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An introduction to natural resource conflicts, collaborative management and sustainable livelihoods

This section explains the nature of community-based natural resource conflicts. It discusses the causes of natural resource conflict and illustrates the different types of conflicts that can occur at the community level. It also discusses how policies and interventions may contribute to triggering conflict. The section explains how natural resource conflicts influence sustainable livelihoods, and considers how managing conflicts relates to broader collaborative natural resource management approaches.

The section's two main objectives are to:

1.1 What are community-based natural resource conflicts?

People have different uses for such resources as forests, water, pastures and land, and want to manage them in different ways. Knowing about these different needs and interests can help to inform successful management so that everyone benefits as much as possible. However, such differences can also lead to conflict when:

Sometimes it is best to monitor a conflict without intervening. Such conflicts are problematic, but are unlikely to become disputes and are not dangerous. At other times, however, if a conflict is ignored, or attempts to manage it fail, it can grow into a dispute or some other form of confrontation. A dispute occurs when a conflict over a specific issue or event becomes public. A dispute can be a fight, an appeal to authorities, or a court case. The difference between disputes and conflict is important. All disputes reflect conflict, but not all conflicts develop into disputes. Some conflicts may develop into disputes quickly. Others remain latent for a long time until triggered or aggravated by something new, such as a development project or the arrival of outside interests.

Community-based natural resource conflicts may occur at the local level, but often involve regional, national or even global actors. They range from conflicts among local men and women over the use of land, to conflicts among communities disputing control over woodland, or fishers disagreeing about the devices used for fishing. Community-level conflict might involve government agencies, domestic and multinational businesses, politicians, international development agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

A dispute may also break out at different levels. At one level, the main issue could be access to or control over the resources that people depend on. At another, the dispute could relate to more deeply rooted issues such as recognition, rights, identity, or the ability to participate.

The intensity of conflict also varies greatly - from confusion and frustration among members of a community about poorly communicated development policies, to violent clashes among groups over resource ownership, rights and responsibilities (Buckles, 1999).

TRAINER'S NOTE: This guide addresses conflicts that pose a constraint to sustainable natural resource management at the local level. While a certain degree of violence may be involved in such conflicts, the guide is not designed for situations of open, armed conflict.

As this discussion shows, community-based natural resource conflicts are often very complex. There are usually many causes and many interconnected issues, making it hard to identify the key issues in the conflict.

It is sometimes helpful to think of conflict as having the following three elements:

The following subsections outline more specifically what conflicts over natural resources are often about.

1.1.1 Growing competition over natural resources

Natural resources are increasingly subject to intense competition. In most cases, several factors are responsible for this, including:

These forces can push people to exceed the sustainable harvesting limits of renewable natural resources (forests, water bodies, grazing areas, marine resources, wildlife and agricultural land). In areas where the number of people is increasing, resources often need to be shared among more users with different interests. These users range from farmers seeking access to agricultural land, pastoralists requiring pasture resources for livestock, and city dwellers requiring more meat, fish and cereals.

Securing access to resources can become people's greatest concern when those resources are scarce. Water scarcity in arid or semi-arid regions is a key example. As freshwater is necessary for life, but cannot be made or grown, access to water may serve as a focus of dispute.

However, increased competition is not always the only cause of conflict. Four important conditions influence how access to resources could become contested. These are:

Of course, increased demand for resources can result in responses other than conflict. For example, it can lead to agricultural intensification (using fertilizer, terracing, irrigation, multiple cropping, stall-feeding livestock, tree planting, etc), increased reliance on non-farm/off-farm income, or increased commercialization of production. These new adaptations may in turn generate conflicts, as resource use patterns are altered.

1.1.2 Structural causes of conflict

Established organizations and patterns govern how the law works, how education and health services are provided, and how women and men, old and young people live as families and communities. These could be described as the way in which society is organized or structured. Natural resource conflicts are often underpinned by this structure.

A conflict may involve one issue - for example, a boundary dispute between two villages. This could be addressed by local people using customary law. But if someone wants to use State law, the conflict becomes more complicated. A structural conflict may arise because customary law and State law are organized differently; one is local and the other national. State law is usually stronger, and the conflict may then move from a boundary dispute to one about people's rights and identity.

Deeper, structural issues such as this often have roots in long-standing conditions, such as the way in which wealth or power is produced, distributed or controlled in society. Broader social, political, economic or legal frameworks within a society may be perceived as unjust, ineffective or exclusionary. This makes it harder to solve the problem. Structural conflicts often lie dormant until awakened by other factors.

