Interests and Identities in Natural Resources Conflicts Involving Indigenous Peoples


Interests and Identities in Natural Resources Conflicts Involving. Indigenous Peoples

The 12 articles in this issue afford an opportunity to reflect upon the range of ways in which intercultural environmental disputes involving indigenous peoples can be addressed in constructive ways. By constructive I mean conflict management methods which involve and empower the key stakeholders to produce outcomes that the disputants feel, more or less, meets their most important needs. In identify important themes in the articles which bear on this dynamic, paying particular attention to the need for constructive conflict management to address both the substantive interests and threats to the parties' identities.

Limits to Joint Problem-solving

The most basic question is not whether joint problem-solving, with its emphasis on negotiation and mediation, increases the likelihood of achieving constructive outcomes. It generally does, and joint problem-solving certainly can be appropriate beyond many conflicts where people generally think it is useful. Rather, the key issue concerns the limits to joint problem-solving in situations with large, power inequalities between the parties or when a conflict over important material interests also concerns a group's central values and identity.

A number of the articles touched on the complicated issue of how inequality among the parties limits the utility of joint problem-solving. For example, the failure of Conoco and Ecuador to come to an agreement illustrates how a weaker party's fears of imposition from a powerful outsider can cause it to withdraw from a negotiation situation, but not necessarily to come out better in the long run. Similarly, in the case of the Swinomish in Washington state, real distrust seemed to make it particularly difficult for the parties to get constructive talks started. Several of the articles offered specific ideas about how to address the inequalities among the the parties. McCreary's detailed discussion of the contribution that independent fact-finding could make to collaborative dialogue, and Anaya and MacDonald's description of the use of geomatics (a technological innovation), both show how increasing the effective power of indigenous peoples might enhance their trust in the process and their capacity to make good agreements with outsiders.

Helen Ross' discussion of conflict management among Australian Aborigines suggests that equalizing the power of weaker parties may sometimes require adjustment of conflict management procedures in various ways. Changes might be needed to make sure that what indigenous peoples believe is at stake for them is better heard, a willingness to meet in settings where indigenous peoples are more likely to feel comfortable, or the adoption of indigenous people's discussion styles. None of these steps are easy to take in practice, especially in situations where tempers begin to flare and parties feel their identities are on the line, and each side stands ready to discount the other's interpretation of the situation.

She also wisely reminds us that "not all resource development issues proposed by non-Aborigines are negotiable" in describing resistance to mineral exploitation on sacred sites, an issue which has also emerged in the American southwest. Conflicts which involve core values and identity concerns (for at least one of the parties) Susskind and Cruikshank (1988) warn, are far less likely to be negotiable than conflicts primarily involving distributional matters. In these disputes the clash of world views can be so fundamental that the only settlement is sometimes one in which one side imposes its will on the other or withdraws. In Ecuador, Riley and Sebenius tell us that Conoco withdrew from the dispute feeling that opposition was too intense. Yet, the solution imposed on the Huaorani was not as favorable as what Conoco was prepared to offer.

In situations which become polarized around opposing values and/or identities, the parties sometimes can benefit from a process which gets each side to better understand the other's deepest fears as a prior step to substantive bargaining. Prenegotiations serve to lower perceived mutual threats and to permit parties to discover in a nuanced manner common ground. Rothman offers a detailed suggestion about how parties, through reflexive dialogue, can hold such discussions and move to develop a realistic agenda of substantive issues which can be constructively discussed. McCreary's independent fact-finding commission can also be regarded as a form of pre-negotiation. Although it is less focused on deeper needs, the goal is similar to Rothman's - to reassure each side that its basic needs and perspective are not ignored.

The Nature Environmental Disputes

The articles invite us to consider the specific nature of environmental disputes and the substantive problems which arise in efforts to manage them constructively. Douglas and Wildavasky (1983) argue that cultural assumptions about nature are among the firmest and most defended beliefs that cultural groups hold. Conflicts which directly challenge a group's core beliefs about nature, and which pit groups with contradictory core values, are likely to be particularly difficult to manage constructively, since group will have difficulty seeing how talking with the other side can be productive. Several articles, such as Anaya and MacDonald's discussion of Awas Tingni, illustrate how it is particularly hard to find issues people are willing to talk about and to move a conflict in a constructive direction when there is a linkage between a group's central cultural beliefs about nature and its identity.

