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Investing in Collaboration to Manage Environmental Resource Conflict

Conflict over environmental resources endangers rural people’s livelihoods and can increase the risk of broader social conflict. Yet joint action to sustain shared resources can also be a powerful means for community building. The Strengthening Aquatic Resource Governance (STARGO) project demonstrated this in three ecoregions: Lake Victoria, with a focus on Uganda; Lake Kariba, with a focus on Zambia; and Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia. The results of the project were released at an event in Berlin in early July 2014.

Bringing together government, community and civil society actors, the project helped step up efforts to increase community voices in private sector investment decisions and secure access rights for marginalized households in the face of competition. In addition, community-based co-management, resource protection and public health were strengthened. Lessons learnt and recommendations derived from this work include:

1. Local priorities: Participants should define the priorities and development actions that they want to implement. When defined by locals, measures are more likely to have outcomes that bring direct benefits to the communities. Addressing local disputes often requires support from higher levels of administration, so building capacity within government agencies to convene and facilitate dialogue is critical.

2. Participation in policy change: National policy initiatives that are implemented from the top down can leave communities marginalized from decision-making, contributing to local tensions and conflict. Reforms can however facilitate local innovation if national agencies can engage effectively with local communities, adapt, and respond to their priorities.

3. Institutional and governance context: Engaging multiple stakeholders in this type of joint assessment is important to identify risks and appropriate areas for support.

4. Women’s choices and decision-making roles: Supporting individual change agents who are prepared to advocate for women’s voices and concerns regarding natural resource management can help shift institutional priorities and open new pathways to institutional change.

5. Civil society organizations: Civil society organizations are often uniquely well-positioned to initiate a dialogue process if they have legitimacy with communities and experience in working with government actors at different levels. Identifying groups who play such a bridging role and helping to strengthen their capacities in conflict management can complement investments in more formal institutional mechanisms for conflict resolution.

6. Collaborative dialogue: Supporting the local innovations that emerge from dialogue means re-orientating many of the conventional practices of project management. Participatory monitoring and evaluation efforts can yield lessons about the dynamics of conflict and collaboration over time, providing opportunities to adjust programme investments and scale up the most promising innovations.

Investing in capacities for conflict management can thus help build resilient rural livelihoods and strengthen institutions for equitable environmental governance. Government and development agencies should invest in such capacity and integrate collaborative dialogue about environmental resources into programme and policy implementation.