Alternative Conflict Management

Alternative conflict management is a multidisciplinary field of research and action that seeks to address the question of how people can make better decisions together, particularly on difficult, contentious issues. For over twenty years, conflict resolution practitioners in the United States have used alternative conflict management techniques as means to address environmental disputes over land and water use, air quality, allocation of commercial logging concessions and the disposal of toxic wastes. More recently, the practice has evolved from the resolution of disputes on a case-by-case basis to the institutionalization of procedures through federal and state legislation. Alternative conflict management approaches are also being developed and adapted for use in other countries in environmental dispute resolution. In the general discussion of alternative conflict management, this working paper draws upon an alternative dispute resolution model widely used in the United States. While there are certainly cultural biases inherent in this model, it is also clear that there are certain principles, premises and strategies within it which are of global relevance.

Alternative conflict management refers to a variety of collaborative approaches that seek to reach a mutually acceptable resolution of issues in a conflict through a voluntary process. Such approaches were developed as alternatives to adversarial or non-consensual strategies, such as judicial or legal recourse, unilaterally initiated public information campaigns, or partisan political action. All of these latter strategies might also be appropriate and legitimate means of addressing disputes, depending upon the context. Alternative conflict management approaches complement these more adversarial strategies, and broaden the range of tools available to communities and interest groups who are involved in conflict.

Choosing the correct strategy through which to address a particular conflict is in itself a strategic choice. Parties to a dispute must first decide whether to seek resolution to a conflict through a non-consensual process or through a more collaborative means. Once the decision has been made to use alternative conflict management processes, the parties must decide on which specific approach to employ. No single approach is effective in all cases. The circumstances of conflict and therefore the obstacles to agreement vary from one case to another. Disputes may involve many or few parties, the problem may be more or less urgent, emotional investment of the stakeholders may vary, the public interest may or may not be at stake, and the factors involved may be well understood or more uncertain. Gaining expertise in conflict management includes learning about the specific advantages and disadvantages of the various strategies, and assessing which one is best in addressing a particular conflict situation.

The voluntary problem-solving and decision-making methods most often employed in alternative conflict management are conciliation, negotiation and mediation. Conciliation consists of the attempt by a neutral third party to communicate separately with disputing parties for the purpose of reducing tensions and agreeing on a process for addressing a dispute. Negotiation is a voluntary process in which parties meet face to face to reach a mutually acceptable resolution of the issues. Mediation involves the assistance of a neutral third party in a negotiation process, where a mediator assists the parties in reaching their own agreement but has no power to direct the parties or attempt to resolve the dispute (see Figure 1). The processes are often combined with each other in practice. Thus, an effort originally focused on conciliation may develop into a negotiation, which may in turn be enhanced by mediation. Similarly, individuals may play more than one role in addressing a dispute. A conciliator, for example, may be asked to act as mediator at some stage of a dispute resolution process. Dispute resolution professionals nonetheless find it useful to describe the processes separately, because each also has its own dynamics and can call for different analysis and skills.

Conciliation, negotiation and mediation processes are found in traditional as well as modern community dispute resolution systems. Many traditional leaders have extensive experience in dealing with disputes within their own communities or between a particular community and outside interests, though not enough information is available about how these and other processes are carried out by local political systems in addressing disputes. In addition, in many countries, the terms conciliation, negotiation and mediation refer to processes that have been formally institutionalized and are increasingly conducted by professionals. In the process, a body of information is being developed about what works best in managing various types of contemporary conflicts through collaborative rather than adversarial means. The goal of research in the area of environmental dispute resolution is neither to impose a model of alternative conflict management nor to define a process; rather it is to anticipate ways in which specific existing systems of dispute resolution or conflict management can be adapted to other cultural contexts.

Premises of Alternative Conflict Management

Alternative conflict management approaches derive from several basic premises about the nature of conflict, change and power. First, while attitudes about conflict can differ radically from one cultural context to another, it is assumed here that conflict is a normal process in society; that is, it is a "given." Conflict, in itself, is not the basic problem that people face. The problem lies rather in how conflict is managed. Such an approach to conflict recognizes that the parties in a dispute have different and frequently opposing views about the proper solution to a problem, but acknowledges that each group's views, from its perspective, may be both rational and legitimate. Thus, the goal of people working in conflict management is not to avoid conflict. Rather they focus on the skills that can help people express their differences and solve their problems in such a manner that more people's needs are met.