Conflicts between official/statutory and customary tenure systems cause major concern. Even if the great majority of rural people obtain their rights to land through customary means, local land tenure arrangements often have an uncertain or insecure position within national policy frameworks. Customary land rights often remain unclear, even when they are acknowledged legally, so State law may continue to come into conflict with custom. Different authorities using different rules can then make decisions that are contradictory - one decision in customary law, another in statute law.

Wider inequalities (real or perceived) may also lead to conflicts over the use or control of natural resources. For example, marginalized groups may compete for the chance to gain or secure rights, while privileged groups may feel the need to defend their existing rights. Sometimes, minority groups may compete to seek more influence. Then, struggling for resource access becomes linked with a search for recognition of identity, status and political rights.

TRAINER'S NOTE: Resolving structural inequalities and identity conflicts is a more difficult task than resolving conflicts that relate more directly to increased competition or development pressures. The resolution of structural economic and legal inequalities, by definition, may require intervention at the national or even the global level through, for example, land reform, legal recognition of land rights, devolution of authority and responsibility, or improved governance and accountability (Section 2.3.3).

These broader issues are beyond the scope of this guide. Clearly, however, deep-rooted structural issues mean that it is not always possible to fully resolve conflicts at the community level. The approach taken in this guide can be summarized as: "Given the deep-rooted issues that we all face, how can we all try to make progress with the things that we can change?".

1.1.3 Socio-economic change fuelling conflict

When society and the economy undergo change, it is not surprising if the interests and needs of natural resource users also change. Economic development often increases pressures on natural resources, and this can trigger conflict or make existing conflicts worse. The following are some examples:

1.1.4 Natural resource management policies, programmes and projects as sources of conflict

New policies of decentralization, devolution and collaborative management increase the decision-making power and influence of local communities, households and individuals. Such policies encourage communities to become more involved in decisions affecting their own livelihoods and the resources on which those livelihoods are based. Although such policies are helpful for sustainable livelihoods, the successful introduction of greater power sharing among different groups is often challenging.

Policies, programmes and projects themselves can serve as sources or arenas of conflict, even though their intention is to reduce conflicts or improve livelihoods. Reasons include the following (FAO, 2000):

TRAINER'S NOTE: Annex 3 provides two examples of natural resource conflicts in Ghana. These illustrate the interrelatedness of various factors and how they have been managed and resolved.

1.2 Collaborative natural resource management and conflict

Collaborative management involves joint decision-making by government, communities, NGOs and the private sector about natural resource access and use. Borrini-Feyerabend et al. (2000) state that collaborative management is a situation in which two or more parties negotiate, define and guarantee among themselves the sharing of the management functions, entitlements and responsibilities for a given territory or set of natural resources.

The institutional arrangements for collaborative management can take many forms, ranging from official recognition of customary tenure rights to yearly contracts that allow villagers highly restricted access to State lands. State agencies may share resource allocation or management responsibilities with communities, including indigenous ones, and other parties such as user groups, NGOs and corporations (Castro and Nielsen, 2001). These management regimes can be found in a range of common property resources - forests, pastures, wildlife, fisheries, protected areas - where excluding access among competing users can be difficult.

Although individual stakeholders may have different interests, the fundamental assumption is that sharing authority and decision-making will enhance the process of resource management, making it more responsive to a range of needs. In particular, collaborative management is viewed as a way of promoting both conservation and livelihood goals in an efficient, equitable and sustained manner.

Many collaborative arrangements have arisen as innovative responses to long-standing conflicts over natural resource use and management. This fact reinforces the idea that conflict can be a creative element in society. Sharing the management of, and benefits from, contested resources has reduced struggles that seemed endless, where progress was hard to find.

However, the process of engaging in collaborative management can also spark conflicts. This is partly because the people, groups and agencies involved have many different interests concerning the use of natural resources, as well as different levels of power to influence negotiations. Moreover, the groups or people with the greatest access to power tend to influence natural resource decisions in their own favour.

It has become clear that effective collaborative resource management involves attention to conflict management issues. Disagreement over access rights, lack of consensus on management objectives and misinformation or misunderstandings emerge in most settings. Managing differences of opinion is critical to nurturing an atmosphere in which constructive solutions can be identified and taken forward.

Dealing with conflicts across a range of communities, cultures or stakeholders (including State agencies) is not easy. City people often find it difficult to pick their way through legal or administrative institutions, while legal access is difficult for rural people because of distance (both physical and social), cost and lawyers' general lack of interest or expertise in issues related to natural resources. For most rural people, obtaining access to conflict management fora, even within their own societies, can be a challenge. This is particularly true for women, the destitute, the landless, lower castes and other groups.

