Keeping forests free from conflicts

A forest can host many conflicts between different users. In south-western China,18 case studies concerning conflicts in forest resource management have been compiled (FAO/10781/A.Wolstad)

A group of Naxi women from the village of Yulong identify problems related to the use of the local forest. Their comments are used in one of the 18 case studies (FAO/E. Nielsen)


Stakeholders share results and lessons learned from the case studies (FAO/E. Nielsen)

For many years, the 700 families of Yonghe village in China's Sichuan Province lived in harmony with a neighbouring forest. The women collected herbs and mushrooms, the men hunted, cattle grazed and the local lumber company logged timber. But then the forest was turned into a nature reserve, and last year the authorities put fences around it and employed staff to patrol. The villagers became angry, some fences were pulled down and a conflict threatened to erupt.

This situation is not unique. Every day all over the world, disagreements and disputes merge over access to, control over and use of natural resources. It might be a conflict between neighbouring communities over access to a forest area, disagreement between local groups over control of their common water source or a dispute between multinational businesses and international development agencies over the use and management of large forest tracts.

Methods to resolve such conflicts are now being developed by FAO's Natural Resource Conflict Management Programme.

"Different stakeholders have different interests in the use of resources, and not all of these interests can be fulfilled all the time," says Erik Nielsen, coordinator of the programme, which has been operating since 1992. It serves as a "knowledge base", providing the methods, tools and training materials that communities and organizations need to handle or prevent disputes. "We do not go out and solve conflicts, as for example the one in Yonghe," says Mr Nielsen. He emphasizes that all the methods and tools developed are deeply rooted in real events, such as the conflict in China.

As part of the effort to develop local skills in managing conflicts, people from Yunnan, Sichuan and Guizhou Provinces in south-western China have just finished compiling 18 case studies concerning conflicts in forest resource management. Representatives from the villages as well as local government, universities, training centres and NGOs collaborated in the programme. Some of the conflicts are about competing uses of forest resources, some concern access to forests and some focus on the exclusion of stakeholders in making decisions about resource use.

The development of the case studies is the first phase in a three-year programme funded by the Ford Foundation, with technical support from FAO. The goal is to enable local communities, provincial institutions and government agencies to manage forest resource conflicts in order to ensure sustainable rural livelihoods.

"It is relatively rare for stakeholders with such vastly different backgrounds to work together," Mr Nielsen says. The Chinese media has followed the programme closely, and the national authorities are very impressed both by the process and the case studies. "The topics touched upon are crucial for China," said Ms Zhang Lei, Deputy Director General in China's National Forestry Economics and Development Research Centre, when the case studies were presented. "If the stakeholders find tools and management solutions to solve conflicts in south-western China, this approach can also be applied to the rest of the country."

The second phase of the project has just started. Two sets of training materials will be developed -- one for local stakeholders such as farmers' groups, NGOs and universities, and one for policy makers and government officials. The third and last phase will provide training in conflict management, including negotiation, mediation and facilitation.

"FAO provides the overall methodology and examples of experiences in other regions," says Mr Nielsen. "But it is the stakeholders themselves who will identify the training needs, make the materials and, in the last phase, provide the actual training. Only this way can we make it lasting."

Mr Nielsen is convinced that the experience from China will prove useful in other natural resource conflict management projects. "We see more and more conflicts emerging over resource management, especially in countries in the process of decentralizing or democratizing," he says. "Local communities now have a greater need -- as well as opportunity -- to participate in decision making. They want to be heard and to be involved in the management of their resources, and we can provide them the tools they need for this process."

13 July 2001

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