In many societies that are both heterogeneous and change-oriented, conflict is seen as a normal element of social interaction. In some it is seen as a positive and necessary force, desirable because individuals and groups are naturally seen as having different needs and interests, valued because it is realized that conflict often serves as an important impetus for positive change. In others, while its potential for creating change is acknowledged, dominance patterns in the society are such that conflict can be very destructive. More homogeneous and tradition-oriented societies often do not place a positive value on conflict. In some preliterate societies, for example, agreements about water, grazing rights or the use of forest resources are rooted in common understandings and expectations based on the shared value system, and possibly in mutual perceptions of shared vulnerability to vagaries of the physical and institutional environment. Patterns of reciprocity and exchange engender a feeling of security, and a high value is placed upon quick resolution of public disputes, even if agreements reached might not address the underlying issues. Within these small face-to-face rural communities, whether in Africa, Asia or Latin America, conflict is seen as being dysfunctional.

However, there are also extremely complex, highly literate societies, for example in some contemporary Southeast Asian countries, whose cultures similarly eschew public conflict even though these societies are in fact conflict-ridden. This is particularly evident in the areas of land use and natural resource management. In this paper, it is assumed that there are aspects of alternate conflict management which are as relevant to these Southeast Asian societies as they are to other societies where people willingly recognize and accept the existence of conflict. Alternative conflict management focuses on the manner in which different parties, engaged in conflict, can work collaboratively in order to identify options that would satisfy these different cultural values and facilitate desired changes.

A second premise is that successful alternative conflict management relies on the participation of all legitimate parties or "stakeholders" in a dispute. Different stakeholders must accept the right of other stakeholders to take part. No conflict can be considered resolved if any group whose interests are affected has been left out of the negotiation or mediation. According this importance to inclusiveness stems from a philosophical commitment to participatory processes, as well as from several practical considerations. For example, those involved in a conflict tend to be highly informed about the technical and institutional issues of the conflict. In the process of resolving a dispute, this information can be shared among the different parties, and this might lead to more in-depth and creative exploration of potential innovative options for solving the problem. Some parties' knowledge of the local area may make the others more sensitive to implementation concerns. Conversely, if one of the stakeholders is poorly represented or unprepared in the negotiation process, there is little reason to believe that any agreement reached will be implemented. Solving the problem of representation improves the possibilities for parties to make decisions that are informed, appropriate and likely to be implemented.

In many countries where decision-making is centralized in the hands of a political or technical elite, this premise of inclusiveness, participation and broad representation can imply major challenges to the established order. This can be an important impediment to the application of these approaches to conflict management. For example, communities which are dependent upon forest resources in virtually every region of the world have fought to gain recognition of their right to participate in decisions regarding use of their forest lands. Alternative conflict management principles argue that these groups, the local users, as well as other stakeholders, must be involved in a policy-making process if this process is to result in effective, enduring decisions, but in highly centralized political systems this may not be possible.

Thirdly, power imbalances are virtually always an issue in a negotiation, and problems that result from negotiating in situations of unequal power may seriously undermine efforts at reaching a lasting accord. Parties will not negotiate in good faith or submit a dispute to mediation unless they believe it is in their best interest to do so. Stakeholders may differ in wealth, numbers, education and eloquence, familiarity with the process, extent of preparation and focus, or recognized legitimacy as an entity or institution. It is often difficult for very unequal parties to engage in productive, let alone fair, negotiation which could lead to mutual gain. This is obviously a risk that a mediator or facilitator incurs in including all parties to a dispute. However, less powerful parties, such as members of a local community, might be in a position to oppose resistance or withhold compliance, frustrating some of the interests of more powerful stakeholders. There are cases where powerful stakeholders might find it in their best interest to compromise, yielding on some interests in order to gain on others, often because the status quo is untenable and they recognize that more collaborative solutions might serve their needs better.

A fourth premise is that however intransigent a more powerful party might appear, it is useful for weaker parties to realize that opposing stakeholders are neither monolithic nor uniformly adversarial. The state, for example, is made up of different agencies, actors and levels of administration, all with different and sometimes conflicting interests. In a typical dispute over forest management and the use of forest resources, an official from the Ministry of Natural Resources will have a perspective which is different from that of officials from ministries of agriculture, national parks or local government. Conflicts are dynamic, and positions and alliances change; community negotiators need to detect and take advantage of the "cracks" and vulnerabilities that present themselves.