In many places, there is a substantial need to strengthen local capacity to deal with the many conflictive situations that arise from collaborative management. Rural communities often lack the capacity to address conflicts related to the establishment or operation of collaborative management arrangements (Castro and Nielsen, 2001). Such people are familiar with conflict management approaches, such as negotiation or mediation, and are as experienced at negotiating and mediating as anyone else. However, the approaches they follow are culturally embedded within their own societies, and are often inappropriate to the particular conflict concerned (Castro and Ettenger, 1997).


Collaborative natural resources management is: "a partnership by which various stakeholders agree on sharing among themselves the management functions, rights and responsibilities for a territory or a set of resources". (Borrini-Feyerabend, 1996: p. 3).

Collaborative management involves a number of processes that help establish and maintain mutually agreeable principles and practices for managing natural resources. Conflict management is one of these processes.

Collaborative management approaches have two main objectives:

Anticipating and managing conflict are therefore critical ingredients of collaborative natural resources management. A defining characteristic of collaboration is that decisions are made by consensus. Consensus does not mean unanimous consent, nor does it mean adopting anyone's preferred option. Consensus is reached when each stakeholder feels that his/her interests have been addressed. Consensus building sets out to avoid trade-offs (when at least one of the parties has to forego something).

Consensus building approaches do not stand alone. It is helpful if they are fully integrated into a broad framework of collaborative management, and build on processes that lead to mutual benefits and achievements.

Successful conflict management in collaborative natural resource management depends on the following conditions:

TRAINER'S NOTE: Natural resource conflict management can only work effectively if the broader enabling environment is sufficiently supportive to permit collaborative natural resource management.

CHECKPOINT: Annex 1 presents the basic concepts of collaborative natural resource management. This is the more general approach for becoming involved in natural resources conflict management.

1.3 Natural resource conflicts and sustainable livelihoods

Natural resources are important to the livelihoods of many households in rural areas. Conflicts over natural resources can be useful in making needs and rights clear and helping to solve injustices or inequities in resource distribution. However, some conflicts have the potential for becoming obstacles to livelihoods and sustainable resource management if they are not addressed. When conflicts escalate, they can also hurt relationships by increasing mistrust and suspicion. Violent confrontations may even destroy the resource base for people's livelihoods.

"Livelihood" does not mean just the activities that people carry out to earn a living. It also means all the different elements that contribute to or affect people's ability to ensure a living for themselves and their households. These elements include:

The strategies that households develop to ensure their livelihoods depend on:

Livelihood strategies result in outcomes that are more sustainable for some people than for others. People who have many different choices about how they can make a living (strategies they can use) are usually less vulnerable than those with limited choice. Sustainable livelihood approaches are about addressing these issues. Some of the tools of conflict management, such as consensual negotiations, can help.

Ideally, an effective sustainable livelihoods approach should generate more income, increase well-being, reduce vulnerability, improve food security and result in more sustainable use of natural resources for its beneficiaries.

Access to natural resources is a key asset for rural households, especially as it affects the subsistence and food security of poor households. Conflicts over natural resources can be a major obstacle to people's livelihoods. Conflicts can indicate that different policies, institutions and processes are not doing a good job of regulating access to resources, and can undermine people's livelihood outcomes. Long-term conflicts can increase people's vulnerability and reduce their capabilities to respond to sudden challenges, such as price changes, droughts or AIDS.

In any society, assets are distributed unevenly. Different levels of poverty exist even in the poorest communities. Gender, age and other differences may significantly affect access to assets. For example, a tree may be regarded as a household asset, but a woman's rights to use it may not be the same as a man's. People's control over key assets also changes seasonally and through time, in response to the different problems and opportunities that life brings.


Household livelihoods and the strategies that people use to create them are at the core of development. Promoting sustainable livelihoods is therefore:

The ultimate aim is to help people to achieve their livelihood goals. A livelihood is sustainable when it(Chambers and Conway, 1992):

In other words, livelihoods should provide well-being to households - not only today, but also in the future. In order to achieve this, it is essential that the natural resource base be safeguarded.


Sustainable livelihood approaches to supporting community-based natural resource management should be the following:

  • People-centred and participatory: They should shift the focus from resources to people. Interventions should be participatory and have a genuine respect for people's views. This includes respecting human freedom and choice, focusing on what matters to people, and working with them in a way that fits with their livelihood goals, their social environment and their ability to adapt.

  • Aware of differences among people: They should understand how assets, vulnerability, voice and livelihood strategies differ among groups, as well as between men and women. Understanding of how these differences influence people's ability and willingness to engage in participatory processes is also important.

  • Empowering and responsive: They should seek to strengthen poor people's rights and institutional capacity to engage fully in decision-making regarding all aspects of livelihoods. People need to gain increased voice in identifying and addressing livelihood priorities. Outsiders should be capable of listening to (not simply hearing) and responding appropriately to the poor.

