeared on NewSecurityBeat. The Guide for mediation practitioners is available online.