Parties of unequal power enter into negotiations with different motivations and different expectations. Where the more powerful party to a dispute is the state or a commercial interest, alternative conflict management might be attractive because approaches different from a negotiated settlement (legal action or the use of force, for example) are often unattractive, ineffective and expensive. The weaker party, such as a community, might agree to participate in such a negotiation because a negotiated agreement is presumably more in its interest than the existing situation. Furthermore, the legitimization of the weaker party's perspective and the validation of its position through the negotiation process can also result in community empowerment and transformation.

Factors that Shape the Alternative Conflict Management Process

Six key factors have been found to be helpful in analyzing a conflict, to decide whether it could be addressed through an alternative conflict management approach. If careful analysis suggests that a dispute could be negotiated or mediated, these same factors are important in determining the structure and conduct of the dispute resolution process:

Factor 1
What are the community's best alternatives to a negotiated agreement? What would the community do if it does not negotiate? Could it successfully bring a lawsuit or lobby politically to get what it wants? Does it have any reasonable alternatives at all? What are the costs and benefits of each alternative? A community should not enter into a negotiation, mediation or other alternative conflict management process if it believes that it can do better, overall, through other means. Conversely, communities entering into negotiations with strong alternatives enter with an important source of negotiating power.
Factor 2
What are the basic interests of each of the parties or stakeholders involved in the dispute? A careful and sophisticated analysis of each party's interests can, first of all, clarify the extent to which one party needs the others to achieve what it wants.2 If one party depends on the others to achieve its goals, then negotiation may be needed. In addition, an analysis of each party's interests can help point out which groups have common or competing agendas.
Factor 3
What are several options for solution of the problem that could be presented at the negotiation table? Too many groups, whether community, government or private sector, enter into negotiations with only one solution in mind. That is, they have identified the positions they wish to take rather than the interests that they wish to defend.2 This can quickly lead to an impasse. A community will be in a stronger negotiating position if, after analyzing its interests, it develops a range of options for satisfying them. This implies being flexible about the way in which basic interests are satisfied -- not about whether they should be satisfied.
Factor 4
How can competition with other stakeholders be balanced with some degree of cooperation? All too often, inexperienced parties to a negotiation believe that the discussions must be entirely competitive, and fall into communication patterns characterized by mutually aggressive behaviour. In fact, competition can be balanced with cooperation over some aspect of virtually any negotiation -- without either party making unacceptable concessions.
Factor 5
Can implementation of an agreement be ensured? The implementation of agreements needs to be discussed from the early stages of a dispute resolution process, rather than being left to the end. Important topics that need to be addressed include technical feasibility, political viability, financial requirements and mechanisms for ensuring compliance by all sides.
Factor 6
How should the process of reaching an agreement be structured? What are the "rules of the game" for a specific dispute resolution process? Who will participate? Will one party be willing to underwrite the participation of a less well-financed party? In what order will issues be addressed? Do all parties want to reach a decision, or is some intermediate step, such as narrowing options, the only one acceptable to all parties?

In the process of employing alternative conflict management strategies, participants generally make a series of rapid decisions, more often than not with limited information. Understanding and applying these six key ideas will assist a community in deciding, first, whether to enter into a negotiation, mediation or conciliation, and second, how to engage in the process more successfully.


Negotiations are typically unstructured and often lack formal procedures, suggesting a format which caters to the uniqueness of each negotiation. If the parties have received training in negotiation skills, they will have learned, among other things, how to gather and organize information, how to distinguish phases of the negotiations, how to move from a discussion of positions to a discussion of specific interests, how to develop options and search for common ground, and how to work towards implementable agreements. Often a convener or facilitator might emerge during a negotiation, perhaps from one of the parties themselves, who assists in moving the negotiation from phase to phase, helps in time management, keeps track of agreements, and generally helps give the process some structure. But if the strength of negotiation (as one dispute management approach) is that negotiations can be carried out by the parties themselves, using procedures appropriate to each situation, its lack of formal structure can also be its weakness.