The Centrality of Identity Issues

Of course, simply saying that it's hardest to negotiate identity needs says little about how this might be done. Helen Ross notes that Fisher and Ury's (1982) approach makes certain cultural assumptions which limits their relevance in some intercultural situations. For example, Fisher and Ury offer the injunction to "separate the people from the problems" but this is not necessarily very useful for cultures where such an analytic distinction makes little sense. Further, Fisher and Ury say little about how to achieve this separation in intercultural situations where one side (and sometimes both) feels threatened and vulnerable. In contrast, several of the articles argue that it is crucial to recognize the role of identity needs in intercultural and environmental disputes and to make sure that any conflict management process puts these matters at the center of the process, rather than setting them aside. For example, Rothman's ARIA scheme suggests that a way which parties "can separate people from the problems" ironically is by increasing awareness of what the common, shared concerns are in the conflict and by getting parties to talk about these together. Riley and and Sebenius say that it is especially important for facilitators and negotiators to have some understanding of the parties' identity-based perspective. They suggest that the successful conclusion of the conflict in Honduras, but not it Ecuador or Costa Rica, can be partially explained in terms of this factor. Similarly, in the timber dispute in Nicaragua, Anaya and MacDonald suggest that the negotiations were ultimately successful once the core issues were redefined away from the values which divided the parties and towards distributional interests around which an agreement could be reached.

Taking another party's culture seriously (or getting a third party to do this) is not always easy. As Gammon points out, culture is often seen as a curiosity, something which gets in the way, but is not given serious consideration. His description of culture as a general belief system, a world view, helps us understand the dangers of parties in conflict misconstruing the behaviors of others though a failure to understand the cultural context in which action occurs.

Threat to Ethnic Identity

Many of the disputes presented involved organized groups with culturally distinct identities-what many would call ethnic groups. In some cases, changes in the environment or proposals to organize, use, and exploit it in different ways threaten the integrity of a group and its way of life. Instrumental bargaining and negotiation - even among groups of relatively equal power-is not likely to proceed in a fruitful and productive fashion in such situations. For constructive conflict management to occur, when there are fundamental threats to an indigenous way of life-and to the underlying identity concerns it raises, these must be an explicit part of the process. Macduff argues, for example, that there is a need to link group rights (and material interests) and recognition needs, and that the failure to date of negotiations between the Maori and the government are attributable to an inability to do this. In contrast, he says that the linkage of rights (or interests) and identity concerns did occur in the agreement between the government and Tainui and could offer a model for the negotiations with the Maori.

At the most basic level, intransigent ethnic conflicts involve the exchange of mutual threats and actions which reinforce each side's most basic fears. Certainly, this is involved in the case of the Pribilof Aleuts whose powerful reaction to severe economic change threatened their survival. Mayer, Wildau and Valchev write about ethnicity and social disenfranchisement in Bulgaria and interestingly suggest that, sometimes, it is strategically best not to focus on ethnic issues directly in intergroup commissions, but to establish intergroup cooperation through superordinate goals.

Stakeholder's Issues

Who are the crucial stakeholders in the conflicts the authors have described and how can they get a place at the table? Most obviously, indigenous peoples and international corporations are directly involved in most of these disputes, but local and national governments, NGO's, interest groups, and sometimes IGOs also are stakeholders whose involvement is sometimes warranted. Gamman and Ross remind us that cultures differ in how they define relevant stakeholders and Gamman introduces the idea of "negotiated partnerships" as a way to address this issue. Stakeholders, Riley and Sebenius remind us, need opportunity to articulate their interests, but also to raise identity concerns which can be more difficult. In the Maori conflict, Macduff suggests that the agenda was narrowed too quickly so that while all the stakeholders might have been present, the focus on Maori rights was not effectively joined to the genuine needs for Maori identity recognition.