  • Holistic and multilevel: They should recognize the many influences that affect people, and seek to understand the relationships among these influences and their impacts on livelihood strategies and outcomes. Removing constraints to sustainable livelihoods often requires work across several levels, sectors and geographical regions.

  • Built on strengths and through partnerships: They should promote an enabling environment and opportunities for poor people to protect, maintain and improve their livelihood assets. The approach also promotes collaboration between poor people, their institutions and organizations and the public and private sectors. Partnerships need to be based on transparent agreements and shared goals.

  • Sustainable: People's livelihoods can be considered "sustainable" when they can manage stress and shocks and recover from them, and keep or improve assets now and in the future without undermining the natural resource base. Sustainability has four key parts: economic, institutional, social and environmental. All of these must be taken into account. Finding balance among them is crucial, and can only be done with the active engagement of poor people themselves.

  • Long-term and flexible: Poverty reduction takes place in a very changeable setting, in which unexpected shocks and seasonal cycles constantly occur. Supporting sustainable livelihoods requires long-term commitment and flexibility to respond to change.

Source: Adapted from Carney, 2002.

Conflict management that follows the principles of sustainable livelihoods seeks to facilitate a balanced negotiation of competing resource claims among different stakeholders. Successful conflict management:


This guide focuses on how to establish and facilitate a process of consensual negotiations to manage conflict and build collaboration. The guide is intended for the staff of international, national and local government organizations and NGOs who work on various stakeholder natural resources and other livelihood projects.

Consensual negotiation is one way of managing conflicts. It seeks to facilitate agreement based on mutual gains among individuals, groups or institutions. When people's understanding of their own and others' interests and needs is gradually broadened, and they are encouraged to think outside fixed, emotionally held positions, mutually beneficial outcomes may become possible. In some conflicts, a third party may help improve the chances for interest-based negotiations to succeed. This person is sometimes called a mediator or a facilitator - different people use different words.

Conflict management and consensual negotiations can help to achieve collaborative resource management and sustainable rural livelihoods. At the local level, this involves strengthening individuals', groups' and institutions' ability to deal with the many conflictual situations that undermine effective coordination and cooperation.

Consensual negotiations do not help in every conflict situation. They can help manage conflicts over interests, which are often negotiable. On the other hand, basic needs such as identity, security, recognition or equal participation within the society are often non-negotiable or less negotiable, and many conflicts involve issues that seem to have no solutions. Major power differences among stakeholders may need other approaches to bring about changes that are not easily negotiated and mediated.

Choosing relevant strategies to address a particular conflict is important; conflicts vary and no single approach is effective in all cases.

Section summary

Section 1 has outlined how natural resource conflicts may emerge and how they may affect sustainable livelihoods. It also discussed why a collaborative approach to natural resource management is essential to enhance sustainable livelihoods, and what conflict management contributes to this broader process. Section 2 discusses different conflict management approaches and explains the strengths and limitations of consensual negotiations. The subsequent sections introduce negotiations in more detail, and lay out a process map consisting of ten steps for addressing natural resource conflicts in practice.

Natural resource conflicts are disagreements and disputes over access to, control over and use of natural resources. They can be useful in helping a community to clarify interests and needs and in reducing possible injustices or inequities in resource distribution. However, some natural resource conflicts have to be addressed effectively and in good time or they will upset local livelihoods by undermining trust among stakeholders and increasing insecurity and resource degradation.

Community-based natural resource conflicts often have many causes that are closely linked - some form the core, others are underlying or contributing. The various factors causing conflict can be divided into four principle types: 1) growing competition for natural resources; 2) structural causes; 3) development pressures; and 4) natural resource management policies, programmes and projects.

Policies, programmes and projects promoting natural resource management can unintentionally serve as sources or arenas of conflict. This situation generally arises when there is inadequate local participation in interventions, and when insufficient consideration is given to the conflicts that might emerge.

Conflicts over natural resources indicate that different policies, institutions and processes are not doing a good job of regulating access to resources. Many rural households depend on natural resources for their livelihood strategies, so such conflicts may undermine their livelihood outcomes and well-being.

Promoting sustainable livelihoods for the poor requires a community-based and collaborative approach to resource management. The objective is to improve governance and sustainable livelihoods. Central to this process is enabling different stakeholders to participate in decision-making in order to develop and manage their resources.

Managing conflict is one important element to be integrated into a broad framework of collaborative management. Collaborative management is effective when institutions and processes that regulate resource use are able to anticipate and respond to stakeholders' different interests over resource use, and can seek solutions of mutual gain.

[2] Values are the long-range beliefs that people hold regarding how things should be.
[3] Needs are what people feel that they need in order to have security and respect. They may include material items, as well as justice, a sense of control over one’s own life, freedom and identity.

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