Mediation and Conciliation

Trained, neutral, third-party mediators and conciliators are engaged to facilitate alternative conflict management processes for a variety of reasons. One important reason regards the complexities inherent in the unstructured nature of many negotiations, mentioned above. Another is that it is unlikely that a facilitator or convener who comes from one of the opposing negotiating parties will have the necessary detachment and neutrality to ensure that all parties are heard equally. Nor is such a person likely to have the skill to deal with power inequities. Professional mediators and conciliators are trained in these areas, as well as in such skills as discerning interests from positions, reframing issues and questions, giving fair consideration to different options, assisting in finding mutual-gain ("win-win") solutions, and writing up agreements in contractual language that can facilitate implementation. All of these are strong arguments for resorting to mediation or conciliation rather than employing simple negotiation.

Building Community Capacity for Alternative Conflict Management

There are a variety of ways to begin building local capacity for conflict management, including training in specific conflict management skills such as negotiation and mediation, developing training materials for inclusion in broader grass-roots planning and development strategies, and establishing networks and information systems.

Negotiation Training

The decision to develop training programmes in negotiation for representatives of local communities raises several issues. Accepting the premise that negotiations are more effective if all sides are well prepared implies that representatives of all parties involved in the dispute would benefit from training in conflict analysis and techniques of negotiation.

While training of all sides to a dispute suggests an even-handed approach to problem-solving (because there are mutual benefits to negotiated settlements), it is necessary to consider that the interest in alternative conflict management programmes is often prompted by a concern that local communities might suffer injustices at the hands of more powerful state and commercial interests. There may thus be a concern that making negotiation training available to all parties would further empower the already powerful. The expectation is that exchanging information about problem-solving, decision-making and conflict management approaches would address this need, and help rectify the power imbalance that local communities face.

Mediation and Conciliation Training.

The decision to train mediators and conciliators raises other issues. It is important that the mediators and conciliators merely facilitate the process and not direct the parties, who must fashion and "own" the agreements that come out of the mediation process every bit as much as if there were no facilitator present. However, the reality is that the mediator or conciliator does, to a large extent, direct the process, working within a set of guidelines and a formal structure. The tools of mediation and conciliation training are more easily defined than is the case in negotiation, but identifying whom to train for this delicate role is more problematic.

To answer these questions, a number of models could be considered. Two of the more promising options include the development of alternative conflict management centres and the use of peer mediation or conciliation training:

The availability of a cadre of trained third-party mediators and conciliators would probably tend to make conflict management efforts less participatory and more "efficient" -- and in the process, perhaps, less empowering and "transforming" for local communities. The presence of professional facilitators should not be used as a substitute for local communities involvement in conflict analysis and conflict management. The use of trained peer mediators and conciliators from within the community is one method for reducing this effect.

Participatory Diagnostic Training

Participatory local planning plays a central role in the strengthening of general organizational skills. Planning can help a community identify and build consensus around the objectives that it would like to promote through negotiation. Such a planning process can also elicit information about the local culture and resource base that can be important in the negotiation. Training in the following areas would improve communities' potential for negotiation:

A number of participatory diagnostic approaches and methodologies have been developed in the last decade which are compatible with training for alternative conflict management, including: Participatory Rural Appraisal, Participatory Research Methods and Participatory Technology Development. All of these approaches transfer initiative and responsibility for action from outside entities to motivated community members.

Specific Training Methods and Materials

Additional training materials need to be developed in the area of community forestry conflict management. Training materials should be prepared with the specific social and cultural aspects of the audience in mind. For instance, an indigenous group should have materials in the its own language. In addition, many communities would benefit most from training that does not require a high level of literacy.

An appropriate training approach for communities might be based on an integrated method which deals with many complexities at once, rather than seeking to build skills in a sequence of increasing complexity. Ideally, it would build on styles already familiar to communities, through a participatory method which elicits existing local knowledge, rather than a didactic training method. The participatory approach might start from informal discussions of conflict with community groups, its significance in their lives and the role it plays. Then, through a series of meetings over a length of time, the community would gradually develop a sense of its own ability and skills in addressing disputes. This would also allow the conflict management approach to be based on values closer to those held by the community.

One specific tool that could build on a learning approach which is already familiar to many forest-based communities is the use of "sociodramas" or plays to analyze conflicts. In this approach, a community would be encouraged to select a conflict of immediate concern for group analysis. Using a list of "motivating questions," the community could then analyze the roles of different actors, their interests, their positions, their alternatives and their likely strategies, and propose options for resolving the conflict. In one type of play-acting, the members of the community could take on the roles of the different parties in the dispute. The members themselves would then play out possible solutions. This would make the process of evaluating strategies very dynamic and engaging. In a variation on this method, the community could use this type of play to analyze a past conflict that has already been successfully resolved, then draw lessons learned from it and test these ideas in a dramatized analysis of a different, still unresolved conflict.

