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2. A conceptual framework for conflict resolution

Before examining the various techniques and their appropriateness in resolving the conflicts that arise in coastal areas, it is necessary to examine the nature of conflict and the circumstances in which it arises, as well as the meaning of, and justification for, conflict resolution.


Conflict arises when the interests of two or more parties clash and at least one of the parties seeks to assert its interests at the expense of another party's interests. Conflict has also been described as `a social phenomenon that can result from instantaneous or gradual changes that create diverging interests and needs' (Chandraskhan, 1997). Conflicts can involve two parties or several parties (`multiparty conflicts') and can arise in numerous contexts, on numerous levels and over numerous issues.

Conflicts are multidimensional and frequently involve complex interactions between many parties. However, for analytical purposes it is useful to identify the following four dimensions of a conflict: the actors; the resource in dispute; the stake that each actor has in the resource; and the stage that the conflict has reached (i.e. the time dimension). The environmental dimension will be added to each of these.

2.1.1 Actors

The actors are generally the disputants (e.g. government departments, private companies and local communities) but may also include other parties, such as the state, which may have an interest in the peaceful resolution of social conflicts. The interaction between the actors is frequently crucial in determining the terms on which the conflict will be resolved, if it is resolved. This interaction will be influenced by:

Addressing large discrepancies in the relative power of disputants may present formidable obstacles in an ADR process (see Section 3.2).

2.1.2 Resources at stake

As discussed in Part A, activities in the coastal area may be characterized as synergistic, complementary, competitive or antagonistic.1 Of these, the competitive and antagonistic interactions are most likely to give rise to conflict (physical, biological, social or economic). Such conflicts arise primarily from competing and conflicting claims over the allocation of, or access to, natural resources, both within and between the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sectors, and between these and other sectors in the coastal area, such as industry or tourism.

The resource in respect of which the conflict arises may have certain objective characteristics that will have an important bearing on the resolution of the conflict. For example, if the conflict concerns the amount of pollution that may be discharged into a bay, the natural assimilative capacity of the bay will define the limits within which the parties will have to negotiate a settlement. A settlement that involves exceeding this limitation will fail in the long term. However, there is frequently a high degree of scientific uncertainty in relation to such issues2 and this complicates negotiation processes.

It is also important to be aware of the interactions between the resource concerned and other components of the ecosystem, since changes to one part of a system are likely to affect other resources and thereby involve other actors in the ecosystem.

2.1.3 The stake

The stake is the value, use or interest that an actor has in the resource base. It can be economic, political, environmental, religious or socio-economic, and will vary depending on the resource and the actor (e.g. a member of a forest-dependent community and a private company often associate different stakes with the same resource).

It is important to appreciate that a stake can be conceived of as having both subjective and objective elements. It can be seen as representing the actor's subjective evaluation of their relationship with the resource. The more highly the actor values this relationship, the more intensely they will assert their interests in the resource.

An actor's stake may also be assessed on the basis of objective criteria such as the percentage of income derived from the resource. Furthermore, the stake may be affected by external factors such as legal recognition of an actor's interest in a resource. Formal legal recognition can have a dramatic effect on an actor's bargaining power in relation to other actors. For example, the ability of indigenous or local communities to assert customary rights to use a resource will be severely compromised if their traditional interests in the resource are not recognized as legally enforceable rights under national law.

2.1.4 The time dimension

It is important to establish what stage the conflict has reached. A certain period of time may need to elapse before the issues surrounding a conflict crystallize to the point where they can be constructively addressed. However, as a conflict continues, it is likely that it will increase in intensity and the relationship between the parties will become more confrontational. The state of the resource(s) at issue may also deteriorate over time, thus reducing the total potential benefits available to be shared between the parties through resolution of the conflict (see Section 2.1.2). Pressure to resolve a conflict is also likely to increase over time, which may lead to a less than satisfactory conclusion being reached in haste. If damage has occurred, issues such as the payment of compensation may complicate matters further.

Early intervention in most conflicts is therefore advisable to facilitate their satisfactory resolution and to minimize undesirable consequences. This approach is also in line with the principle of preventive action, now widely endorsed by the international community, which advocates early action to prevent environmental harm on the basis that it is cheaper, safer and more desirable to prevent such harm occurring than to rectify it later.3

As the population continues to grow and environmental, social, political and economic conditions evolve, competition for coastal resources is increasing, resulting in situations of conflict that set different parties against each other. With growing numbers of conservationists, private companies, government and non-government projects and communities, all demanding rights to the resources for different purposes, the potential for different types of conflict is also growing.

2.1.5 Environmental issues

Many ICAM conflicts involve environmental issues, and these have certain characteristics that can make them more difficult to resolve than other types of conflict, such as:

Many conflicts over natural resources arise because resources have been exploited without taking into account their true value. The true value of the natural environment and the costs of damaging it, the so-called `externalities', have not been `internalized'5 in calculations affecting the use of the environment. For example, the decision to clear an area of forest to sell timber should take into account not only the value of the timber in the market but the loss of the benefits offered by the forest (e.g. soil stability, climate regulation, biological diversity). When decisions are made that do not take into account the real value of environmental resources, they may lead to unsustainable practices and conflicts, and ultimately to the exhaustion of the resource (Chandraskhan, 1997).