The question of who the stakeholders are in the kinds of conflicts presented in conflicts involving indigenous peoples should not blind us to the fact that, while many of these societies seem homogenous to outsiders, there are frequently important factional interests and differences of values within these groups, concerning matters such as use of the environment and who stands to gains from agreements with outsiders over resource use. While these issues are well documented in the case of the internally divided over values and specific interests. What this means is that when a leader - or group of leaders - enters into an agreement with outsiders, it is worth asking to what extent they represent the group as a whole, a significant part of it, or only one faction. Of course, misperception of the other side's unity is a common problem in high threat situations. McCreaty reminds us that ARCO was less united in the Ecuador conflict than the Quechua believed.

The Importance of "Inventing" (or it is Rediscovering?) Procedures

Growing fields such as conflict resolution will develop new ways of doing things (or rediscover old ones) to be successful. The articles identify several procedures - some more dramatic than others - which are worth trying on a wider scale in intercultural disputes. Increasingly, the territories and populations of indigenous and non-indigenous peoples will be interspersed as in the case of Swinomish in Skagit County. Soloman and Soloman's discussion of the achievement of tribal-country dialogue and cooperation in planning offers a model which perhaps can be used in other cases. Independent fact-finding commissions such as the one McCreary discusses might also have wider applicability, although we need to be mindful of potential problems in getting disputants to agree on the charge to such as commission and who might serve on it. The "geomatics" program Anaya and MacDonald describe seemed to be especially helpful in translating Awas Tingni land claims into a format which western corporations and the Nicaraguan government could understand in negotiations. Again it is worth underlining the point Macduff and Rothman make that good solutions address both the material interests (and rights) as well as identity needs of the parties. Several authors - especially Helen Ross (on Australia) and Moore and Santosa (on Indonesia) - suggest the importance of linking traditional dispute methods to contemporary frameworks for negotiations. However, neither says much about how this might be achieved.

What Constitutes Success?

Only a few of the articles touch on the important issue of what constitutes success in intercultural negotiations over environmental issues. Success, it is important to recognize, is not an "all or nothing" thing but comes in parts- what Jay Rothman has called "pieces of peace." It would be foolish indeed to believe that the kinds of disputes presented here can be resolved once and for all. Rather, we need to ask what kinds of steps move them in constructive directions and leave the disputants better off than they might have been, otherwise. Riley and Sebenius suggest that success in the Stone Container conflict occurred because the parties found a way to bring the informal (what some call Track 2) and formal negotiations together. McCreary's analysis of the ARCO case in Ecuador also sees this linkage as crucial, as the parties used the findings of the independent fact-finders in their formal negotiations. Macduff offers the hypothesis that success requires addressing both rights (and interests) and identities. In the Maori-New Zealand negotiations, he suggests that premature narrowing to rights issues, thereby ignoring recognition concerns made success less likely.

In other cases success involved the establishment of a set of procedures (what we call institutionalization) which will hopefully help address intercultural environmental issues constructively in the future. Soloman and Soloman emphasize the important of establishing rules of dialogue for initial tribal-county discussions; Mayer, Wildau and Valchev describe the establishment of local commissions and other consensus building institutions in Bulgaria, a society in which hierarchical, non-participatory decision-making had been the rule; and Merculieff describes how reinvigoration of traditional procedures has been central in Pribilof Aleut economic success and self-governance.


Conflicts over exploitation of the natural environment are certainly likely to increase in scope and intensity in the future. At present these are often approached as a confrontation between competing ideologies and economic interests. I hope that the articles in this issue have also shown the complexity of these disputes, and that in many of them the parties which seemed so unalterably opposed were able to work to define common ground and search for solutions which considered the needs of all parties. While this is not always possible, there is good reason to believe that joint problem-solving by empowering the parties can also serve to transform disputes from polarized confrontations to ones in which the substantive interests and identity concerns of all parties are considered as decisions are made.

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