Also quite valuable are exercises that help communities develop and systematize their knowledge of the ways in which different options and factors affect the course of the conflict management process. One exercise would be to ask whether decisions will be made by voting or consensus, or whether a facilitator should be used. A community could divide into groups, each group proposing a plan for an upcoming community meeting. The various plans and their advantages and disadvantages could then be presented and discussed with the whole group. Another set of exercises could focus on the best way to negotiate rules to use with parties more powerful than the community itself.

A variety of other training materials can be developed as well. A manual that outlines the stages of negotiation and discusses sources of conflict, aspects of conflict analysis and basic negotiation techniques would be valuable for use by some groups. Such a manual could be distributed to community leaders and to NGOs that work with community groups. The development of presentations or group exercises that incorporate traditional mechanisms for addressing conflict in communities would also be of value. Eventually, essays or concept papers should be written on the application of alternative conflict management to natural resource conflicts around the world.

All aspects of a training programme must give great weight to the community's perspectives and knowledge. Besides helping to gather valuable knowledge, this attitude would serve the crucial purpose of building communities' confidence in their own ability to address conflicts successfully. A key concept to develop with communities in this regard is that of their "right to constructive conflict." Too often, communities have been given a clear message by the broader political system that their rights are not important, or that their asking that their needs be met is inconvenient, unwelcome, or inappropriate. Contacts with peer groups that have succeeded in resolving problems against great odds can strengthen community self-confidence. Access to the legal tools and information base that will help them promote their own solutions is essential. Training which develops skills can also widen a community's options.

Networking and Information Systems

There is a clear need to improve the flow of information among people involved and interested in alternative conflict management, both within and between regions. Useful information exchange would include data on the status of current and past disputes, the processes employed, the parties involved and the nature of the conflict, and the outcomes of the conflicts. A network of alternative conflict management centres would facilitate this exchange of information, as would the use of computer networks and electronic mail.


Other capacity building activities could include:



Whatever models of alternative environmental conflict management are ultimately employed or institutionalized in Latin America, it is clear they cannot be separated from Latin American cultural contexts and political realities. Broad structural and historical factors, such as colonialism, national debt and dependence on the industrialized world, lie at the heart of many environmental conflicts in this region. The arrival of European colonizers on the South American continent led to the creation of a highly stratified society in which Europeans and mestizos (persons of mixed blood) enjoyed distinct privileges over the marginalized indigenous population. This system continues to mark social relations in the region today. Its principal legacies are vast inequities of wealth distribution and access to resources across social groups, and national political cultures which lack basic democratic values and show little interest in consensus-building strategies or collaborative problem-solving. Many view the situation in Latin America as being charged with distrust, power imbalance, deceit and disinformation, so that more is to be gained from confrontation than negotiation. In this view, indigenous communities are more likely to be empowered by choosing open confrontation than by attempting alternative conflict management. Any useful approach to environmental dispute management in Latin America must take these inequities and structural factors explicitly into account.

The groups competing with local communities in Latin American community forestry conflicts often include private business corporations, government agencies and non-governmental organizations. These parties have more wealth, more political influence and more relevant experience to draw upon in the larger system. As powerful members of the dominant society, they have access to (and often outright control over) the decision-making processes used in influencing the outcome of specific conflicts. The government establishes policies on forest use at the national level, such as land tenure policies and timber harvesting policies. The degree of participation of local populations in decision-making structures is usually also decided by government at the central level. Local government, in turn, often decisively affects rural communities through its ability to impose its own interpretations of the law which was established at the national level. Only rarely have local communities been able to confront this power imbalance and influence national or local government policies.

Despite the major obstacles to widespread, good faith use of collaborative negotiation strategies, these kinds of negotiations over forest resource use are already taking place at various levels throughout the region. Skilful use of dispute resolution strategies can help reduce power inequities within the context of the negotiation process. Local communities can use alliances with NGOs around environmental issues, which can provide them with the means to bring their issues into the national forum when efforts to resolve them locally have failed. Through these and other methods, alternative conflict management processes can help address the broad structural factors that underlie much environmental conflict in the region.