Before considering the meaning of conflict resolution, it is useful to consider the broader term `conflict management' which has been described as a kind of proactive-reactive6 continuum: `The proactive end of the spectrum involves fostering productive communication and collaboration among diverse interests, addressing the underlying causes of conflicts in order to prevent conflicts from recurring, developing trust and understanding and using participatory and collaborative planning in order to prevent conflicts which result from policies. The reactive end of the spectrum includes approaches to managing conflicts that involve negotiation, mediation, conciliation and consensus building. The reactive approach is used after the conflict has erupted.' (Chandraskhan, 1997).

There are a number of ways of dealing with a conflict, ranging from violence at one extreme to ignoring the conflict at the other, with a variety of approaches in between. Towards the more hostile end of the spectrum is litigation, in which parties take their grievances to a court or tribunal which applies predetermined legal rules to the conflict and issues a decision that is binding upon the parties, producing a winner and a loser. However, parties are turning increasingly to ADR techniques to settle their disputes. These include negotiation, mediation and conciliation, which are more flexible and produce results that are more acceptable to the parties as well as more sustainable in the longer term. ADR is being used increasingly in conflicts over the environment and natural resources and has considerable advantages over traditional contentious methods. ADR techniques and their suitability to ICAM are examined in some detail in Section 4.

Some analysts have used the concept of a mountain to symbolize the range of options faced in managing conflicts and explained it as follows:

`At the summit of the mountain is cooperative teamwork, with the goal of achieving a synergy of solutions of mutual advantage to all interests. At the base of the mountain, from where any climb has to begin, are isolation, the decision not to engage in the debate at all, and confrontation, in which positions have been adopted in fixed opposition to one another.' (Brown et al., 1995).

From isolation and confrontation at the base of the pyramid the options progress through the stages of litigation, arbitration, mediation, facilitation, conciliation, negotiation, and on to cooperation at the top (see Figure E.1).

Managing conflict

The term `conflict resolution' has been described as `a process by which two or more conflicting parties improve their situation by cooperative action... [allowing] the parties to expand the pie, or to prevent it from shrinking, giving each party a larger slice' (Melling, 1994). This definition highlights the fact that conflict resolution aims to bring about benefits for the parties. It does not simply mean the cessation of conflict; if it did, it could include war and litigation, but war and litigation usually leave one, if not both parties, worse off. A common way of conceptualizing the process is to ask whether the conflict is a `zero-sum game', in which gain for one party causes loss for another, or a `plus-sum game', which creates the possibility of `win-win' solutions in which both parties gain overall through collaborative effort.

Conflict resolution through cooperative action aims to find win-win solutions and leave both parties better off with the outcome. However, it may not always be the best option for all the parties. In some situations a party may actually capture the largest share of the benefits through unilateral action. Some dispute resolution theorists refer to this as a party's `best alternative to a negotiated settlement', or BATNA. If a party's BATNA is better than any collaborative outcome, it will have no incentive to explore options and possible solutions collaboratively, but will instead simply pursue unilateral action.


In determining whether conflict resolution is appropriate, an important consideration is whether it results in a better situation than if the conflict is allowed to take its natural course. Conflict is not always negative; it may be a necessary stage in progress towards a better state of affairs. It may galvanize community organizations, put important issues on the public agenda and ultimately help to bring about essential societal and institutional changes that may result in a more equitable and sustainable use of resources. It is arguable that, if conflict is nipped in the bud, these important benefits may be lost. Early intervention in a dispute, for example, could be used as a mask behind which powerful interests work to advance their own interests. As noted by Brown et al. (1995) `...conflict is the inevitable accompaniment of change. The challenge is therefore not to prevent conflict arising, but to identify the outcome of the conflict and the best ways to manage it.'

It is also important to distinguish between the underlying causes of conflict and the symptoms of the conflict. Sometimes a conflict may appear to have been resolved, when in fact only the manifestation of the conflict has been removed. If the police break up a violent demonstration, for example, they are removing the manifestation of a conflict between the demonstrators and the object of their demonstration, but the root causes of the conflict remain, possibly to re-emerge at a later stage. To resolve a conflict properly, it is necessary to address the concerns of the conflicting parties and seek solutions that will maximize the benefits to them in the long as well as the short term.

Those responsible for making and implementing coastal management policies and programmes may have a variety of reasons for intervening to resolve conflicts. These include:

1 See Part A, Box A.1.

2 See Part A, Boxes A.5 and A.13.

3 See Part A, Section 2.2.4 and Boxes A.3, A.5 and A.6.

4 See Part A, Box A.24.

5 See Part A, Section 1.6.3, Box A.24 and Glossary.

6 See Glossary.

7 See Part A, Sections 2.1 and Box A.11.

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