Latin American Views of Conflict

Attitudes towards conflict influence the behavioral choices that people make when confronted with disputes. A key part of developing a Latin American approach to conflict resolution therefore involves understanding attitudes towards conflict in the region and developing ways to change them, if needed. A first important technique for understanding these attitudes is to analyze the colloquial use of conflict terms in the region.

The Spanish language contains many terms which refer to conflict. Each carries a different nuance and connotation. Building a Latin American methodology for dispute management must include an analysis of the roles played by terms currently used to describe levels and intensities of conflict. Each term carries a slightly different set of connotations, and it may elicit different responses. In addition, a new vocabulary on constructive approaches to managing conflict may also need to be developed. However, in order for the new terms to hold meaning, they would need to have an impact on behaviour and on social institutions.

For many Latin Americans, the word "conflict" (conflicto) implies a destructive and often violent interaction between parties. For others, the word refers to a deeply engrained, complex problem, linked to the profound economic and political crises of recent years in most countries of the region. Like the symptoms of a disease, individual disputes may be manifestations of intractable problems in society. A conflict over access to local timber resources becomes contingent upon the national debt. Tension between community groups becomes a question of immigration policy. Inequities and lack of consideration for environmental factors in global trade regimes leads to the pollution of rivers and streams.

However, while these conflicts are related to the larger problems, elevating specific disputes to the proportions of systemic crises makes it more difficult for individuals to address them effectively. In many cases, it is more useful to separate the conflict into its parts and focus upon the more manageable "sub-conflicts." Defining the problem at the level of the disputing parties empowers individuals to act and enables them to discover creative solutions. Dispute resolution strategies are often most immediately useful for managing conflicts at these levels.

Related to the discussion of terminology is the need to analyze the notion of "success" in dispute resolution. How is it possible to know when a dispute resolution process has been successful? The experience of many communities has shown that often, resolution of one conflict or problem merely uncovers another issue that in turn needs to be addressed. Problems and issues are "nested" within each other, and the resolution of one creates the conditions for another to emerge.

An empirically based Latin American approach to the resolution of conflicts would probably be more dialectical than positivist. Rather than describing a linear process of dispute resolution with a clear point of "resolution" or closure, the model would be likely to emphasize repetition of patterns, cycles and links between issues. It would not expect, for example, that conflicts would be entirely "resolved" or closed. This perception draws into focus the need to set up continuing processes or patterns of social behaviour that can help communities address underlying problems, rather than focusing on a specific desired end result. For these reasons, and because of the dynamic and subjective nature of conflict, dispute resolution strategies in Latin America may be more usefully thought of as strategies for productively managing, rather than resolving, disputes.

An Inventory of Latin American Sources of Conflict

An important first step towards developing a Latin American approach to conflict management would be to discuss the sources, levels and types of conflicts confronted by forest-based communities in this region. Identifying the sources of conflict allows concerned groups to address the underlying reasons which caused a problem to arise, rather than merely its symptoms. Determining the level or levels at which a conflict takes place involves analyzing which parties or stakeholders are involved, what alliances may be possible and, in general, what strategies could be used. Finally, looking at both the causes and levels of conflicts may point to a useful typology of conflicts, more refined than the one introduced earlier. (The Need for Conflict Management Skills in Forestry Contexts)

A preliminary inventory of conflicts or conflict sources emerges from examples with which many Latin Americans are familiar. These include:

In analyzing such an inventory, it is important to appreciate the complexity of conflicts and the possibility that each one may have its own unique dynamic. Conflicts that share similar features may in fact have very different underlying causes, parties and dynamics. It is important, therefore, to avoid drawing misleading correlations between broad types of conflicts and strategies to address them.

National Legal Systems and Alternative Conflict Management

In many countries, recourse to legal means is an important source of power in addressing conflicts. Again and again, environmental groups in Europe and the United States have brought polluters to the negotiation table by threatening to bring lawsuits against them if they are not willing to settle out of court. In Latin America, however, recourse to the courts is rarely viewed as a real option. In many countries, court cases take a very long time to resolve, obliging the parties to invest large amounts of time and money in order to reach a resolution. Because poor communities lack the resources to maintain a case through to its end, they may end up not even considering the legal option. In addition, the judiciary in many countries of the region is not fully independent of pressures from other parts of government. This makes it impossible to request independent judicial review of a legal case involving a government agency or other politically influential group. Communities are often reluctant to pursue legal avenues for resolving their problems because of distrust, misinformation, or a feeling that the legal system cannot be used in their favour because of the power imbalance between themselves and their adversaries in resource use.

There is a widely held notion that environmental laws are not enforced in Latin America. While this may be true in a majority of cases, some enforcement is taking place. An increasing number of countries are unifying and strengthening their laws in relation to natural resource use. In some cases, these laws include requirements for publicly approved environmental impact assessments of major projects and programs. In Colombia, a long dormant article of law has been revived and successfully used to allow a form of public interest lawsuit to be brought against polluters even by communities that lack lawyers. If alternative conflict management is to be seen as an alternative to a more adversarial legal model in Latin America (as in other regions), public interest lawsuits need to exist as an option for weaker groups to pressure the more powerful into negotiating.

Colombia, Peru and Ecuador all offer programmes in legal education for the public which include sections on dealing with government agencies and with external interest groups. These could serve as models for programmes which aim to develop forest communities' confidence in negotiating with government agencies, as well as dealing with international interest groups.

Latin American Stakeholders

Alternative conflict management processes can only take place when all parties recognize the right of others to participate in the decision-making process. Many Latin American countries do not have institutions that encourage public participation or recognize the need for legitimization of stakeholders. Communities are also often concerned that attempting to assert their rights will expose them to retaliation by the more powerful parties with whom their interests compete. Major issues to be considered in designing a conflict management process include the inequities between stakeholder groups, the role of government institutions and the difficulties of identifying a single, long-term representative for some of the key groups involved in the issue.

One of the premises of alternative conflict management is that all stakeholders in a conflict have a right to be at the negotiation table. All parties to a dispute must be involved in the negotiation process from its beginning in order for the process to have legitimacy and for agreements reached to be implementable. The difficulty of identifying legitimate representatives of stakeholder groups often complicates negotiations over community forestry issues in Latin America.

The issue of selecting stakeholder representatives is made more difficult by the often diverse nature of the parties in a community forestry dispute. The state is made up of different government agencies, various administrative layers, and individuals with widely divergent perspectives. The fact that the state is not a uniform entity is often an advantage for rural communities, since community representatives can exploit the diversity that exists within such large entities. However, this lack of uniformity can raise questions about legitimacy and representation. What confers legitimacy to the government agency or individual chosen to represent the state's interests?

On the community side, local communities often lack strong internal organization in dealing with contemporary natural resource disputes, and are themselves often dispersed and diverse. They too might not have a clear process for choosing individuals to represent them in a negotiation. In the end, different parties may not be able to chose anyone in time to join the dispute resolution process from its beginning, thereby missing crucial opportunities to have input into how the process will be organized. They may choose to send different representatives every few meetings, which makes continuity of process and reaching of agreements difficult. These issues of representation usually have a more negative impact on the less powerful party to a dispute.

Representatives of large, diverse organizations, to be effective, must be in frequent communication with their often dispersed constituents. Negotiations are always dynamic: even without changes in stakeholder composition, parties often change their perspective or position as they acquire new information. Opportunities and adequate time for communication with constituents to take place must be built into a dispute resolution process in order for the representatives to effectively act on behalf of those whom they represent. The time and resources needed for adequate consultations, however, may often slow the dialogue down to a pace that some groups or parties will not find acceptable.

Stakeholders in a conflict might include parties physically distant from the site of the conflict. In the context of Latin American forestry conflicts, distant stakeholders might include multinational corporations, international environmental organizations or other NGOs, or federal government agencies located in a distant city. Local parties to a conflict might well have "allies," whether within a country's borders or abroad, who have a vested interest in the outcome of the dispute, and who may have the resources and informational networking capabilities to influence the outcome. Local communities have been known to solicit assistance of external groups in representing their interests. However, they need to consider whether the use of such assistance and the mobilization of domestic or international support to build public pressure will ultimately undermine their autonomy.

Negotiation, Conciliation and Mediation

The alternative conflict management strategies of negotiation, conciliation and mediation, commonly used elsewhere, may present special difficulties in the Latin American political context. Capacity building for dispute resolution needs to include development of community capacity to acquire the legitimacy necessary to enter into a negotiation. As demonstrated by repeated examples, local communities in Latin America are often not at a point where they can negotiate with powerful interest groups such as government agencies, parastatal industries and multinational corporations. There have been examples, for instance, where communities entering into dialogue with hostile parties have dangerously exposed their leadership or revealed their intentions or even legitimized the position of their adversaries.

Negotiation is a voluntary process in which parties meet face to face to reach a mutually acceptable resolution of issues. Because voluntary participation usually indicates a greater "good faith commitment" to a dispute management process, managing to convince the stakeholders to enter the process voluntarily can be an important factor in the success of the negotiation. More powerful parties may not have strong incentives to negotiate in good faith, and they may sometimes coerce weaker groups into taking part in a "negotiation" whose terms are set in advance and biased against or directly opposed to the interests of the weaker side.

Examples of such forced "negotiation" abound in Latin America. For instance, oil companies which have received concessions from governments to drill in forested areas have sometimes invited local communities to negotiate over the manner in which to conduct the drilling, giving the appearance of good intentions. However, local communities may have wanted to debate whether drilling should be conducted in the first place. If a community participates in the negotiation, it unintentionally legitimizes the position that oil drilling will occur. If it does not negotiate, however, oil development will occur without that community having any control over the manner in which it is done.

Developing the ability to recognize an imposed decision disguised as a "negotiation" and to call for true negotiation is a crucial element in strengthening Latin American communities' ability to address forestry conflicts. With a stronger sense of their legal rights and their "right to conflict," communities can more effectively defend their right to negotiate all aspects of a decision that affects them. Learning about options and rules under which a dispute management process is to take place can strengthen the community's ability to refuse to participate in processes that are unfair to them. Local communities often do have power, and there are many situations where the state or commercial interests do have incentives to use negotiation.

Although a community may not yet have the organizational capacity to confront conflicts with outside entities through negotiation, applying negotiation skills to smaller conflicts within the community can help it develop this capacity. Problem identification, conflict analysis and consensus-building techniques are a few of the valuable skills gained through alternative conflict management training that will also prove useful within communities when developing negotiation power.

Finally, it is useful for communities to have the option of mediation or conciliation as additional conflict management strategies. Mediation and conciliation can be seen as an extensions of the negotiation process, involving the assistance of a neutral third party in a negotiation once direct negotiations have broken down. Although there are few Latin American organizations able to provide formal third-party facilitators, conciliators or mediators often emerge in the process of assisting groups in a negotiation. Frequently, religious and political leaders have been asked to mediate conflicts between various disputing groups. Although an interest in the practice of mediation and conciliation has begun to develop in Latin America, and both have been employed with some success in the region to resolve non-environmental disputes, few people are specifically trained in these skills.


1. The conflict resolution field employs many somewhat synonymous terms in describing this more collaborative model for addressing conflict: "alternative dispute resolution," "conflict management," "dispute management," and "collaborative dispute management" are all in common usage. There is also a terminology for specialized sub-fields, such as "environmental dispute resolution," the content area of the Costa Rica workshop. There are, however, instances where "somewhat synonymous terms" are not synonymous. For example, the section on Latin American views of conflict notes how the term "dispute management" seems more culturally appropriate then "dispute resolution" in that region. This paper will use "alternative conflict management" when discussing the conflict resolution field, in part because it is culturally the most neutral term, in part because "conflict management" is the term used by the FTPP.

2. This point is made in Fisher, et al (1991, p. 40-42): "The basic problem in a negotiation lies not in conflicting positions, but in the conflict between each side's needs, desires, concerns, and fears. [..] Such desires and concerns are interests. Interests motivate people; they are the silent movers behind the [choice] of positions. Your position is something you have decided upon. Your interests are what caused you to so decide. [..] Reconciling interests rather than positions works for two reasons. First, for every interest there usually exist several possible positions that could satisfy it. All too often people simply adopt the most obvious position. [..Second,] reconciling interests rather than compromising between positions also works because behind opposed positions lie many more shared and compatible interests than conflicting ones."

3. Much of the information in this section on Latin America could also apply to discussions of alternative conflict management in Africa and Asia, which share with it the colonial experience, debt and dependence, and class stratification and inequality. However, since the material presented here is largely derived from the regional workshop on dispute management held in Costa Rica, it is focused on the Latin American region. Thus some aspects of the discussion may be more specifically relevant to that region, where, for example, it appears that attitudes towards the state are more antagonistic and the feelings towards conflict more "time-honoured" and established than is generally the case in Africa and Asia.